Danish toy giant Lego became embroiled in controversy over the weekend when Ai Weiwei– who used the bricks to create portraits of political activists from around the world for a US exhibition last year — said the firm had told him it would not sell directly to users with “political” intentions.
Lego is giving us the definition of what is “political”,and all the big corporations are telling us what to love or hate. that awesome.
— 艾未未 Ai Weiwei (@aiww) October 25, 2015
Ai is China's most prominent contemporary artist, who helped design the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics and his work has been exhibited worldwide, but he has also run afoul of Communist authorities.
He used the Lego bricks to create portraits of political activists from around the world for an exhibition at Alcatraz prison in the US last year, and intended to create a Lego artwork for a show in Australia.
Lego's refusal to accommodate Ai's request led to a backlash online as many took to social media to call for a boycott of the company. Fans have also offered to give Ai their Lego blocks, and a post on his Instagram account said Monday: “Ai Weiwei has now decided to make a new work to defend freedom of speech and 'political art'.
“Ai Weiwei Studio will announce the project description and Lego collection points in different cities.”
One collection point, a car parked outside his studio in Beijing, was shown with some bricks on the sunroof.
His Instagram account also shows a picture of Lego bricks in a toilet bowl with the caption “Everything is awesome” — the tagline of the Lego movie.
One supporter posting on Twitter told the manufacturer: “Your execs need to go watch the @TheLEGOMovie and think about what they've done.”
Another said: “I'm picturing a Lego sculpture of a giant Lego character shooting itself in the foot.”
Ai also pointed out that Britain's Merlin Entertainments, which owns and operates Legoland theme parks, announced plans for a facility in Shanghai last week during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Britain.
Lego's parent company Kirkbi owns a 30 percent stake in Merlin.
In a statement to Britain's Guardian newspaper, Billund-based Lego said: “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.”
Calls by AFP to Lego's China offices went unanswered.
Ai has been targeted by authorities for his advocacy of democracy and human rights as well as other criticisms, including the aftermath of the deadly Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
He was detained for 81 days in 2011 and subsequently placed under house arrest, with his passport taken away. The document was only returned in July this year, enabling him to travel to Europe.
Ai complained in November 2014 that Denmark's then culture minister, Marianne Jelved, did not meet with him during what was described as the “largest Danish cultural effort in China to date”.
The artist said that Denmark “handled the situation incorrectly” because the Danish delegation “misunderstands China”.
“A lot of countries try to do business with China, but they should also understand that the China that they are dealing with is not necessarily a reflection of the Chinese people’s opinions. China is not a democracy,” he told Berlingske at the time.
An op-ed in the Chinese edition of the Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily, praised Lego for “refusing to be implicated in a political statement” and being motivated by “good business sense”.
It is not the first time Lego has rejected a proposal on the grounds of political connotations, reports say.
A Lego set of the four female members of the US Supreme Court was rejected by the Lego Ideas project, which allows members of the public to suggest new products, according to US radio network NPR.
The idea reportedly ran afoul of the company's Acceptable Project Content, which says projects related to “politics and political symbols, campaigns, or movements” will not be accepted because they “do not fit our brand values”.
For $30 the company offers a model of the Lincoln Memorial, and a White House set costs $50.
Ai will be in Scandinavia next month to serve on the jury of the Stockholm Film Festival.