The tussle between the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Danish toy major Lego has now been blown into an international debate. Ai placed an order with the Lego for a massive amount of plastic building blocks in order to make his works of art for a forthcoming show with Late Andy Warhol in Melbourne, Australia. And the company refused to take the order saying that their products could not be used for any political purpose. Ai retaliated with an instagram post with the Lego blocks being flushed down in a commode, signed R.Mutt 2015; a direct visual quotation or reference to Duchamp’s famous readymade, Fountain, introduced into the art debates in 1917. Almost after a century, Duchamp comes back to haunt the world of art through Ai’s reactions on Lego’s official stance.
Two things are evident here. One, Ai is the most political therefore controversial artist in the world today, overshadowing the fame of Anish Kapoor, Jeff Coons and Damien Hirst. Two, the company itself has declared that their products could not be used for ‘political’ purpose. Not in the history of art ever before such a denial has come up from a manufacturer against an artist who has directly approached the company for their products. It is not that Ai has not used their products before. In 2014, in his Alcatraz Island exhibition in the US titled ‘Trace’ Ai had created 176 portraits of people from around thirty three countries, who had either imprisoned or exiled themselves due to their political stance or non-conformity with their respective governments. Like jigsaws, Ai used the building blocks to make their portraits including that of the one and only Nelson Mandela, as a recuperative or redemptive or even commemorative gesture of his own incarceration for 80 days in Chinese prison in 2011, during which his studio was bulldozed by the authorities.
(Portrait done by Ai using Lego blocks)
Ai has never been out of news. He was in the news last month when his retrospective exhibition was opened in Royal Academy of Arts in London on 17th October 2015. This blockbuster show had changed the perspective of many art critics including the staunch critics of his personality and personal and political attitudes. He had also joined Anish Kapoor in a public procession with the London based artists, demanding shelter for the refugees from West Asia and East Europe in the rich and flourishing European countries. Hanging a grey coarse blanket over his shoulders, reminding the people and authorities of the primal man’s exodus from one hostile clime to a better one, and also reminding the greatest redeemer of history, Moses, who had asked the sea to part and succeeded in it, Ai walked in his all rawness and simplicity, attracting the world media. Today, there is only one artist in the world, whose stance on his art, life and also the politics not only of his own country, China but also of all other countries makes sense and demands policy changes. The Lego controversy should be seen and discussed in this light.
The moment this controversy broke out in the internet space via instagram on 24th October 2015, the world picked it up as a developing story and the world responded to it with the same verve that they would respond to a war crisis or another humanitarian issue, similar to the one evoked by Aylan Kurd’s dead body. Little kids came up in social media with their photographs offering Ai with their personal collection of Lego bricks. Today, Ai has said that the world’s response to this crisis is so immense and he is flooded with queries about the drop points of their Lego bricks. He told the world media that he would soon decide setting up such collection points. It is one of the most prestigious moments in world art history where an artist could wake the conscience of the world up by not going down to the diktats of a private corporate. The gesture of the artist as well as the gesture of the world is so important and the market leaders should wake up and take a note of it, so are the capitalist world leaders. The lesson is simple but strong and evocative. If people think and if they decide to boycott products then definitely they can bring the shutters down for a company. If people decide to bring the products of a company and flood the second hand market with their product, then also they could destroy a company.
(Instagram posting of Ai)
This is people’s power. But today, the power of the people is woken up by an artist like Ai. He stands with Mahatma Gandhi who had asked the people to boycott foreign clothes. Here Ai does not ask for a boycott of Lego products. He shows his mid finger to the company literally and metaphorically. The world has responded by flooding him with Lego products. Now Lego could only resort to a legal route; that too would be to curtail artistic freedom. Lego, if at all it goes to the legal way, could only say that Ai should not use their product in his works. That is legible because Lego products are patented. But Ai could prop up another company to defeat Lego on ethical ground and take away all the Lego patrons to the new company. Ai with his avuncular presence has taken the kids and youth from all over the world to his side. In one of his videos we see two girls chancing upon him in a public place and take pictures with him. But while saying bye to each other, one of the girls tells him point blank: You look ordinary. Yes, that is the power of the common man. Ai has proved that common artist with uncommon ways of thinking too has that power of a populace.
Lego has its own reasons to deny the placing of Ai’s order. Lego as a company has been involved in several large scale projects, entertainment cities, parks and zones in China. The company has got contracts with the government of China. Ai is a ‘Ganatatra Shatru’. He is a political enemy as far as the government of China is concerned. He trashes the economically flourishing country image of China before the world. Chinese government could not stop him from being vocal despite his incarceration, confiscation of passport, movement restrictions and so on. People all over the world suddenly seem to have woken up to this artist who reminds them of the Oriental Gurus like Confucius and Lao Tzu. People recognize the image of Che, Gandhiji, Mandela, Andy Warhol and today Ai Wei Wei. In the world of corporatism it is easy to remember the faces of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as their products and ideas are in our hands. But they too will fade when new ideas and new products take over the market. But people Ai, Warhol, Che, Gandhiji, Mandela and so on do not fade because they happen only once in history. Second time if they happen they happen as Boses and Hirsts.
(He Xie, porcelain crabs suggesting censorship by Ai Weiwei 2010)
We have to think of Ai in our times mainly because our country is going through a crisis; moral and political. We are apparently forced to believe that we live in a world of freedom. We have freedom of choice and freedom of thought. The fact is our freedom of choice is limited to the available even if the available has a vast range on display. Our freedom of thinking is also limited because our nourishment to free thinking is being controlled through various mediums. We live in an oppressive state where artists are forced to think several times whether the skin of their works even if it is in bronze or wood, need an addition cover of clothes in order to satisfy the right wing fundamentalists of all sorts. Liberals too have fundamentalists in them. Our writers are asked to shut up. They commit suicide as authors. Then they continue to live as witnesses whose tongue and limbs are chopped off. Our youngsters are asked to keep off from each other. We are no longer allowed to hold hands or kiss. Anything that liberates is clipped and caged. And this happens even before we realise that it has happened. Hence, we need to recognize Ai’s demand for justice and creative freedom. We need to respond the way world has responded. I have never been to China. I have never seen Ai or his works in real. But I do write about Ai because when I write about him I write about freedom.
Refusing working materials to an artist is like refusing food to a hungry human being. It is feudalism and patriarchy. It is fascism and despotism rolled into one. Refusing working materials to the artist is like refusing someone the freedom to walk in a public road only because he or she belongs to a particular caste or religion. Refusing working material to an artist is like refusing a sky and greenery to a woman and forcing her to kitchen. Refusing working materials to an artist is like chopping off the tongue of a singer. Refusing working materials to an artist is like imprisoning a bard for singing songs. Refusing working materials to an artist is like bombing a school full of innocent kids. Refusing working materials to an artist is like burning down a library. Refusing working materials to an artist is like beheading a girl for being beautiful. Ai Weiwei is an artist who is refused his working materials. Artists work even if they are imprisoned. Upon asking him about his possible imprisonment and his need to create art Picasso has famously said that he would paint the walls of the jail with his tongue. Ai has found his way; tongue or otherwise. But we need to learn a lot from him and stand by him.