Illustration by Dearbhla Ross

Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin looks into Ai Weiwei and his battle with Lego, and discusses the issue of censorship when it comes to art business.

Ai Weiwei is perhaps not a household name in Ireland, but the Chinese artist – who works predominantly on vast installation pieces – has been kicking up a storm on the internet in the last couple of weeks. The cause of this sudden burst of frenzied cyber activity? A lack of Lego bricks, or more accurately, the refusal on the part of the Lego company to sell their product to him in bulk. It sounds almost like a factoid from a copy of Believe It or Not, but in this case, it is to be believed.

The origins of this story can be traced back several weeks. Ai Weiwei has been planning an exhibition, this time in the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. Among the exhibits planned are some built of the famous plastic blocks, a medium that has been used before by the artist in his works. However, on this occasion, when Weiwei attempted to place a bulk order with the Danish toymakers, his request was denied.
The reason given for their refusal? Lego, as the makers of what is ostensibly a product marketed at children, has stated that they have a long standing policy of refusing to supply their product for projects that may have a political statement attached to them. This could certainly apply to the work of Ai Weiwei, who has been arrested numerous times, and imprisoned on three occasions in China for statements made in the course of his artistic endeavours.

“The difficulty lies in their reasoning – their demand that Lego be removed from the sphere of political art all together.”

Not to be flummoxed for a moment, Ai Weiwei took to Twitter, where he has a significant presence and a sizeable following, to comment upon this statement. He called Lego’s refusal to supply him an act of “censorship and discrimination”.
What happened in the following hours and days is a case-study in the power of the internet and social-media’s presence in life beyond the digital realm. Within a short time, fans and admirers of the Chinese artist had pledged their own Lego bricks, and those of their (hopefully consenting) children to aid his project. Such a flood of these promises came in, that the artist himself came forward with a statement claiming he would do his best to accept all of these offers.

Collection points, in the form of parked, unmarked, locked cars with open sun-roofs, have been planned in several cities worldwide. The first of these appeared outside the National Gallery of Victoria.
The question of censorship and free speech is a controversial topic, particularly in China, where its artistic population is constrained under what is generally seen as an oppressive regime. It is one that the West is generally uncomfortable in dealing with. Although the tenants of free speech and freedom of expression are enshrined in the concept of modern democracy, censorship is still present in our daily lives; from age ratings on films to the conspicuous bleeps which obscure inappropriate language from our television screens.

Every day, people make decisions about what is right and improper for the public to consume in the media – but when does this take a step too far? Have Lego, in refusing to supply their product to an artist, overstepped their bounds in regards to controlling the consumption of their product?

It is easy to argue in favour of Lego’s current position – Ai Weiwei is an artist famed for his critical and often inflammatory political statements. He is by no means a favourite of the Chinese government, and there is little denying that China is one of Lego’s fastest growing markets. The difficulty lies in their reasoning – their demand that Lego be removed from the sphere of political art altogether.

“Within a short time, fans and admirers of the Chinese artist had pledged their own Lego bricks, and those of their (hopefully consenting) children to aid his project.”

The Danish company are in the business of producing a trademark product – those plastic bricks which we all remember from our childhoods, and which everyone has stepped on, and rued the step they took. Imagine for a moment that that was not the business they were in. Imagine instead, a Lego company that made pens, produced paper, made typewriters, paint or carving tools. Would this hypothetical company be allowed the same leeway to control not only the sale, but the use of their product? Could a manufacturer of computers turn around one day and say that no politically inflammatory material was to be written or distributed via their machines?

While this idea may seem farcical, the decision by Lego to become publicly involved with Ai Weiwei has the potential to set a worrying precedent. Placing restrictions on the production and distribution of art, be it visual, written or performed, is an act of censorship which often comes into conflict with the ideals of our free and democratic society. In other words, if Lego are allowed not to sell their product to a particular artist, where is the line to be drawn? Is this the beginning of a slippery slope, or have people simply overreacted en masse to what is an issue between supplier and potential buyer?

This story, unfortunately, is one which raises more questions than it answers. At the same time, it has been a triumph of the internet, which Weiwei has heralded as a new sort of church. His call has been answered by thousands of people to date, and it is certain that offers of donations will continue to pour in, in a defiant defence of art and free speech.