Art Basel has become the annual mecca for the year’s oddball artistic offering. From Maurizio Cattelan’s Comedian to MSCHF’s ATM Leaderboard, it is a home for statements in surprising formats. While there has seemingly been a lack of a true headline-maker with intrigue buzzing for it, there’s still a spirit of playfulness to be found in the likes of Ai Weiwei’s Lego masterpieces.
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist, human rights activist and dissident with a history of speaking out against the regime in his country. This thread in his life traces back to his father, poet Ai Qing, who was exiled to Shihezi in 1961 and forced into physical labour due to his “rightist” values, resulting in a hard life for his family. Ai was arrested in 2011 on several counts of “economic crimes” and detained for months without an official charge. He came out of the experience all the more vocal in his works as a documentarian, architect, and modern artist, his practice encompassing film, photography, and sculpture and his works often depicting a dichotomy of his home country through repurposed Chinese historical objects in modern socio-political contexts.
Now, a massive recreation of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus adorns the walls of Art Basel, built brick by brick. It is joined by a recreation of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Ai Weiwei’s Lego works are an interesting offering in the artist’s history, whose pieces often have a stark essence and muted palette to them. Yet these works, striking in the same compositional manner that their originals are, are given a jolt of playful essence just by the awareness of their core material.
But it isn’t for the sake of entertainment that he is using the classic children’s toy for these projects. Having first started working with Lego in 2014, he sought to meld the grand air of these historically significant works and the consumerist modernism inherent to the iconic toy bricks. What’s more, these are not true replications, as Ai has put his own statements in each—a clothes hanger next to Venus, indicative of abortion rights, and Beijing’s National Stadium in the distance from Washington, speaking to his experience designing the building only to have it spur on intense security operations, as well as the Chinese/America relations.
Certainly not evoking the same essence of mischievous play that we’ve seen the last few years at Art Basel, Ai Weiwei’s Lego recreations are perhaps indicative of a positive trajectory. Utilization of novel techniques in an attempt to speak to pertinent current issues, and not easily overshadowed by their form. With the vice grip of NFT culture finally loosening and a desire for substance in dire times, Ai’s work may be just what this year’s event needed.