The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei leveraged his international fame in convincing the Lego toy company to abandon its policy of voiding big bulk orders of its bricks that it determines are going to be used to express political views or make a politically charged statement.
The company announced on Tuesday that it would no longer ask about the "thematic purpose" of a project when it receives large orders of Legos.
"Previously, when asked to sell very large quantities of LEGO® bricks for projects, the LEGO Group has asked about the thematic purpose of the project," the company said in a statement. "This has been done, as the purpose of the LEGO Group is to inspire children through creative play, not to actively support or endorse specific agendas of individuals or organizations."
The Danish company said it has changed its policy because of its potential to result "in misunderstandings or be perceived as inconsistent." Instead, when fulfilling such orders, "the customers will be asked to make it clear — if they intend to display their LEGO creations in public — that the LEGO Group does not support or endorse the specific projects."
The decision comes nearly three months after Ai accused the company of corporate censorship and suggested it refused to fulfill his order in order to avoid jeopardizing its business dealings with China. The artist is widely known for frequently criticizing the Chinese government and speaking out for human rights. In 2011, Ai was detained and imprisoned for 81 days, ostensibly for tax evasion — though most observers regarded the episode as retaliation for his activism. He has been kept under constant surveillance by the state.
The Lego dustup began when Ai posted to his social media accounts in October saying that he had created a concept for an artwork for an upcoming exhibit to be held in Australia titled "Andy Warhold/Ai Weiwei," for which he would need Lego bricks to create portraits of human rights defenders. The National Gallery of Victoria tried to arrange a bulk order of bricks for the artist but was turned down, Ai said. Lego informed the museum that it would not fulfill orders for politically themed projects.
Ai used his ample social media presence to criticize Lego's decision.
"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,' " the artist said on his Instagram account. "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 UK-China 'Golden Era.' "
"Lego's refusal to sell its product to the artist is an act of censorship and discrimination," he wrote in another post.
His supporters began increasingly criticizing Lego's policy online and offering to donate Lego bricks to Ai — an effort that soon went viral. Donation centers in 11 cities from Beijing to Berlin to Miami were created to accept bricks from supporters. Ai posted photos of himself with the donated bricks, including one with bricks stuck in his hair and beard. The artist has previously used Legos in artistic exhibits, including one in 2014 at Alcatraz prison in California.
Lego, meanwhile, stuck to its policy, which it had previously enforced. Lego recently rejected a proposal to build figurines with its bricks that were modeled after the female US Supreme Court justices, and also told a Polish artist to withdraw a piece about Nazi concentration camps that used Legos.
A spokesman for the company told the New York Times in response to the Ai criticism in October that, "as a company dedicated to delivering great creative play experiences to children, we refrain — on a global level — from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda."
The company did not address Ai's claims that its decision was motivated by business concerns in China, though many social media supporters of the artists echoed the sentiment. Major global companies in recent years have bowed to pressure from the Chinese government over business practices, including Apple changing its customer service following intense criticism in the press there and Google agreeing to censor search results on topics forbidden by the Chinese government.
Legoland parks are not owned entirely by the Danish company; they are majority-owned by a theme park company, Merlin Entertainment, based in England, which is owned by the US-based financial firm Blackstone Group.
Neither Ai nor Lego responded to requests for comment.
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