A story of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, LEGO, and a lot of miscommunication [News]

LEGO is usually in the news for positive events — recently it was a tower of the stuff breaking a world record — and even when the news is bad, it’s because everyone wants some of it. But this is a different story altogether.

Chinese artist, political prisoner, and human rights activist Ai Weiwei is known for his strong stance for freedom of speech and other civil liberties in the People’s Republic of China, and this reflects in his work. In September Ai requested a bulk order of LEGO for his studio and a project the studio was working on, and was denied. He quotes the reply stating “they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works” on his Instagram account.

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on Oct 23, 2015 at 6:04am PDT

Up until that point this seems to be par for the course: The LEGO Group, a company that produces and sells toys aimed at children and teenagers, has the right to restrict sales of their products freely. It must be noted, however, that Ai could have purchased what he needed through standard retail or secondary market channels, albeit without the discount associated with a bulk order directly from the LEGO Group. This was not clear when The Gaurdian reported on the story, incorrectly stating that he was “banned” from using the product.

Ai WeiweiThe article, which has since spread and lead to numerous other stories that seem to confuse key details, seems to be the root of the misconception. Strangely, the body copy of the story and the headline are contradictory, as no source is ever given for Weiwei being “banned”.

A day after the original story, The Guardian ran a follow-up which focused on Weiwei receiving a large influx of Lego donations. Again, there is no source citing Weiwei being banned, or how such an incident would be incited or enforced.

We reached out to our contacts at the Lego Group for comment, and they shared the following statement:

The LEGO Group does not comment on the dialogue we have with our customers, partners, consumers or other stakeholders. 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, including projects that are not endorsed or supported by the LEGO Group. We also respect any individuals’ right to free creative expression, and we do not censor, prohibit or ban creative use of LEGO bricks.

As a company dedicated to delivering creative play experiences to children, we refrain – on a global level – from engaging in in or endorsing the use of LEGO bricks in projects that carry a political agenda. Individuals may obtain LEGO bricks in other ways to create their LEGO projects if they so desire, but in cases where we receive requests for donations or support for projects – such as the possibility of purchasing LEGO bricks in very large quantities – and we are aware that there is a political context, we uphold our corporate policy and decline the request to access LEGO bricks directly.

Based on this additional information directly from LEGO, we can say for certain that The Guardian is incorrect in their usage of the word “ban” and “banned” in their articles, and that Ai enjoys the same freedom to purchase LEGO bricks as every other builder and “LEGO artist” in the world. He has simply been denied the ability to purchase LEGO bricks in bulk quantities at discounted prices directly from the The LEGO Group.

10 comments on “A story of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, LEGO, and a lot of miscommunication [News]

  1. Aanchir

    I have to agree that this issue is seriously overblown, especially thanks to misreporting by various news sources. I’ve seen some comments on Facebook from people who claim this means “LEGO is siding with the Chinese dictatorship” or “LEGO is a puppet of the Chinese government.” How do you even arrive at that conclusion? I guarantee that if the Chinese government were to request discount bulk bricks for, say, a political rally, they would be turned down just as quickly. The LEGO Group is not “choosing sides” by sticking with a policy they’ve had for years now.

  2. lisqr

    I’m completely disgusted by this nutcase Ai Wei Wei. If he wants to get naked and protest, be my guest. Just stay away from Lego.

  3. lisqr

    ^ I don’t want to outline my political views here. This is not the place for that. But I do want to say that in the crazy world that we are in today, we need fewer spotlight whores like Ai and more sane and neutral parties like TLG. People are jumping at buzz words like “dictatorship”, “freedom”, “human rights”, “banning” too quickly without understanding the issue.

  4. swogat

    I have read the Guardian article when it came out. I think the Guardian’s reporting was fair: TLG does not want to annoy the Chinese government or any other government, for that matter.
    Sure looks like a public relations headache for LEGO.

    I wonder why Ai Weiwei wanted the bricks by LEGO and not local Chinese made clones or Megabloks. Or Oxford.

  5. Bunbrick

    lisqr: “Just stay away from Lego.”

    So, just to be clear, and TLG’s own perfectly fine policy aside, you want to flat-out deny an artist[*] from specifically using LEGO bricks as his artistic medium of choice?

    Are you by any chance the same lisqr who wrote on his blog [MOCRecipes.com]:
    “I believe that Lego is an art medium and MOC (my own creation) is a form of art. As with all art forms, not only do you need the artistic sense to create a masterpiece, knowledge of various techniques in the particular art medium is crucial. While artistic sense is difficult to convey and share, techniques are much easier. So it’s my hope to use this blog as a platform to share those various techniques.”

    Or is that like your first cousin, once removed or something, who happens to have the exact same nick and hobby?
    ’cause I’d just like to point out your cousin is quite the vicarious hypocrite then.

    Then again, I might understand your reluctance to allow the guy his freedom of expression, seeing how he, being in China and on a watchlist and all, might not currently have the best possible internet connection to get to said blog and learn these ‘various techniques’ to become a full-fledged ENDORSED artist.

    [*] ‘nutcase’, or ‘spotlight whore’ in your words, but here in the civilised world we prefer the term ‘artist’ for these sort of people. And whether you like it or not, though clearly you don’t, this particular man has firmly established himself as just that, an artist. Naturally I could subsequently, if I so wish, preface this with ‘good’, ‘decent’ or ‘shitty’ depending on my personal preferences in style etc, but in doing that I’d at least not come across as a huge easel… proudly holding aloft a prime example of Socialist Realism with an ‘Approved’ form soaking up the still wet paint in the top-right corner.

    But I don’t want to outline my artistic views here. This is not the post for that. But I do want to say that in the quickly-turned-cuckoo discussion that we are in today, we need fewer eager censorshipbeavers like lisqr and more sane and neutral posters like Aanchir. People and SIIO personnel are jumping at trigger words like “Ai Weiwei”, “Ai Wei Wei”, “Aiwei Wei” and “aiweiwei” too quickly without understanding the party line on Tibet.

    Also Chinese-made LEGO isn’t the best. Give the guy a break trying to get it elsewhere.

  6. dtaax

    Thanks for a factual account of what Lego said. The popular news media (of course) was more interested in sensationalism than facts. Sigh.

  7. bruce n h

    So many people don’t understand the proper use of words like “ban” and “censorship”. My library is not infinitely large, it does not fit every book ever produced, and so they make choices about which books to include and which to not. This does not mean they are banning books. My favorite classic rock station has never once played a polka. Again, this just means they are making choices as to what to play, not a vicious ban on polka music. In this case “You are not giving me a discount” certainly does not equate to “You are banning my work”. LEGO hasn’t ever sold me bricks at a discount either.

    I’ve been meaning to post on this on ArtisticBricks, but I’ve been a pretty crappy blogger for a long time now – going on brief blogging spurts separated by months of downtime. IMO this is a tempest in a teapot, and ultimately resulted in publicity for Ai Weiwei (and free LEGO, and who doesn’t love free LEGO?).

  8. Creative Anarchy

    “^ What is it about human rights and civil liberties that you find disgusting?”
    The hipocracy. Ai Weiwei is claiming censorship explicitly because a company who stands to suffer for his art won’t give him free toys. We wouldn’t expect Impact to provide an artist free paint of Stanford to provide them free brushes just because their art is in the interest of civil liberty or human rights. Holding Lego to an different standard is unfair. Ai Weiwei isn’t going to make the Victoria Museum allow people to see the exhibition free of charge, isn’t he guilty of exactly the exact same censorship and discrimination?

  9. swogat

    @Creative Anarchy. Ai Weiwei may have asked for free LEGO bricks, but what is in the news is a denial of a request for a bulk purchase of several million bricks from an Australian art gallery. According to this (http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2015/10/27/lego-granted-bulk-orders-for-previous-ai-weiwei-project/) post, LEGO had sold bricks in bulk in the past for a different Ai Weiwei project.

    The official reasons for denial, perhaps in not so many words, is that TLG does not want to be associated in any shape or form with a human rights activist, apparently because fighting for human rights is “political.” This tells you something about the company’s values, doesn’t.

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