Not just another brick in the wall

22459110409_ba02ed7780_bThe decision of the Lego company not to supply the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei with bricks for a new artwork is one of the most striking instances I can recall of life imitating art. A huge and impersonal power structure combining arbitrary state power and capitalistic greed; the determination of that power structure to silence a uniquely gifted individual; that individual’s refusal to be cowed, even in the face of violence: all of these elements are contained and combined in one of the great cultural artefacts of our age …

I mean, of course, The Lego Movie.

A plot summary, for those who haven’t seen it. The story assumes an alternative universe in which everything – everything – is made of Lego and in which all the little Lego people are issued with instructions to guide them through the day. More Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four – the most popular song is ‘Everything is Awesome’ – this universe is ruled by the evil Lord Business, whose plan is to extinguish what improvisation remains with a super-weapon called ‘the Kragle’, a scuffed and wrinkled tube of Krazy Glue. Standing in his way are the Master Builders, whose trick is to improvise exciting creations in an effort to inspire their fellow citizens to revolt. Their ultimate aim is to locate ‘the Special’, the genius who, according to prophecy, will defeat Lord Business with ‘the piece of resistance’ – the screw-top cap to the tube of glue.

An artist and designer of international renown and an irrepressible opponent of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei is perhaps the closest thing we have in modern culture to a Master Builder – the visionary who can shock us out of our stupor, throwing our worldview into relief, pressing ‘refresh’ on reality. For Lego to have kowtowed to Beijing as it has (it is assumed that its caution regarding Ai’s new project is related to the opening of Legoland Shanghai) is to have soiled its own nest in magnificent style. The spectacle of a large corporation in bed with arbitrary state power is always off-putting. In this case it’s self-defeating too.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. Lego, after all, is a giant company and its bottom line is, well, the bottom line. I remember my utter lack of surprise when I realised that the abovementioned Master Builders and their creations – and their creations! – were being sold in $200 kits to kids who (guess what?) hadn’t quite appreciated The Lego Movie’s anti-capitalist ethos. It is as if the very texture of the film, in which computer animation is used to simulate the real-world connectivity of stud-and-tube bricks, finds a negative echo in its politics: the messiness of revolution turned into a marketing opportunity.

But however much money it made for the company, the message of the movie is what it is, and my sense that it is breaking out into reality is not, I think, entirely fantastic. Disgusted by the Lego Group’s decision, Lego aficionados from all over the world are now sending consignments of bricks to Ai, who has set up collection points in a number of cities. Ai’s original project, which was to be called Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei and was to explore the theme of (ha!) free expression, has morphed into a huge community artwork/project. The designer of the Bird’s Nest Stadium – the showpiece of the 2008 Olympics – is sticking it to the man, again, and is enlisting the help of an army of little builders.

Indeed, my sense is that Ai and his suppliers are constructing a kind of parable. For capitalism to work, businesses have to grow, which means they have to sell us stuff we don’t need, or stuff we do need but which breaks, or breaks down, meaning that we have to buy it again. Lego’s core product, which is hardy and durable and was originally conceived as a toy for re-use – a point made beautifully in The Lego Movie – occupies a peculiar place in this system, and its marketers have to work overtime to find new and ingenious ways to flog it. By cutting itself out of the loop in this instance, Lego has allowed one of the great artist/designers of our time to demonstrate that recycling and crowdsourcing can be enough. Ai’s project was to be about free expression – one of the principles China has declined to adopt on its road to greater economic ‘freedom’; it now stands, will stand, as a critique of much more: an assertion, perhaps, that what we need is less new stuff and a different (and better) set of instructions.

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First published in The Sydney Morning Herald