Last week, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was denied a bulk order of Lego bricks for a new work for Melbourneâ€™s NGV, as â€œthe company refused to approve the use of Legos for political worksâ€.
As the planned work was to explore the subject of free expression, Legoâ€™s statement would be amusing if its political implications were not so grim.
Horrified Australians have been offering their personal supplies of plastic bricks to the artist via social media. So, in a public and visible defence of free speech and â€œpolitical artâ€, Ai is now creating a â€œnew workâ€, organising physical collection points for these donated bricks across different cities.
Ai actually used Lego last year to create portraits of 175 of people jailed or exiled for their political activism. The works represented figures from Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden, and was assembled on the site of San Franciscoâ€™s infamous Alcatraz prison.
Yet Aiâ€™s work does not address themes of political silencing as a merely intellectual consideration. The Lego boycott adds to his remarkable list of personal censorship experiences.
His father was a poet exiled to the Gobi desert during Chinaâ€™s cultural revolution – â€œrehabilitatedâ€ only after heâ€™d been forced into the labour of cleaning public lavatories. Political punishment was meted out to Aiâ€™s entire family. At one point they were made to live in a hole in the ground.
Ai learned how to make his own bricks in that pit – a skill which may yet come in handy – but was left with feelings towards Chinese authorities once described by this publication as â€œdeeply equivocalâ€.
As an adult artist, his reputation grew with a notoriety for criticising the Chinese government. Then the 2008 Sichuan earthquake struck. â€œJerry-builtâ€ government schools collapsed and killed thousands of students, many young children. As authorities sought to suppress the scale of the disaster, artworks made by Ai commemorated the lives lost to the disastrous results of government corruption and ineptitude.
Ai was the renowned designer of Beijingâ€™s â€œBirdâ€™s Nestâ€ stadium but his official punishment was severe. The government shut down his blog, he was beaten to the point of cerebral haemorrhage then his Shanghai studio was demolished for supposedly lacking a â€œplanning permitâ€. In 2011, he was imprisoned, spending 81 days incarcerated amidst world outrage while the Chinese government investigated him for â€œpornography, bigamy, tax avoidance and foreign currency irregularitiesâ€.
One suspects his failure to be investigated for bestiality was due only to a lack of imagination in his persecutors.
Once released, his passport was confiscated. It was only reinstated this July â€“ the artist relocated to Berlin to live with his partner and child. Ai was never convicted of a crime, yet this year he struggled to obtain a UK visa for failing to declare non-existent convictions. It took a public uproar there to see the UKâ€™s decision overturned.
Itâ€™s Aiâ€™s ability to inspire the anti-authoritarian instincts of citizens in democracies; it perhaps explains why the response of Lego to enquiries was so careful. They claimed to â€œkindly declineâ€ supply when â€œaware that there is a political contextâ€.
The statement, of course, a statement that depends on your definition of â€œpoliticalâ€. For example, Lego were happy to brand-partner with Dutch oil giant Shell, adorning their toys with Shell logos despite the companyâ€™s decades of well-known political activities in pursuit of controversial drilling operations in Africa and the Arctic.
Environmental campaigners Greenpeace – longtime Shell critics â€“ had to mobilise a million petition signatures and spectacular public protests before the toymakers felt obliged to drop the co-branding â€“ and this all occurred only last year.
These kind of questionable corporate relationships from Lego lend some credence to insinuations on Ai Weiweiâ€™s Instagram feed that perhaps their refusal of his project order was political in itself, made in order to protect their growing market in China.
And it should say much to Australians if itâ€™s even within the realm of possibility that China can render tremulous a global brand as powerful as Lego for selling childrenâ€™s toys to but a single one of its dissidents.
Lego has inadvertently made censorship of Ai a local story for Australians; Turnbullâ€™s Liberal government â€“ with Laborâ€™s support â€“ has just signed the Chafta free trade deal with the same Chinese government that has harassed, imprisoned and ruthlessly censored the internationally-regarded artist.
It has to be asked: just what political behaviour has the Australian government validated by signing Chafta?
Australians with lego bricks to spare should consider supplying Ai Weiwei, so in his work he may be precise and comprehensive with his own, expert answer to that question.