Artist Ai Weiwei unveils much-awaited Lego Project in Melbourne

The centrepiece of new Warhol-Weiwei show features quotes and portraits of Australians including Rosie Batty, Peter Greste, Gary Foley and Julian Assange

SYDNEY (Australia) – For the first time, new works by Ai Weiwei have been paired with those of Andy Warhol, at the ­National Gallery of Victoria. Ai, on his fourth visit here, originally pursued art as “a place I could hide, because I had grown up in a strongly politically motivated society.”.

Ai Weiwei has finally unveiled his hotly anticipated Letgo Room (2015), made with Lego blocks donated from all over the world, and it turns out the piece celebrates Australian political activists, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

The installation is part of the exhibition “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei,” which opens today at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, to which, according to the Guardian, he has donated the new work.

Built from Lego – or rather knock-off building blocks produced in China after the Danish toy company denied Ai the right to use their brand in his work – Lego Room (2015) is emblazoned with diverse quotes about freedom, human rights and censorship, and colourful, Warhol-style portraits of the people behind them.

These include the domestic violence spokesperson Rosie Batty, the formerly jailed al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste, the Aboriginal rights activist Gary Foley and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who Ai recently met at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Ai Weiwei takes a selfie in the Lego installation at the National Gallery of Victoria. Photo: Tom McKendrick
Ai Weiwei takes a selfie in the Lego installation at the National Gallery of Victoria. Photo: Tom McKendrick

He has seen few of his finished works exhibited since communist authorities imprisoned him for 81 days in 2011 and later restricted his movements.

For more than 600 days, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei put a bunch of flowers in the basket of the bicycle outside his Beijing studio every day in protest at the removal of his passport.

Now that he has his passport back, and can finally travel overseas, the bike and a backdrop of wallpaper featuring many of those posies has pride of place at the National Gallery of Victoria.

“I’ve been putting flowers (on) my bicycle for 600 days but they had my passport for more than four years,” says Ai, whose passport was returned several months ago, enabling him to also visit London to open his triumphant Royal Academy exhibition

In October, news broke that Lego had refused to supply a bulk order to Ai, citing political reasons. Ai took to social media, firstly proclaiming his disgust at the stance of the Danish company, then calling for donations of second hand Lego blocks so he could complete the work. Collection points were set up around the globe, from Beijing to London to Melbourne, and donations from his global network of supporters poured in.

Ai’s insistence on creating a particularly Australian work for the survey caused an international incident before he arrived: the NGV’s order of Lego blocks for a series of portraits of human rights activists was refused by the company, which caused global headlines after the artist voiced his disappointment to his enormous army of social media followers.

“It’s very interesting, even we think, this is most safe project, you just promote some people who fight for human values, but still for Lego company to say this is over political … “

There was one Australian whom Ai was adamant on including in his series of portraits: “The one I insist on putting [in] is Julian Assange … He comes from this society, he’s Australian and he represents an individual who is asking for openness and transparency.


Ai has had an eventful year, during which he finally recovered his passport from the Chinese authorities after four years (although his Beijing studio is still under surveillance). After receiving his passport back, he travelled to London to launch his successful solo exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts and then to Germany, where he has taken up a teaching post.

The unveiling of Letgo Room comes after much speculation, with Ai taking to Instagram to drop hints about his project, posting lego-esque images of dissidents and activists.

“Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei” is on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne from December 11, 2015 -April 26, 2016.

Check  Artnet News on Facebook for more information.

Recommended For You

About the Author: Akhtar Jamal

Tribune International