The Seattle Asian Art Museum is one of two in the country first chosen to collect Lego bricks for Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s art project, after the Danish company refused to sell him the plastic pieces for “political works.”
To the joggers and dog walkers and the kids scrambling onto the camel statues that flank the front door, the gray BMW parked in front of the Seattle Asian Art Museum may look like someone had themselves a very confused New Year’s.
But look inside. Over the past few weeks, the car has been filling up with Legos of every color and size. Shards of spaceships, skyscrapers and Star Wars podracers. Mindstorms and minions and Harry Potter castles.
They are meant to be toys, but in the hands of Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, they are the medium he needs for a project planned for the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The donation drive started because the Danish toy company refused to sell the plastic bricks to Ai, saying it “cannot approve the use of Lego for political works.”
The artist posted about the refusal on Instagram in October, calling it “an act of censorship and discrimination,” and suggested that it was related to the opening of a Legoland planned for Shanghai in 2017.
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He also changed the initial focus of the work from a Lego-rendered re-creation of his famed triptych Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn to “a new work to defend freedom of speech and ‘political art.’”
While fans rallied on social media to donate their Legos to Ai, his representatives initially reached out to only two American museums to serve as collection points: The Brooklyn Museum and the Seattle Asian Art Museum. (Other museums have since joined up, including The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Perez Art Museum in Miami.)
Seems a no-brainer that when you’re fighting for freedom of speech and expression, you call upon the same Pacific Northwest army that legalized same-sex marriage and marijuana sales on the same day. This is also where Bernie Sanders allowed two Black Lives Matter activists to take over the stage at his own rally, and where protest marches are a semiregular part of the evening commute.
Free speech is part of the fabric of the place.
“I think we are an open-minded culture and Seattle has cultivated that,” said Wendy Saffel, a member of the museum’s marketing team. “That’s who Seattleites are.”
But we are also a place that is enjoying a new, elevated status in the eyes of the international art world.
There were clear signs at the inaugural Seattle Art Fair held at CenturyLink Field Event Center this past summer.
Jeffrey Deitch, the former director of The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles told Times writer Tricia Romano at the time that Seattle was “a natural place for an art fair,” because of its plentiful public art, big-name private collectors such as Paul Allen and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and small but well-curated museums.
“We are so hungry for that and ready for that,” Saffel said of the higher profile. “All the art organizations are doing very well.”
The Seattle Asian Art Museum already has an Ai Weiwei vase in its gallery, so when the Lego controversy hit, there was an existing relationship.
“They know us and we know his work,” Saffel said.
The artist wanted to “standardize the collection experience,” she said, so each museum is collecting Legos in a BMW. The artist’s team bought a 540i from a dealership on Lake City Way, museum staff installed it out front and cracked the sunroof. (It will only be open during museum hours.)
Lisa Loop walked by with her husband, Andrew Chapman and their daughters, Augusta, 20, and Nora, 14.
Loop is a huge fan of Ai’s work, and spoke of it with dreamy admiration: The Unilever Series, made up of 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds individually painted by workers and spread across the floor of the Tate Modern in 2010. The Han dynasty urn. And “Bang,” made up of 886 peasant stools hung in different configurations at the 2013 Venice Art Biennale.
“His work is always about the end of the authentic peasant experience and the rise of mass production in China,” Loop said.
“He’s a badass,” Chapman added. “And the car … Western engineering …”
So much meaning, so much said with a used car and a pile of secondhand Legos.
That Seattle art lovers have embraced it shows we’re not kids anymore.