For days, Twitter and Instagram users have been flooding Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s accounts with pledges to send him buckets of the small plastic bricks made by Denmark-based toymaker Lego, after the company declined to sell him a batch for an upcoming exhibition in Australia.
Many of the messages have come with the hashtag “legosforweiwei” and comments about Lego committing censorship and its own act of political expression by denying, according to Ai, his request to use the bricks for what the company called “political works.”
The exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne opens December 11 with a focus on the parallels and intersections of Ai’s art with that of American pop artist Andy Warhol.
One of Ai’s four planned major works is similar in theme to one he showed at an exhibition in San Francisco last year that used Lego pieces to create pictures of 176 people who had been imprisoned or exiled for their beliefs or affiliations.
“The work will be a major new instillation focusing on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the Internet,” the NGV said in a statement.
The gallery confirmed that Lego “did not wish to sell a bulk order of their blocks for [Ai’s] NGV installation” and said it was working with the artist to consider other materials that could be used instead.
Ai is embracing the offers of Lego donations, saying in response to what he called an “overwhelming public response” that he wants to make something new to “defend freedom of speech and ‘political art.'” He said his studio will soon announce collection points in different cities where people can contribute bricks.
The gallery said it, too, is getting offers from people who want to donate Lego pieces.
“Weiwei’s original Instagram post sparked people’s interests and imaginations with ideas developed around crowd sourcing and donations,” the NGV said. “We are currently in discussion with Weiwei and his studio about these developments but are not seeking donations at this time, as the materials for the NGV installation are still being considered.”
Roar Rude Trangbaek, a press officer for Lego, told VOA in a statement the company cannot comment on the discussions it has with individuals, but that it respects the “right to free creative expression” and does not censor or ban the use of its bricks. He said Lego refrains from “actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda.”
“In cases where we receive requests for donations or support for projects — such as the possibility of purchasing Lego bricks in very large quantities, which is not possible through normal sales channels — where we are made aware that there is a political context, we therefore kindly decline support,” Trangbaek said.
Some Twitter users took an extra artistic step with their support for Ai and posted their own pictures made with Lego pieces. One user spelled out “I Support Weiwei,” while another shared a picture that emerged on the Internet a few years ago using Lego pieces to depict the famous scene of a man standing in front of a tank during China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Lego characters called minifigures were also included, with one person creating an “Ai Weiwei” figure standing among the sunflower seeds made famous by his 2010 exhibition at London’s Tate Modern gallery. Another person crafted a Lego figure head with Ai’s black hair and beard.
The responses overwhelmingly supported Ai, but at least some sided with the company. Twitter user Pohan Wu posted that Lego has to refuse Ai’s request because “sponsorship from Lego would suggest that it agrees with Ai Weiwei’s political view.”
The 58-year-old Ai has been a frequent critic of the Chinese government, and has been repeatedly harassed, arrested and fined by authorities. In 2011, he was held for nearly three months and a company he is affiliated with was later fined $2.4 million for tax evasion in a move Ai said was retaliation for his activism.