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Ai Weiwei Wants Your Legos

The dissident artist needs millions of toy bricks for his next project

Ai Weiwei's "Trace," which used Lego blocks to show political dissidents last year. (Stephen Kelly - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Being a dissident isn't easy. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been harassed, surveilled and imprisoned for his criticism of China's politics and human rights violations—and now, he's even having trouble ordering supplies. The company that makes Lego bricks has refused a bulk order made by Ai, AFP reports, so fans have stepped up to donate toy bricks instead.

The issue began last year, after Ai used Lego bricks to create portraits of political activists at an Alcatraz exhibition. The portraits, which the Guardian's Jason Farago characterized as the "most ambitious" aspect of the project, portrayed 175 pixelated dissidents, including Nelson Mandela and Edward Snowden.

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

But recently, when Ai announced his intention to create new Lego art for an exhibition in Victoria, Australia, he encountered a roadblock— Lego Group refused to fill his order. The Danish company claimed that it does not support the use of Lego bricks in political projects, writes NPR's Jim Zarroli. "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," says a statement published by the company.

The news of Lego's refusal spread quickly, prompting a wave of offers from people who volunteered to donate bricks to Ai's project. In response, Ai began setting up "collection points" in Beijing, Victoria, Berlin and other cities around the world.

LEGO COLLECTION POINT INSTRUCTIONS 1. Ai Weiwei Studio is organizing a number of Collection Points in different cities. 2. Ai Weiwei would like to rent, borrow or buy second-hand a BMW 5S Series sedan, of which the color can vary, as a Lego container. The vehicle must have clear windows and a sunroof that can be fixed open with a 5 cm opening so that people can insert Legos. It should be free of any advertising or other decoration. 3. The car should be parked and locked in a central location of the city that can be easily accessed by the public. The vehicle should remain in the parking space for one month or a longer period of time, preferably in a location related to arts or culture, indoor or outdoor. 4. Ai Weiwei Studio will be solely responsible for the custody and removal of the Lego container. 5. Ai Weiwei will indicate the location of the containers on his Instagram and Twitter @aiww. 6. A mailing address will also be provided for donors. Please contact:aiweiwei.letgo@gmail.com with any questions. October 26, 2015

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

For now, there’s no way to know if Ai will collect enough Legos; the New York Times' Amy Qin reports he will need millions of them. One thing is clear, though: Ai, who claims that Lego refused his order because of Chinese business interests, has certainly made a splash with the new project. In an Instagram post, Ai promised that the project will "defend freedom of speech and political art." If he succeeds, the crowdsourced exhibition will surely make powerful statements about both.

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A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

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