Lego says it was a 'mistake' blocking sales to a Chinese artist's Australian exhibition

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Photo by Alex B. Huckle/Getty Images.

The billionaire grandson and Danish toy company Lego’s founder says the company made a mistake when it refused to sell bricks to dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei for an exhibition in Melbourne last year.

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, Lego’s vice chairman, and the world’s 65th richest man, told The Wall Street Journal that the decision was made by someone “very low in the organisation” in the consumer service department.

“It was an internal mistake,” he said.

But the mistake made the world’s biggest two brand notorious after it refused to sell the artist bricks for his National Gallery of Victoria, for his Andy Warhol/Ai Weiwei exhibition.

Ai, who’s previously earned the ire of the Chinese government for his activist works, accused the company of “censorship and discrimination” and mocked Lego with an Instagram post to his more than 220,000 followers that showed the Lego in a toilet with a Marcel Duchamp reference.

"We're here to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow" (twitter.com/LEGO_Group) In June 2015 Ai Weiwei Studio began to design artworks which would have required a large quantity of Lego bricks to produce. The works were planned for the exhibition "Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, to open in December 2015. The artworks' concept relates to freedom of speech. The museum's curatorial team contacted Lego to place a bulk order and received Lego's reply via email on 12 September 2015: "We regret to inform you that it is against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the LEGO licensing program. However, we realize that artists may have an interest in using LEGO elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art. In this connection, the LEGO Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The LEGO trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the art work. The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the LEGO trademark. We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material. The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the LEGO Group has not sponsored or endorsed tAi Weiweihe art work/project. Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order." Studio was informed by NGV about Lego's rejection of the bulk order. As a commercial entity, Lego produces and sells toys, movies and amusement parks attracting children across the globe. As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values. Lego's refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination.

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

The issue became a global cause celebre, with the hashtag #legoforaiweiwei trending worldwide and Lego donations pouring in for the artist via drop-off centres in major cities including London, Melbourne, New York and even Beijing in a spontaneous response the artist said was “overwhelming”.

LEGO June 2015​ Ai Weiwei Studio began to design artworks which would have required a large quantity of Lego bricks to produce. The works were planned for the exhibition "Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei" at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne,​ Australia, to open in December 2015. The artworks' concept relates to freedom of speech. The museum's curatorial team contacted Lego to place a bulk order. 12. Sept. 2015 The museum received Lego's reply via email: "We regret to inform you that it is ​against our corporate policy to indicate our approval of any unaffiliated activities outside the Lego licensing program. However, we realize that artists ​may have an interest in using Lego elements, or casts hereof, as an integrated part of their piece of art. In this connection, the Lego Group would like to draw your attention to the following: The Lego trademark cannot be used commercially in any way to promote, or name, the art work. The title of the artwork cannot incorporate the Lego trademark. We cannot accept that the motive(s) are taken directly from our sales material/copyrighted photo material. The motive(s) cannot contain any political, religious, racist, obscene or defaming statements. It must be clear to the public that the Lego Group has not sponsored or endorsed the artwork/project. Therefore I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order." 23. Sept. 2015 Ai Weiwei Studio was informed by NGV about Lego's rejection of the bulk order. 21. Oct. 2015 The British company “Merlin” announced that it will open a new Legoland in Shanghai. 23. Oct. 2015 The information that Lego refused Ai Weiwei Studio's request for a bulk order of bricks to create an artwork is made public on Ai Weiwei’s instagram: “In September Lego refused Ai Weiwei Studio's request for a bulk order of Legos to create artwork to be shown at the National Gallery of Victoria as ‘they cannot approve the use of Legos for political works.’ On Oct 21, a British firm formally announced that it will open a new Legoland in Shanghai as one of the many deals of the U.K.-China ‘Golden Era.’ “ (1)

A photo posted by Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on

Ai subsequently posted a series of Lego-like portraits of political activists and prisoners on Instagram, including the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ai responded to news that the company admitted it had made a mistake saying it had taken a long time.

Lego changed its policy at the start of 2016 and no longer asks what a bulk sale will be used for.

The Wall Street Journal has more here.

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