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Fans Step Up After Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei Hits Brick Wall With Lego

Ai Wei Wei Twitter Wallpaper - Royal Academy Exhibition 2015

Ai Weiwei Twitter wallpaper from the Royal Academy Exhibition 2015. Photo by Kevin Rennie.

Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei has become the centre of another controversy — toy giant Lego has refused to fill an order by the National Gallery of Victoria for an exhibition of his in Melbourne, Australia.

Weiwei detailed his dealings with Lego on his Instagram account. He pointed out that a month after the company rejected his bulk order request, the separate group that owns Legoland attractions inked a deal to open the attraction in Shanghai.

Beckett Mufson picks up the story from there on arts and technology blog The Creators Project:

The public reaction was overwhelming and supportive of the artist, with many fans offering Weiwei their own (often sizable) Lego collections to use instead. Yesterday, Weiwei announced that he'd take them up on their offers with soon-to-be-announced Lego collection points, and that their bricks would be used in an artwork designed “to defend freedom of speech and ‘political art.'”

Sarah Joseph, director of Melbourne's Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, helped spread the news on Twitter:

Regardless of censorship accusations, even official Chinese media have commented. State-owned Global Times argued in an opinion piece that Lego's decision was simply Western capitalism in action (English translation from What's On Weibo, a site that reports on conversations happening on popular Chinese platform Weibo):

这是个很有意思的摩擦:艾未未采购积木搞政治作品,他这样做受到西方一些支持者的鼓励。而乐高公司同样以西方跨国公司通行的原则拒绝被艾的政治标签牵连,它希望在商言商,极力避免卷入它无力影响的政治纠纷。

This is an interesting conflict. Ai Wei Wei used Lego for his political work, and in doing so, was cheered on by his Western supporters. But the Lego company, following the general principle of Western multinational corporations, refused to be connected to Ai’s political work. They want to keep their business commercial, and avoid any involvement in political disputes.

What's On Weibo wrote that responses on Chinese social media ranged from surprise at the open discussion of a dissident, irritation at the West's perceived double standards on human rights, and support for Lego.

Weiwei put his case in his usual graphic style via Instagram:

"Everything is awesome "

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

On Twitter, there were the inevitable responses to Lego as a commercial brand:

Lego is reported as defending its actions:

In an email to The Guardian, Lego spokesperson Roar Rude Trangbæk, said: “Any individual person can naturally purchase or get access to Lego bricks in other ways to create their Lego projects if they desire to do so, but as a company, we choose to refrain from engaging in these activities – through for example bulk purchase.”

It also denied insinuations from Ai that Lego’s decision was coloured by a desire to protect its business in China, stating that its Legoland parks were sold to UK-based Merlin Entertainment a decade ago.

So far there has been no comment by Lego on its website or Twitter account.

Meanwhile, Weiwei is getting his Lego bricks via crowdsourcing:

Weiwei announced that the National Gallery of Victoria has decided to become the first collection point in Australia for Lego brick donations and more points will be set up in major cities around the world:

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