Polish artist Zbigniew Libera is passing up the opportunity of a lifetime for the sake of some Lego toys packed away in the storeroom of an art gallery here.
"I couldn't sleep the entire night after making up my mind," he said. "But I had to refuse. For me, the whole thing is very clear."
Libera was invited to participate in next month's Venice Biennale exposition in Italy, one of the world's premier arts events and a dream come true for any struggling artist. Countless collectors and about 2,500 journalists converged on the show in 1995.
But the invitation came with a Faustian hitch: The Legos must stay behind. Libera's newest, most contentious artwork depicts with childlike innocence the horrors of a concentration camp--all through the simple construction of plastic building blocks donated by the Denmark-based Lego Group, which was unaware of Libera's subject.
The curator of the Polish pavilion in Venice, sculptor Jan Stanislaw Wojciechowski, said the works are "explosive material" that treat too frivolously one of the darkest moments in European civilization. Ticking off his many objections, he said taking on the Holocaust with one of the world's most beloved playthings is out of line and perhaps even anti-Semitic.
"I was really afraid that a commotion surrounding this work would overshadow everything else in our exhibit," Wojciechowski said in his Warsaw office. "For Poles, it is a great symbol that the Germans placed concentration camps on our soil and, in this way, negatively marked Polish history. The concentration camp is also a great symbol for Jews around the world."
Libera, who spent a year in prison under communism for sketching unauthorized political cartoons, insists that the Lego creations are essential to his current collection. His recent artworks employ ordinary objects to mock mass culture's obsession with everything from large sex organs to trendy narcotic highs.
"This is censorship all over again," said the lanky, fair-haired artist. "I created this work to inspire discussion, not to suppress it."
The dispute is an intensely personal one for Libera, but it mirrors a larger struggle in Poland to reconcile old and new--for Poles to come to terms with the dark legacies of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism and also adapt responsibly to democracy and the free market.
The unhappy showdown has split the Polish art community and has raised emotional questions about art, history, business and freedom of expression in a country still tormented by its past and not yet secure about its present or future.
"The situation with Libera does not allow one to remain indifferent or unengaged," said Wojciech Krukowski, director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. "His decision is one of personal moral responsibility, but it also influences the broader public."
Libera created his piece by assembling Lego blocks into replicas of death camp facilities, photographing them and then using the photos to adorn authentic-looking Lego cardboard packages, complete with the disassembled pieces, the company logo and multi-language safety warnings. The images include crematories, gallows and doctors administering electric shocks to prisoners. In one scene, random Lego limbs are piled outside an Auschwitz-style barracks. In another, skeleton figures--taken from the popular Lego pirate series--haul bodies to be incinerated.
The display is so unsettling in its playful simplicity that the Lego Group, which sponsors Lego art contests and donates thousands of plastic pieces to artists around the world, tried to persuade Libera to withdraw it from public view. Only when lawyers became involved did the company give up.
"It is a theme that is so sensitive to so many people in so many countries," said Peter Ambeck-Madsen, Lego's director of public relations at the company headquarters in Billund, Denmark. "If we had known before what he was going to do, we never would have given him the bricks. But we talked about it and decided [that] to make a big thing about it now would only draw more attention."
Libera, 38, backed by his newfound patrons at the fashionable Galleri Faurschou here in the Danish capital, has stood his ground. The Lego collection, he said, is neither anti-Semitic nor irreverent, but a provocation about child rearing, social norms and the cultural cacophony that the free market has brought to formerly Communist Eastern Europe.
He acknowledges that Lego officials were left in the dark about his intentions, but he said company representatives in Poland rebuffed his early efforts to let them review sketches of his ideas. In a bid to avoid any possible legal entanglements, Libera said, he has sold the seven-piece concentration camp set--plus two copies of the works--to the Galleri Faurschou and an agent in Chicago for about $7,500 each.
"I understand that Lego must defend its good name, but this is not a product being offered in a store," said Libera, who lives so modestly he does not own a television, washing machine or car.
The Lego work is one in a series--titled "Correcting Devices"--meant to illustrate the gap between the ideal world marketed to children and the real one created by adults. Other pieces include Barbies with bulging tummies and unflattering thighs, and an infant doll with hairy legs and armpits.
"How long will it take our culture to create a child's desire for a concentration camp in miniature plastic form?" Poland-based art critic Nigel Warwick wrote in the magazine Flash Art after viewing the pieces. "Which cultural forces will erode the legitimacy and impact of such historical events on our contemporary mentality?"
As a Pole, Libera said, settling on the theme of a concentration camp came naturally.
"I remember when I was 9 years old and my class went on the obligatory trip to Auschwitz and we had to look at all those photographs," he said. "Somehow, because of our history, Poles are expected to speak about the Holocaust and what happened here. So I am speaking about it, but maybe not in the way some people would expect."
The respected Jewish Museum in New York City apparently is pleasantly surprised by his unorthodox approach to the painful subject. Later this month, the museum's acquisitions committee will consider buying one of the Lego sets for its permanent collection--a professional breakthrough for the mostly unknown Libera.
"It merges aspects of popular culture with a pivotal event in Jewish history," said Susan Chevlowe, the museum's assistant curator. "It is a potentially interesting work of contemporary art."
The nearly year-old Lego creation has been exhibited in Poland, Germany, Brazil and the United States, including a brief stopover in Los Angeles in December at the Gramercy International Contemporary Art Fair. But it was the Danish debut in February that thrust Libera into the public eye and led to the showdown over the Venice exposition.
Lego is a revered institution here, as much a symbol of the gentle Danish temperament as children's storyteller Hans Christian Andersen and Copenhagen's cherished Little Mermaid. The Lego name comes from the Danish words "play well." The company employs more than 9,000 people. Last year, 1.2 million visitors jammed its theme park in Billund, built with 45 million plastic blocks. Even the Copenhagen airport sets aside Lego play areas.
"It is understandable why it got an instant reaction here," said gallery co-owner Luise Faurschou, who last week packed up the exhibit for an upcoming show in Norway. "If you ask anyone about Lego, they will say it is pure goodness. We all love Lego. [Libera] shocks us--but also really makes us think--by combining the most horrible of our realities with the innocence of a child's play."
Danish art critics raved about the display. But Lego officials feared a public relations disaster. They fretted in particular over a statement on each of the imitation Lego packages explicitly linking Libera and Lego. "This work of Zbigniew Libera has been sponsored by Lego System," it states.
Libera maintains that donated supplies amount to sponsorship, but the company says it never gave him the authority to use its name or logo as an implied endorsement. Ambeck-Madsen, the Lego executive, said the faux packaging is so realistic that a Jewish organization in Sweden threatened to organize a boycott of Lego because offended members believed the company had manufactured the boxes.
The brouhaha in Denmark did not sit well with Wojciechowski, the curator of the Poles' Venice pavilion. He said Libera's splashy Danish premiere raised unsettling questions about the artist's motivation in choosing Lego blocks.
Wojciechowski said he began to wonder if Libera had succumbed to the very commercial pressures that his art so brilliantly denounces. If so, he said, it would undermine the Polish pavilion's theme, which is to illustrate human enslavement to ideology and mass culture.
"I was afraid it was a game he was playing," Wojciechowski said. "Was he being hypercritical of mass culture or was it actually a love embrace, using a brand name--much like Benetton does--in such a shocking way as to make a commercial point?"
After weeks of fruitless debate, a despairing Libera withdrew from the Venice exhibit. "I accepted the decision with relief," Wojciechowski said.
Krukowski, the Warsaw museum director, said the impasse between curator and artist has left the Venice Biennale the clear loser. Just as in the case of the Lego company, he said, the Polish Ministry of Culture--which sponsors the Polish pavilion--will realize there is no benefit in stifling Libera's creativity.
"He is an exceptional artist," said Krukowski, who was first to exhibit the Lego creations. "It is through exceptional, atypical works like his that contemporary art develops and pushes into new areas."
With the Biennale just weeks away, Libera says he is at peace with his decision to sit it out. He left prison in the early 1980s so traumatized that he stuttered for half a year and feared he was being stalked by demons. "We don't like these experiences," Libera said, "but maybe they are something an artist has to go through."