China's Ai Weiwei starts a global LEGO hunt: Can you spare a brick, brother?

Danish toymaker LEGO declined to sell bricks to dissident artist Ai Weiwei for an exhibition in Australia. Now he plans to collect donated plastic bricks around the world. 

Markus Schreiber/AP
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrives for a news conference at the University Of Arts in Berlin on Monday. The dissent artist has launched a public donation campaign for LEGO bricks after the Danish toymaker declined to sell them to him for an upcoming art installation.

Coming soon to a city near you – a LEGO collection point so that you can send your second hand bricks to beleaguered Chinese superstar artist Ai Weiwei.

Mr. Ai announced Monday he would set up a network of collection points after Denmark's LEGO Group refused to allow him to buy in bulk the bricks he needs for an upcoming exhibition of his work. Supporters of the dissident artist have flooded social media with offers to donate their own LEGO bricks instead, asking where to send them.

Ai accused LEGO of “censorship and discrimination” after it turned down his order for a bulk delivery to a gallery in Melbourne, Australia, where he is due to build an installation.

Earlier this year Ai made a splash at a show in San Francisco's former Alcatraz prison, where he made a carpet made of 1.2 million LEGO bricks portraying political prisoners, including China's jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. 

A LEGO spokesman said the company, the world's largest toymaker with annual revenues of more than $2 billion, preferred to stay out of politics. Roar Trangbaek wrote in an emailed statement that “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. Where we are made aware that there is a political context, we therefore kindly decline support” such as offering preferential bulk prices, but “we do not censor, prohibit or ban creative use of LEGO bricks.”

In an Instagram post on Friday, Ai implied that LEGO had turned his order down last month in order to protect its business interests in China, which the company’s 2014 earnings report called a future “core market.”

LEGO is building a factory in eastern China and plans to establish its Asia distribution center in Shanghai. A new LEGOland Park will soon open in Shanghai, it was announced last week during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Britain. The Kirk Kristiansen family that owns 75 percent of the LEGO Group also owns 29.9 percent of Merlin Entertainment, which runs the parks, according to the website of the family’s holding company Kirkbi A/S.

The Global Times, a Beijing daily affiliated with the ruling Communist party, ran an opinion piece by its editor-in-chief Monday arguing bluntly that “LEGO does a lot of business in China. It refused to cooperate with Ai Weiwei’s capriciousness because it has huge interests involved.”

Ai’s denunciations of LEGO on his Instagram and Twitter accounts have prompted a flood of supportive posts from his hundreds of thousands of followers. Many offered to donate their own childhood collections to help build the still secret artwork in Melbourne.

A post on Ai’s Instagram account Monday declared that the artist “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.” Another post gave the artist’s Beijing address for those wanting to mail donations to him.

Over the course of his controversial and highly publicized career, Ai has suffered worse indignities than being denied the right to buy LEGO bricks on the cheap.

He fell foul of the Chinese government for making artworks drawing attention to shoddy construction methods blamed for the deaths of tens of thousands of schoolchildren in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. Subsequently he was assaulted by policemen, saw his Shanghai studio demolished, and was imprisoned for almost three months on accusations of tax evasion. He was confined to Beijing for four years until last August, when his passport was returned, allowing him to resume his international art career. 

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