Art enthusiasts from Australia to the United Kingdom have started pouring Legos into BMWs after outspoken Chinese artist Ai Weiwei announced that Lego had declined to sell him the tiny toy bricks in bulk for an art installation.
Ai is working on a project for an upcoming exhibition called "Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. He said he wants to use Legos to create images celebrating Australia's freedom-of-speech defenders. But when the gallery reached out to Lego to purchase the blocks in bulk, he said, the company passed because the project was "political."
"They said they cannot support a project like that," he told The Washington Post from his studio in Berlin. "I think it's funny to have a toy company that makes plastic pieces telling people what is political and what is not. I think it's dangerous to have our future designed by corporate companies. They are not selling toys but selling ideas — telling people what to love and what to hate."
Ai's Lego dilemma has since sparked his fans' imagination.
People around the world have started donating Legos to Ai, dropping them through sunroofs of rented, borrowed or secondhand BMWs that have been parked in certain cities as makeshift Lego buckets. The National Gallery of Victoria became the first collection point in Australia earlier this week, parking a BMW in the gallery's sculpture garden, according to Ai's Instagram.
Since then, similar collection sites have been set up at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, the Royal Academy in London, the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, the Contemporary Art Center of Málaga in Spain, the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam and the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
"I am overwhelmed by the reaction of the Internet," Ai told The Post.
The issue started over the summer, Ai said on social media, when the National Gallery of Victoria reached out to the toymaker to place a "bulk order" of Legos. Ai said he planned to create the design and have others assemble it in the museum because he was not sure he would be able to travel.
But in September, Ai said, Lego said it could not do it.
On Instagram, Ai quoted the company's response:
We regret to inform you that it is against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the LEGO licensing program. However, we realize that artists may have an interest in using LEGO elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art.
In this connection, the LEGO Group would like to draw your attention to the following:
The LEGO trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the art work.
The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the LEGO trademark.
We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material.
The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements.
It must be clear to the public that the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed the art work/project.
Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order.
Ai posted the purported e-mail along with a portrait of a Lego-filled potty, calling Lego "an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values."
Lego spokesman Roar Rude Trangbaek declined to comment on Ai's situation but said, "We respect any individual's right to free creative expression."
Trangbaek said in a statement to The Post that Lego does not "censor, prohibit or ban creative use of LEGO bricks" — nor does it endorse any projects.
"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. In cases where we receive requests for donations or support for projects — such as the possibility of purchasing LEGO bricks in very large quantities, which is not possible through normal sales channels — where we are made aware that there is a political context, we therefore kindly decline support.
"Any individual person can naturally purchase LEGO bricks through normal sales channels or get access to LEGO bricks in other ways to create their LEGO projects if they desire to do so."
Indeed, Ai's Lego issue has ignited a firestorm over what the artist calls "an act of censorship and discrimination" and what the toymaker says is a long-standing policy that keeps it from getting involved in projects with a "political agenda."
Many have come out against Lego, threatening to stop buying its toys. Others, however, have sided with the company and called out the artist for using the situation to further his own agenda.
"If Ai Wei's work were used in a way he disagreed, such as to promote censorship, he'd do the same think LEGO did after it happened to them," one commenter wrote on Ai's Instagram. "Make a policy restriction use of intellectual property and not cooperating with special requests that come back to haunt you. To call is discrimination and censorship shows Ai has but a hammer and all he sees is a nail. He doesn't seem particularly adept at picking up on the motivation of others."
Still, Ai's fans and fellow artists have come from all over to give him what he needs.
"Weiwei’s original Instagram post sparked people’s interests and imaginations with ideas developed around crowd sourcing and donations," the National Gallery of Victoria said in a statement.
On his Instagram, Ai called the reaction a "torrent of outrage on social media against this assault on creativity and freedom of expression."
"In response to LEGO's refusal and the overwhelming public response," his studio wrote, "Ai Weiwei has now decided to make a new work to defend freedom of speech and 'political art.'"
Ai told The Post that through this art piece, he hopes to connect people.
"Art can help people to understand the world and communicate in it better," he said.
This story has been updated.