Activist Ai Weiwei Takes The Lego Group to School

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One of six Lego “carpets” designed Chinese dissident by Ai Weiwei, including portraits of Nelson Mandela, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, which were displayed at Alcatraz in 2014.

Dear Legos. The colorful building-block toys have been favorites of children young and old since their manufacture in 1949. The individual blocks are so durable that decades-old sets interlock perfectly with the pieces from one of today’s complicated Millennium Falcon sets.

Sure, the company behind the popular toys had its challenges, like the controversy over “girl” Legos. But it generally ends up on the right side of history.

The blocks’ durability, combined with their place in the collective subconscious as universal symbols of toys, children and innocence, makes them an ideal building material for modern artists. Those are presumably the reasons Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei used Lego building blocks in a floor installation of portraits depicting 175 prisoners of conscience — a part of his @Large exhibit at Alcatraz — in 2014. Alcatraz is not a museum, of course; it’s a tourist destination and former prison located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The site — a national park in the U.S., home to the world’s highest incarceration rates — was ideal for the famous artist’s message, even though, as a political prisoner in Beijing at the time, he had to rely on assistants to actually construct the instillation.

The exhibit was so well-received that Ai planned to use Legos again for an exhibit in Melbourne, Australia. However, when his team reached out to place a bulk order last fall, his request was declined via email, which Ai shared on his Instagram account:

The museum received Lego’s reply via email: “We regret to inform you that it is ​against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the Lego licensing program. However, we realize that artists ​may have an interest in using Lego elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art. In this connection, the Lego Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The Lego trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the art work.

“The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the Lego trademark. We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material.The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the Lego Group has not sponsored or endorsed the artwork. Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order.” 23. Sept. 2015

Ai decided to go public with the bulk-order block after news broke three short weeks later that Lego planned to build a new Legoland in Shanghai. With Chinese government officials all-too-cozy with business interests, it makes sense that the Lego Group would be reluctant to get on their bad side by supporting their most troublesome political activist. When Ai went public, Internet outrage ensued and collection points were set up around the globe for fans to donate their Legos to Ai’s new project.

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Ai Weiwei with his son on Instagram.

On Jan. 1, lightning speed given the holidays, the Lego Group waved the white flag on its website, redacting its previous policy:

“The LEGO Group has adjusted the guidelines for sales of Lego bricks in very large quantities.

“Previously, when asked to sell very large quantities of Lego bricks for projects, the Lego Group has asked about the thematic purpose of the project. This has been done, as the purpose of the Lego Group is to inspire children through creative play, not to actively support or endorse specific agendas of individuals or organizations.

“However, those guidelines could result in misunderstandings or be perceived as inconsistent, and the Lego Group has therefore adjusted the guidelines for sales of Lego bricks in very large quantities.
As of January 1st, the Lego Group no longer asks for the thematic purpose when selling large quantities of Lego bricks for projects. Instead, the customers will be asked to make it clear – if they intend to display their Lego creations in public – that the Lego Group does not support or endorse the specific projects.”

While there is no proof that the previous policy had anything to do with the company’s business interests in China, the timing is suspicious given that Ai used Lego products previously without a problem and Legoland Shanghai is in sight.

While the Lego Group ultimately came to the right decision, the toy manufacturer learned a difficult lesson. Trying to control who buys your products looks suspiciously like censorship. The toy company’s effort to disassociate from Ai backfired when headlines the world over linked the two. It’s an important reminder that, in the world of social media, brands don’t control their reputations — at best they can only hope to court the world of public opinion.

Image credits: Jen Boynton, Ai Weiwei

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton has been the editor in chief of TriplePundit for 8 years. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and a degree in Sociology from Pitzer College. She spent a few years in the non-profit policy sector as well, but we won't talk about that. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with her toddler overlord and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.