Artist Ai Weiwei Claims Censorship After LEGO Denies Bricks For Melbourne Exhibition

Claiming Censorship and Discrimination, Artist Stands Up to... LEGO

Famed artist Ai Weiwei is working on a series of portraits using LEGO. But the Danish toy company wants nothing to do with it.

Last year, Ai did a series of LEGO portraits, featuring a series of famous political activists and dissidents who had either been jailed or exiled.

The BBC Reports that Ai planned to do a similar exhibit for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, but LEGO rejected the museum's order.

According to Ai (via BBC ), the order was turned down because LEGO says its bricks cannot be used for art pieces or projects with "any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements."

But the question is: Why does LEGO even care what people do with its bricks? (Probably because it's a large corporation that wants to make money! Which is nearly always the reason.)

"As a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe," Ai's Instagram account states. "As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. Lego's refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination."

Ai appears to insinuate that the reason is that LEGO is planning on opening a Legoland in Shanghai and doesn't want to ruffle Chinese government feathers. The artist has been an outspoken critic of corruption in China.

SCMP reports that the Chinese edition of the Global Times newspaper, which is published by Chinese Communist Party paper People's Daily, lavished praise on LEGO for "refusing to be implicated in a political statement" and for having "good business sense."

LEGO publicly explained why it refused the order, telling The Guardian, "As a company dedicated to delivering great creative play experiences to children, we refrain -- on a global level -- from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda. This principle is not new."

So creative experiences to children. Just don't get political. Noted.

"Everything is awesome "

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Earlier this year, the Danish company denied a female US Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan LEGO Ideas proposal on similar grounds (though, it later allowed a nondescript trio of women judges for Lego Ideas).

Ai is now now collecting LEGO donations from people around the world for a new art piece.

From the artist's Instagram :

In response to Lego's refusal and the overwhelming public response, Ai Weiwei has now decided to make a new work to defend freedom of speech and "political art". Ai Weiwei Studio will announce the project description and Lego collection points in different cities. This is the first phase of the coming projects.

Today, Ai dumped some bricks he received in a red BMW.

The first Lego container .

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Top photo: hxdbzxy | Shutterstock


    You want to do something to make a statement using another company's product. They understandably don't want anything to do with it. What's the issue?

      Lego is putting forward a set of views and political ideals by refusing this order though; Freedom of artistic expression not being one of them which seems totally at odds with what Lego is about.

        LEGO isn't stopping the guy making his art... they just don't want their product and their name involved. He's free to use some other blocks or paint or whatever.

        He's dragging LEGO into something they want no part in against their will...

        Last edited 27/10/15 9:33 am

          They have no control over what anyone uses their product for. They are just refusing to sell on those grounds. Arguably there is no real endorsement in selling someone your product.

            The problem here is that Lego is so universally recognizable. That's why they like to have some sort of control.
            Especially if the artist says he uses LEGO. That in inadvertently pulls them into it.
            A painter doesn't tell everyone what paint they used, a graffiti artist doesn't drag the spray paint company into it.
            He's free to express himself and his view in any way he wants. Just don't drag a company into it without their consent (which they haven't given).

            It would be like making some sort of a statement by hanging hundreds of BONDS undies off a building.... might have nothing to do with BONDS but you've now plastered their name all over your political statement.

              Lego has no way of controlling it though. If he just bought it from stores and used it they have no way of stopping him that would actually work. So by refusing to sell it to him in bulk they are not accomplishing anything.

                Of course they can't stop him buying hundreds of kits from Kmart. But he's ordering a special bulk order. They usually do this for exhibitions etc, because those people buy 1000s of the same rectangular blocks.
                Buying it in normal kits is pretty much unfeasible so he has to go direct to LEGO. Which is why they are able to somewhat control where those orders go.
                Artwork like this probably takes 10,000 blocks at least.
                If he did this with 100 blocks that he got from buying 2 kits from a toy shop there wouldn't be an argument. When it's something of this scale, it brings attention, not only to him and his art and his political agenda but also to LEGO.

                People are complaining that LEGO is censoring by not supplying the blocks.
                Look at it the other way.
                LEGO would be actively endorsing him and his political message if they did supply the blocks.

                And since LEGO is a neutral toy company that doesn't take any political sides, why should they endorse this guy's political art.
                Like I said before. He's free to express his art. Just don't drag LEGO into it.

                EDIT: also as others have pointed out, he's asking for the LEGO to be given to him for free, which further implies that LEGO would be sponsoring and supporting his political agenda.
                He can pay for it like everyone else.

                Last edited 27/10/15 12:27 pm

            According to another article on this, he wanted some excessive bulk order to get a hefty discount.

            He's just throwing a wobbly over having to buy like everyone else, and crying foul for donations.

          They are only saying they won't give him all the free stuff he needs to make it.

      Agreed. LEGO are well within their rights to not openly support one particular political view. It's a bloody toy company, it shouldn't be involved in politics at all.
      Why not go use MEGABLOKS? Why not get little bits of balsa wood and paint them?
      What purpose does it serve to drag a company into a political issue?
      LEGO is an incredibly recognizable object and they should be able to control their public image somewhat. Distancing themselves from any political issues is one of those ways.

        Arguably all they are doing by denying it here is making a statement that they support communism. They should have just sold the bricks and not asked what they were using them for.

          All I see is a company trying to remain neutral until everyone decides to jump to ridiculous conclusions like the statement you've just made. Utter tripe.

          He wasn't asking LEGO to sell them to him, he was asking LEGO to give them to him.

            And that's a very important distinction that I didn't even see before.

          See that would be perfectly fine if he perhaps ordered it under his own name and did not disclose what it was for. But making the order through the museum and specifically stating what it was for AND asking for a discount? If I owned LEGO I would do this too.

          Even if he wanted to make damning potraits on ISIS which everyone agrees are the worst, LEGO would still not endorse it. Bottom line is, buy the bricks yourself, and don't tell the company what you're doing with it.

    Can't they just go to Toys R Us and buy some?

      Yep, or get other people to buy on his behalf without telling LEGO what it's for. This whole thing is just a stunt to get publicity for the artist.

        You'd think he would have enough supporters about the place that he could put the call out and get people to donate Lego to the gallery for the purposes of the exhibition without having to buy it anyway.

    That's not censorship. That's not censorship at all. Lego isn't stopping this guy from creating the thing, they're just not providing him with the materials.

    What's the issue? How dumb are you Darren?

      No need to be rude to Darren, try explaining the issue, as you see it, to him instead.

      Last edited 27/10/15 9:06 am

      Well looks like every comment agrees with me so not very dumb, at least compared with readers of this site.

    "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

    If you guys knew Ai Wei Wei beforehand he's always been quite quick to call censorship, corruption etc. but he has pretty good reasons for it; he's been briefly disappeared by police, had his studios destroyed and been put under house arrest. While this instance seems a little weak you've got to understand that criticising the Chinese government in any way, shape or form is a massive risk; one he takes all the time somewhat sheltered from harm by his international reputation as one of the worlds most important artists. If you want to check out some of his most important work check out his works "Sunflower seeds" and "Snake ceiling", he's a pretty fantastic artist; don't let this perception of his reaction stop you from looking at his work.

      Wei Wei has been a victim of censorship enough to know it when he sees it. Which is why it's such bullshit that he's calling it now.

      This isn't the government arresting him for unknown charges in the middle of the night. This is a company not wanting to get involved in one person's political activism. He knows the difference and although I love his work, this is him throwing a tantrum.

        Spot on. This is what happens when you get an inflated sense of yourseld. Ai has been fighting so long he's starting to lose focus on who the real bastards are (in his case the incredibly corrupt and oppressive Chinese Communist regime). Someone get him a beer and tell him to relax.

    You could have used a stock photo of actual Lego, or won't they allow that? Or maybe Ai Weiwei could use some of the cheap imitation blocks instead because some people apparently can't tell the difference.

    Last edited 27/10/15 10:12 am

    I like Ai Weiwei a lot. I've seen a tonne of his work and all of his work is pretty famous for being highly political, especially when it comes to China.

    Lego not wanting to be a part of that kind of famous political activism is entirely reasonable. It sucks that Lego isn't more supportive of such a great artist, but it isn't censorship.

      At least he is still doing the proper thing and asking all his fans to donate bricks. I can understand why LEGO has processes in place to not fund any political or religious art, because funding it is what they do when they provide all the blocks needed for free.

        Absolutely. If they help with this, they are giving tacit endorsement. They don't want to do that, which is totally fine. If I were someone high up in the Lego company, I'd be totally willing to help. But I'm not and the people who are in charge aren't willing to do it. Sucks, but that's how it goes.

        Now, him asking for donations? Excellent! I hope he gets all he needs.

    Lego will tell us what to do,or not to do.that is awesome!

    Which was the whole point of the song:
    In an interview to Fox News, [Producer] Mark Mothersbaugh says the song "was supposed to be like mind control early in the film. It's totally irritating, this kind of mindless mantra to get people up and working.

    Here's my take on the subject;

    TLDR version: Ai Weiwei (not poor) and National Gallery of Victoria (not poor) can source LEGO some other way. Maybe instead of donating LEGO to him you send it to disadvantaged/sick kids?

      Yep, if he cannot get bulk legos from them, at least he's going to get some publicity from their refusal!

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