Ai Weiwei discusses depicting political prisoners using LEGO bricks

The artist and former political prisoner Ai Weiwei has discussed using the medium of LEGO pieces in a wide ranging conversation.

The New York Times set up a conversation between artist Ai Weiwei and architect Frank Gehry, in which they talk design, going against the grain and more. Weiwei is known to LEGO fans as he depicted political prisoners around the world in LEGO brick constructed portraits. The piece is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum.

Weiwei discussed why he used LEGO elements during the conversation:

When I was working on Alcatraz, we got a lot of photos of these political prisoners from Amnesty International that were not clear or were very dark. Some political prisoners may have had only one photo from their life before they disappeared, like this Tibetan lama who has been missing for over 20 years. How am I going to use these photos to make a show when the quality isn’t there? I thought Legos would be a good idea to even it all out because it’s pixels — pixels will make everything, clear or not, sharp: a strong image. So we made 176 portraits of political prisoners, from Chelsea Manning to people in Iran and Russia and China, and they all looked fresh and clear.

“I met with the guy who owns Lego years ago; I wanted to discuss the possibility of doing a new kind of LEGO,” Gehry responded.

“Another kind of LEGO sounds interesting,” Weiwei agreed. “You can see, if you walk on the streets of most cities, all the buildings are the same. All the cars are designed the same. Why does it have to be that way? It’s such a waste. A society based on artists could be trouble, but a society without artists could be really horrifying.”

LEGO Ai Weiwei installation

Controversy erupted when the LEGO Group refused the bulk order that he made ahead of putting the installation together, leading to the public donating pieces and the company altering its policy for fulfilling such orders.

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Graham was the Editor up until November 2020. He has plenty of experience working on LEGO related projects. He has contributed to various websites and publications on topics including niche hobbies, the toy industry and education. Follw Graham on Twitter @grahamh100.

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