Did Lego Try to Silence Contemporary Artist Ai Weiwei? - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Did Lego Try to Silence Contemporary Artist Ai Weiwei?

Did Lego Try to Silence Contemporary Artist Ai Weiwei?

Ai Weiwei, one of today’s leading contemporary artists, is claiming that Lego has censored his most recent art project about free expression.1 In an ironic twist, Weiwei is claiming that he was prevented from freely expressing himself. Lego recently refused to fulfill a bulk order of their signature bricks for Weiwei to use in his artwork.

In response to Lego’s refusal, Weiwei has launched a social media campaign against the toy company. Weiwei has been posting pictures on his Instagram, including a photo of Legos in a toilet, inspired by Duchamp’s “Fountain.”2 Weiwei accused the toy company of discrimination and censoring his works because of a recent announcement to build a Legoland theme park in Shanghai.3 This seems unlikely because Lego sold the Legoland parks to a British company ten years ago and was not involved in the decision to expand to Shanghai. Weiwei also claims that Lego was afraid to endorse the artist because they are expanding globally and China is a large market.

Lego claims that they refused to fulfill his request because they “cannot approve of the use of Legos for political works”4 Lego said, in a statement, “We acknowledge, that Lego bricks today are used globally by millions of fans, adults, children and artists as a creative medium to express their imagination and creativity in many different ways. Projects that are not endorsed or supported by the Lego group. However, 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.”5 In another statement, Lego spokesman Roar Rude Trangbæk said: “Any individual person can naturally purchase 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 engaging in these activities – through for example bulk purchase.”6

In 2011, Weiwei was arrested in China along with many other human rights activists and bloggers.7 Before his arrest, Weiwei had pushed the boundaries of what was permissible speech and was a vocal critic of the Chinese government.8 He was released three months later and formally charged with tax evasion.9 His supporters say that he was arrested because of his activism.10

Fans of Weiwei’s art have been sending the artist Legos from their personal collections.11 To me, this seems like a great solution. Weiwei is able to freely create his artwork and the Lego company does not have to publicly condone any political view. Furthermore, it did not really seem like an act of censorship in the first place because they only refused to fill a bulk. Lego did not forbid Weiwei entirely from using their products in his art. Weiwei used Legos last year to create portraits of 175 people who were jailed or exiled for political activism.12 Lego did nothing to silence Weiwei then and are not really attempting to silence him now.

 

Image: Ai Weiwei’s “Trace” installation — part of the @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz series (2014) http://www.for-site.org/project/ai-weiwei-alcatraz-trace/. Photo by Jan Stürmann.


  1. See Katherine Schwab, Ai Weiwei Versus Lego, The Atlantic (Oct. 27, 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/ai-weiwei-versus-lego/412402/ [https://perma.cc/EHV4-K5EC].

  2. See Fergus Ryan, Ai Weiwei swamped by Lego donation offers after ban on use for ‘political’ artwork, The Guardian (Oct. 25, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/25/ai-weiwei-swamped-by-lego-donation-offers-after-ban-on-use-for-political-artwork [https://perma.cc/FC38-DMRR].

  3. See Katherine Schwab, Ai Weiwei Versus Lego, The Atlantic (Oct. 27, 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/ai-weiwei-versus-lego/412402/ [https://perma.cc/EHV4-K5EC].

  4. See Jim Zarroli, Fans Flood Artist Ai Weiwei With Offers Of Legos, NPR (Oct. 26, 2015), http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/26/451925443/fans-flood-artist-ai-weiwei-with-offers-of-legos [https://perma.cc/XK9X-KUZT].

  5. See Fergus Ryan, Ai Weiwei swamped by Lego donation offers after ban on use for ‘political’ artwork, The Guardian (Oct. 25, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/25/ai-weiwei-swamped-by-lego-donation-offers-after-ban-on-use-for-political-artwork [https://perma.cc/FC38-DMRR].

  6. See Fergus Ryan, Ai Weiwei swamped by Lego donation offers after ban on use for ‘political’ artwork, The Guardian (Oct. 25, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/25/ai-weiwei-swamped-by-lego-donation-offers-after-ban-on-use-for-political-artwork [https://perma.cc/FC38-DMRR].

  7. See Keith B. Richburg, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrested in ongoing government crackdown, The Washington Post (Apr. 3, 2011), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-artist-ai-wei-wei-arrested-in-latest-government-crackdown/2011/04/03/AFHB5PVC_story.html [https://perma.cc/W93V-CD5P].

  8. See Keith B. Richburg, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei arrested in ongoing government crackdown, The Washington Post (Apr. 3, 2011), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/chinese-artist-ai-wei-wei-arrested-in-latest-government-crackdown/2011/04/03/AFHB5PVC_story.html [https://perma.cc/W93V-CD5P].

  9. See Ai Weiwei ‘cannot leave Beijing without permission’, BBC News (June 23, 2011), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13887899 [https://perma.cc/W2UH-P47P].

  10. See Ai Weiwei ‘cannot leave Beijing without permission’, BBC News (June 23, 2011), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13887899 [https://perma.cc/W2UH-P47P].

  11. See Fergus Ryan, Ai Weiwei swamped by Lego donation offers after ban on use for ‘political’ artwork, The Guardian (Oct. 25, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/25/ai-weiwei-swamped-by-lego-donation-offers-after-ban-on-use-for-political-artwork [https://perma.cc/FC38-DMRR].

  12. See Van Badham, The Guardian (Oct. 27, 2015), http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/27/give-ai-weiwei-your-lego-bricks-so-he-can-show-what-corporate-politics-looks-like [https://perma.cc/4RVJ-QN84].

Elizabeth Perez

Elizabeth Perez is a second year student at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal.