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Lego Lilies: Ai Weiwei’s Newest Work In London

March 27, 2023
Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei in a blue shirt against a beige background

Ai Weiwei (photo courtesy of Otto Woods)

The Design Museum, located less than ten minutes from Kensington Palace in London, has been an exhibition space for graphic arts, architecture, fashion, and much more since the late 1980s. But it’s receiving attention right now because of a new exhibition by one of the world’s most famous living artists. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese dissident artist who has lived and worked abroad for eight years. Keeping with the mission of the Design Museum, Ai used commercial products to create his latest work: about 650,000 of them in 22 different colors. Ai has created a 50-foot-wide painting made entirely of Legos based on Claude Monet’s Water Lilies paintings.

Between 1897 and 1926, Claude Monet created about 250 paintings of water lilies from the garden of his home in Giverny, about an hour west of Paris. Many hang in some of the world’s greatest art institutions, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, London’s National Gallery, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. Collectively, in the century since their creation, they’ve become some of the most emblematic symbols of Impressionist art, French art, and western art as a whole. Entitled Water Lilies #1, Ai primarily based his rendition on the enormous triptych Monet created between 1914 and 1926 that now hangs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Ai’s rendition brings the lilies into the next century by using a more modern, commercial product as the medium. Furthermore, the Legos resemble pixels, taken from a screen and made into physical, plastic form. Other than the medium and the color, the only major change made is a large dark patch that Ai included, which the museum calls a “dark portal”. It refers to Ai’s childhood in Xinjiang, where his father was internally exiled during the Cultural Revolution. As the museum puts it, “Their hellish desert home punctures the watery paradise.”

Ai has used Legos in the past, including creating portraits of political prisoners and human rights abuse victims. In 2015, Lego initially denied his request to ship their product to his studio in bulk, which they later reversed. When the initial denial made the news, supporters sent small amounts of their own Lego bricks to his studio. Collages and mosaics seem to be a running theme in his new exhibition, “Making Sense”. For example, one featured work is a sculpture created from the fragments of other sculptures that were destroyed when Chinese authorities demolished his Beijing studio in 2018. The exhibition opens on April 7th and will run until July 30th. Tickets are already sold out online.