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Ai Weiwei vs. Lego: Chinese artist takes on toy company

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin.

(Tobias Schwarz / AFP/Getty Images)
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Ai Weiwei has taken his beef with Lego public, and the public has responded by throwing its support behind the outspoken Chinese artist and free speech activist.

The artist claimed this week on social media that Lego has refused to sell him a bulk order of Lego blocks to use in planned works of art for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

On his Instagram account, he asserted that the reason for Lego’s refusal was because the works are of a “political” nature.

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He wrote: “As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. Lego’s refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination.”

Since he took his fight public, Ai has received numerous offers of Lego donations from followers and fans online. The artist has stated that he will set up collection points in cities around the world.

Lego, which is a privately held, family-owned company based in Denmark, said in a statement published by NPR that “as a company dedicated to delivering great creative play experiences to children, 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.”

The company has been ramping up its business activity in China. Lego has reported robust sales growth in China for recent quarters, and last year opened a main office in Shanghai. The company is building a factory in Jiaxing, China, that is expected to be fully operational by 2017.

The National Gallery of Victoria is scheduled to present “Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei,” an exhibition devoted to both artists, starting in December. The show will be presented at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh next year.

Ai has long cited Warhol as a major influence on his work as a visual artist. Like Warhol, he has cultivated the media as a significant part of his creative endeavors.

Ai has been a consistent thorn in the side of Chinese officials, using social media to show his support for free speech. In 2011, he was arrested in Beijing and kept in secret detention for 81 days. He was later released but forbidden from leaving the country. His passport was returned to him earlier this year.

The artist has used Lego blocks in the past to create politically themed works. In his recent exhibition at Alcatraz in northern California, he used Legos to create portraits of Edward Snowden and Nelson Mandela.

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT


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