China's Ai Weiwei seeks Lego bricks for exhibition after toymaker refused his bulk order

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.PHOTO: AFP

COPENHAGEN (Reuters/AFP) - Ai Weiwei will launch collection points in cities around the world for Lego bricks after the Danish toymaker declined to fulfil a bulk order due to the Chinese artist and dissident's political activism, his studio said.

Lego confirmed on Monday that it had turned down the order from Ai's studio, saying it had a long-standing policy of not fulfilling bulk orders or donating bricks if they know they would be used as part of a "political agenda".

Known for his Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium, Ai, who has regularly criticised China's record on human rights, had ordered the Lego bricks for a new work that is due to be exhibited in Melbourne, Australia, later this year.

Expressing his surprise at Lego's reaction, Ai said at a press conference in Berlin: "I was flabbergasted as it was a perfectly respectable order."

After his appeal for bricks online, numerous fans have offered to give him their Lego blocks.

"The Internet is a place that is sort of like a modern-day church," Ai said. "You go to church and complain to the priest about your suffering and everyone in the community can share in it and perhaps find a solution," said the artist at the press conference arranged on his guest professorship at the Berlin's University of the Arts.

To a tweet from a fan who wrote: "I am taking a Lego brick to @aiww's London exhibition and leaving it there", Ai - whose exhibition is on at London's Royal Academy of Arts - replied on Twitter: "Every one (is) precious".

A post on his Instagram account also said on 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 theme song of the blockbuster 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 per cent stake in Merlin.

Ai has previously used Lego bricks to build portraits of 175 well-known prisoners of conscience such as Nelson Mandela, shown on the United States prison island of Alcatraz.

"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," Lego said in a statement.

"Any individual person can naturally purchase Lego bricks through normal sales channels or get access to Lego bricks in other ways to create their Lego projects if they desire to do so, but as a company, we choose to refrain from actively engaging in these activities," the company said.