The dubious relationship between Lego and the art world
Each of us intimately knows the sound of digging through a bucket of Lego bricks, and the satisfying click as our fingers find and press together those perfectly round studs that create a hairline grid on a smooth, glossy surface. As a physical brick, it holds its shape, and can even be assembled, disassembled, and re-assembled into infinite forms. However, its definition is illusive. Lego is a mega company, blockbuster movie empire, international theme park, video game realm, and with all of this carries an intangible mass of cultural influence and baggage. Lego can be anything and everywhere.
Perhaps its success is due to the fact that Lego was never only a toy. The name itself is inspired by the Danish phrase, leg godt, meaning, “play well,” suggesting a philosophy rather than a toy product. Immediately marketed as a “System of Play,” Lego’s innovative design evokes creation and not the objects themselves. Lego’s success is its brilliant and wonderful design that transcends classification. No doubt its origins can be traced to Friedrich Fröbel's Fröbelgaben (Fröbel Blocks,) Lego’s atom-like malleability makes it the perfect material for sculpture.
Yet most people agree that Lego cannot be considered an art form in the institutional sense. I asked scholars Jonathan Rey Lee and Julia Pelta Feldman if they would speak to the idea of “Lego Art,” and their gut reaction wasn’t warm.
Feldman acknowledges that Lego art is a thing. “Sure, it's sculpture; if someone identifying themselves as an artist makes something they call a sculpture out of any medium, they can't properly be contradicted.” However, she says Lego as an art genre is pointless. “If someone started making sculptures out of iPhones, would we need to call it iPhone Art?”
Lee suspects that the exclusion of Lego from the art historical canon has more to do with the fact that the circulation of Lego constructions is not aligned with artistic discourses. For example, he says, “architecture may be no more inherently artistic than Lego, but has become thoroughly intertwined with aesthetic theories and practice while Lego has not.”
For evidence, I look to Olafur Eliasson’s awesome use of Lego bricks in his recent work, “The Collectivity Project.” It is an installation of white Lego bricks arranged in an imaginary cityscape, which is designed by its visitors. In its iteration at the High Line, all were welcome to build and rebuild structures over the course of several weeks. “As the inevitable entropy of the piece begins to soften, the hard edges of the designed structures and mounds of loose pieces gather in the corners between buildings, a beautiful collective creation takes form.” The genius of this iteration of the Collectivity Project was that it was installed in the foreground of an enormous real estate development, by the name of the Hudson Yards, providing a compelling juxtaposition between the model-like Lego bricks and the loud construction in the towers that grind in the background.
Olafur Eliasson, The collectivity project (2015), part of Panorama, a High Line Commission. Photo by Timothy Schenck, Courtesy of Friends of the High Line.
The works of Lego-based artists like Nathan Sawaya and those of Olafur Eliasson are galaxies apart from one another, according to Pelta Feldman. The difference between those galaxies is that Sawaya’s work (whose work is pictured as our cover image, exhibited at 'The Art of The Brick' traveling exhibition) is too commercial to be fine art. Sawaya holds a distinguished corporate sponsorship role with Lego Corporation as a “Lego Certified Professional,” whereas Eliasson's practice is rather diverse—he sometimes incorporates difficult elements like electronics, dirt, and water. Feldman says Eliasson’s Lego project is less about the three-dimensional product of a sculpture than it is about the process of collective building, and Lego is merely a tool to facilitate that process. She says that Sawaya, on the other hand, is exhibiting a kind of virtuosity, which has no purpose or point beyond its own expression. “My guess is that Lego approves of artists like Sawaya precisely because he isn't doing anything particularly new or remarkable with them—he's merely demonstrating what can be done with this thing that they've made.”
Lee verifies the consumer culture that Lego perpetuates—the more you have, the more you can make, and the better your creations will turn out. If you look at the Lego System in another way, it’s possible to see how Lego assembly manuals do not encourage original creation more than it demonstrates the kind of mindless work executed in a factory.
In the same vein of the work Sawaya lies New York-based artist and fellow "Lego Certified Professional" Sean Kenney. Kenney's work is as much about virtuosity as Sawaya's, but takes on even more familiar subjects; animals, portraits, landscapes. A former artist assistant of Kenney's has mixed feelings on his work, "I consider Sean to be a designer more than an artist. He makes things that are a bit more mechanical. He has been trying to give the sculptures an educational slant by featuring endangered animals to talk about extinction," she tells Hopes&Fears. But perhaps consumers of Lego products don't care about the difference between art and design, with models attracting high price tags. His nature sculptures are worth anywhere from "$20,000 to $75,000" and portraits fetching as much as $1200.
However, the former artist assistant does see the potential for Lego as fine art. "There is this one particular guy who does architectural sculptures, Michael Doyle. They're all just incredible. He did this one haunted house that uses the elements in a way that disguises the Lego. And with the models being greyscale, they look like old photographs at first. There's some artists making things out of Lego that carry heavy political statements and explore aesthetics in a way that is more profound and interesting than just pumping out stuff that people want to see at zoos."
Michael Doyle, Abandoned Lego Victorian House and MTR - Mountaintop Removal (2011). Photos: ©2011 Mike Doyle, Courtesy of the artist.
Lee also has high hopes for Lego art’s potential. “Artistic production has had a complex relationship with monetary and institutional concerns throughout its history.” He says the question of Lego art has less to do with the properties of the medium itself and more to do with how people use and perceive it. “If Lego is to be art, it will have to be the kind of art that navigates this fraught commercial identity in interesting ways.”
Lego was included in one of the most infamous exhibitions of all time. The Jewish Museum’s 1996 show, Mirroring Evil, featured a Lego concentration camp created by Polish artist, Zbigniew Libera. The artwork recreated scenes from Nazi concentration camps and were notoriously branded and packaged as if they were actual Lego systems. Feldman philosophizes that Libera’s work is separate from other Lego-related works. “He uses the mundaneness of Lego (something Sawaya entirely fails to overcome) to provoke shock, and ultimately question how our understanding of the Holocaust has become all too routine.”
Zbigniew Libera, Concentration Camp, Lego, (1996).
But could a controversial and political work like Libera's "Concentration Camp" happen today? As artist and activist Ai Weiwei recently found out, it just might depend on the relationship between the Lego corporation and your country. Weiwei's recent installation “Trace” was a set of 176 single-layer Lego portraits of political dissidents. Set inside the politically fraught walls of Alcatraz in 2014 (before Weiwei was granted his Chinese passport) the portraits were arranged in a grid pattern on the floor. With Lego bricks connecting famous detainees like Edward Snowden to activists like Mahvash Sabet, it would be impossible to not call Weiwei's work a political act, and that's precisely what Lego had a problem with. The corporation recently refused Ai Weiwei Studio’s request for a bulk order of Legos to create artwork to be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria as “they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.”
Ai Weiwei and curator Cheryl Haines meet at the artist's studio, with design studies for Trace laid out on the floor. Photo by Jan Stürmann. Courtesy of For-Site Foundation.
It doesn't come as a surprise that on October 21, British firm Merlin Entertainments formally announced that it will open a new Legoland in Shanghai as Weiwei sees it as "one of many deals of the U.K.-China 'Golden Era.'" It seems that Lego's corporate ties are the deciding factor on what is considered Lego art, thus not art at all. At least there's crowd-sourcing, as Weiwei's studio has been receiving sizeable Lego donations through a new Twitter campaign, #LegosforWeiwei.
Feldman wagers you probably won’t see the Lego ®, ™, or © symbols entering museum labels any time soon. She says there's a stronger argument to be made for considering the set of Lego blocks, with their endless potential for playful reinvention, to be more a work of art than any static sculpture, albeit a form with its own corrupt politics and cultural baggage. With the Lego System already adorning the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection, it might be wise for the discerning art appreciator to consider whose pockets Lego art might be lining.
COVER photo: A visitor looks at a Leonardo da Vinci painting "Mona Lisa" made with Lego bricks by U.S. artist Nathan Sawaya during the exhibition "The Art of The Brick" on May 15, 2015, in Paris, France. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images).