Let go of your Lego, says China's Ai Weiwei

Let go of your Lego, says China's Ai Weiwei
File photo of Chinese artist and free-speech advocate Ai Weiwei in his atelier in Berlin, Germany August 13, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

BEIJING - Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will set up collection points to receive Lego block donations, he said Monday, after he set off a social media storm by accusing the Danish company of refusing a bulk order on political grounds.

The children's toy became embroiled in controversy when Ai said its manufacturer had refused to supply him directly as it "cannot approve the use of Legos for political works".

Ai is China's most prominent contemporary artist, who helped design the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics and his work has been exhibited worldwide, but he has also run afoul of Communist authorities.

He used the bricks to create portraits of political activists from around the world for an exhibition at Alcatraz prison in the US last year, and intended to create a Lego artwork for a show in Australia.

Fans offered online to give him their Lego blocks, and a post on his Instagram account said Monday: "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." One collection point, a car parked outside his studio in Beijing, was shown with some bricks on the sunroof.

His Instagram account also shows a picture of Lego bricks in a toilet bowl with the caption "Everything is awesome" - the tagline of the Lego movie.

One supporter posting on Twitter told the manufacturer: "Your execs need to go watch the @TheLEGOMovie and think about what they've done." Another said: "I'm picturing a Lego sculpture of a giant Lego character shooting itself in the foot."

'Brand values'

Ai also pointed out that Britain's Merlin Entertainments, which owns and operates Legoland theme parks, announced plans for a facility in Shanghai last week during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Britain.

Lego's parent company Kirkbi owns a 30 percent stake in Merlin.

In a statement to Britain's Guardian newspaper, Denmark-based Lego said: "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." Calls by AFP to Lego's China offices went unanswered.

Ai has been targeted by authorities for his advocacy of democracy and human rights as well as other criticisms of the government, including in the aftermath of the deadly Sichuan earthquake in 2008.

He was detained for 81 days in 2011 and subsequently placed under house arrest, with his passport taken away. The document was only returned in July this year, enabling him to travel to Europe.

An op-ed in the Chinese edition of the Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, praised Lego for "refusing to be implicated in a political statement" and being motivated by "good business sense".

It is not the first time Lego has rejected a proposal on the grounds of political connotations, reports say.

A Lego set of the four female members of the US Supreme Court was rejected by the Lego Ideas project, which allows members of the public to suggest new products, according to US radio network NPR.

The idea reportedly ran afoul of the company's Acceptable Project Content, which says projects related to "politics and political symbols, campaigns, or movements" will not be accepted because they "do not fit our brand values".

For $30 the company offers a model of the Lincoln Memorial, and a White House set costs $50.

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