Art fans can already build Lego sets of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe screen prints, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Hokusai’s The Great Wave. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei recently took that combination of notable artworks and the popular Danish toy to another level, with a 50-foot-long iteration of one of Claude Monet’s most famous images.
For Water Lilies #1, Ai used 650,000 Lego bricks in 22 colors in his version of the famous Impressionist triptych Water Lilies (1914-26). The latter is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Water Lilies #1 will be available for public for viewing for the first time in London at the Design Museum’s exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, which opens on April 7.
According to a press statement from the museum, Water Lilies #1 is the largest artwork made of Lego by Ai, spanning the entire length of one of the institution’s gallery walls. Ai’s choice of pixel-like Lego bricks, industrial parts and colors instead of Monet’s brushstrokes, “suggest contemporary digital technologies which are central to modern life, and in reference to how art is often disseminated in the contemporary world.”
“There’s so many layers of meaning in this work,” assistant curator Rachel Hajek told ARTnews.
Water Lilies (1914-26) portrays a lily pond in the garden of Monet’s home in Giverny, near Paris. While the image is famous for its depiction of beauty in nature, Hajek pointed out that the scene is a construct: the pond and Monet’s gardens were designed and created by the artist through the partial diversion of a nearby river.
Water Lilies #1 also includes a dark area on the right-hand side. The Design Museum said it represents the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where Ai and his father, Ai Qing, lived in forced exile in the 1960s. “Their hellish desert home punctures the watery paradise,” the museum said in a statement.
In addition to Water Lilies #1, the exhibition will include the international debut of Ai’s Untitled (Lego Incident), comprised of thousand of Lego blocks that were donated to Ai by members of the public. The donations were collected after the toy company refused a bulk order for bricks Ai planned to use in a new artwork about political dissidents as part of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia in 2015. Lego said it never directly sold to anyone wanting to use its product to make a political statement, reported the BBC.
As part of Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, dozens of objects and artworks from throughout the artist’s career focused on construction and deconstruction will be displayed. These include several examples of Ai’s transformation of useful items into useless but valuable ‘ordinary’ objects, such as a worker’s hard hat cast in glass, and a sculpture of an iPhone cut out of a jade axe-head.
Four other “fields” of collected, “ready-made” items will also be presented at the Design Museum on April 7: Still Life consists of 1,600 tools from the late Stone Age, including axe-heads, chisels, knives and spinning wheels; and Left Right Studio Material consists of thousands of fragments of porcelain sculptures from Ai’s ‘Left Right’ studio in Beijing. The studio was demolished by the Chinese state in 2018. Spouts consists of approximately 200,000 discarded porcelain spouts from the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) as a representation of the scale of Chinese porcelain production during that time period. Untitled (Porcelain Balls) are approximately 100,000 canon balls also made of high-quality porcelain during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 CE) and was created especially for the Design Museum’s exhibition. Finally, Left Right Studio Material will be on display for the first time.
Ai has used Lego bricks in his artistic practice since 2014 to produce portraits of political prisoners. In 2017, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery exhibited 176 of these Lego artworks.
“I like it’s basic quality,” he told the Washington Post. “Anyone can play with it.”