Building a Case for Lego Art

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Natan Sawaya, IN PIECES Installation view at the Openhouse Gallery, photo © Dean West



Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian[i] on Nathan Sawaya’s recent touring exhibition The Art of the Brick[ii] says that ‘Sawaya’s Lego statues are interesting, but the people calling them art are missing the point. Lego doesn’t need to be art.’ It’s a valid position, but one that begs the response, is Jones missing the point? Jones confuses the argument as to who chooses what is culturally validated as art, with the argument as to what constitutes something as art. In one sense he is right, Lego creations don’t need to emulate the works found in galleries, but in another wrong, in that just because Lego doesn’t often look like so-called gallery art, or even if it does by way of a disguise (Jones’ position on Sawaya), this doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

His concluding remarks from the same article develops the point rhetorically, by asking every parent who views their child’s Lego creations, to ask, is this art? He argues this is patently ridiculous; this isn’t art, this is play; this is a toy. Because not every Lego creation is a work of art, does it follow that Lego is not an artistic medium? Jones implies that the galleries and hipsters appropriating this toy as art are missing all the fun. But is this true? There are a number of issues with Jones’ argument.

Let’s ask ourselves this: Is every child’s attempt to play Three Blind Mice on a recorder art? Is every school play performance an expression of dramatic form? Is every scribble pinned by a loving parent to the front of the fridge a masterpiece? Playing devil’s advocate, we could argue along with Jones, that just like a child’s Lego creation these too are not art, belonging to the era of play. However, the logic of the second part of Jones’ argument falters when applied to these more traditional artistic types. Because children explore music, theatre and painting in their play, it does not follow that they are excluded as mediums for artistic expression, at the highest level, later in life.

I would take a further step: childhood expression, born in the fervour of play, is still art. It may not conform to the complexity of work found in galleries, nor communicate as successfully to as broad an audience. Its context is limited to the world and life experience of the child, and their nascent skills, but it is still very much art. Talking autobiographically, as a student who studied fine art and who now works in a Drama Department in a university, on rediscovering Lego through my children, I also discovered how much of my artistic foundation began in the hours spent pushing these little pieces of plastic together.

Jones’ backhanded compliments to Sawaya come from the assumption that his Lego art is in the gallery simply because it looks like the type of work one would expect to find here. Sawaya’s pieces are resonant of Antony Gormley’s figurative pieces[iii], rather than being something unique, in the fact that they are made of Lego. Give up the pretension of being art, and be Lego, be awesome, Jones says. But, is this all there is to Sawaya’s work, a wondrous manipulation of bricks that seduces us with its playfulness. That and a sense that his figures might just look enough like art to have found a way into the gallery?

Antony Gormley, Construct, Firmament and Standing

Antony Gormley: Construct, Firmament and Standing

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Nathan Sawaya, Circle Triangle Square

Jones misses the point because he doesn’t ask the most pressing question; what is it explicitly about art that is made of Lego that makes it different from other artistic mediums? Instead he relies on all our shared experiences, normally our first experiences of Lego, as a toy, and suggests, that at best Lego in a gallery can reawaken the nostalgia we all feel for a distant childhood, for a time when we could play freely.

Before I go on to try to answer the question that Jones evades: what is unique to art works created from Lego bricks, I want to point out a few of the reasons why this question has not been seriously tackled. The major problem is that Lego was first conceived of as a toy. As a result it has no heritage as a valid artistic medium and no equivalent concept of the Academy.   And as a toy it has established its genres of expression in the games of childhood, dolls’ houses, model towns and vehicles, science fiction and recently massive media franchises with Hollywood films aimed at children. This has instituted a preconception, typically based on the Lego we were given as children and the things we made with it, as to what Lego can be. It is these shared cultural contexts that produces the association that Lego is hermetically linked to play and childhood.

This position has become further embedded with the development of the adult Lego hobby scene. Many of the most active participants in this community take the themes of childhood Lego sets and present them afresh at a technically sophisticated level. The builders of spaceships making creations more akin to science fiction illustrators or the model builders of Industrial Light and Magic[iv]. Those simple model towns now share more with the architectural models of professional town planners than nursery building blocks.

Whilst often stunning, this mix of highly developed building and a love of popular culture, holds Lego back from serious aesthetic consideration in academic circles. To add to the complexity of this issue, the Lego themes of yesteryear, Classic Space, Classic Castle, and so on, have attained their own status as popular culture[v]. When Lego’s own history becomes one inextricably linked with popular culture, it becomes ever more difficult to see it as a medium, which does not necessarily have to operate within the boundaries of the popular cultural forms it is sold as.

The view of the adult Lego community as a result has attained a status similar to that of a hyper-capitalist[vi], folk or outsider art. The participants although having creative skill and imagination are not trained as artists. Their expression is rather intuitive and culturally based.   If you take the archetypal adult fan of Lego as represented by Will Ferrell in The LEGO Movie[vii], there are many similarities one might draw between the business man who finds an outlet for his creative expression in his basement Lego town and the type of driven creative impulse shown in the outsider artist Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais ideal[viii] – a vast concrete and stone palace built by hand just outside his home town of Châteauneuf-de-Galaure. When commentators have tried to speak about Lego as a creative form, it has become first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, explained by a new exposition of folk art need, founded on the experience of childhood play and a shared artistic practice found in a simple child’s toy. The movement has gained momentum in an era where the traditional working class crafts of sign painting, needlework and folk song have ceased to find purchase.

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Will Ferrell in The LEGO Movie

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Ferdinand Cheval, Le Palais ideal

This idea of Lego as a shared cultural form, has been explored by the artist Olafur Eliasson in his The cubic structural evolution project (2004)[ix]. Eliasson is an artist who works in many forms, normally on large installation scale pieces, however, in this particular instance he chose to work with thousands of white Lego bricks. The installation is currently being displayed at the Auckland Art Gallery Toio Tãmaki, and asks visitors to build freely with the bricks, which are scattered across a 12-meter long table. The result is a shifting shared structural form that is broken down and constantly rebuilt during the time of its display. The artist’s choice of the singular colour provides uniformity to the build, which aims to express an accessible culturally artistic medium and allow the production of evolving collaborative forms to be realised.   The work has much to say about the innate creative potential we all have, and also the extent to which the simple concept of building with Lego has settled into our shared cultural identity.

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Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project

Whilst this fascinating work of art uses Lego as a cipher for cultural creative expression, it doesn’t help us further an understanding ofhow Lego as a medium differs from other sculptural forms. Returning to Sawaya, in many ways his works seem far more familiar and conservative than Eliasson’s project. Certainly his works cannot be explained through the ideas of shared cultural practice, although his audience might.

A third artist working with Lego provides some clues as to how this question could be approached. Jan Vormann in a project he has titled Dispatchworks[x] has over a number of years travelled the globe, using Lego bricks to repair parts of crumbling walls and buildings; and an invitation given to anyone who wants to, to join him in this work. The result is a strange juxtaposition between traditional bricks and mortar and the brightly coloured patchwork of Lego filler. What is interesting in this process is the relationship we find between the buildings and walls we normally read as singular objects and the ephemeral status of the Lego brick. Lego constructions innately imply their own construction from parts, but equally their ability to be dissembled and reassembled as something new. The certainty of man-made architectural forms as ‘things’ is challenged by the presence of the Lego brick, which reminds us of the temporality of these structures,as well as the redeployment of their constituent parts. By allowing people a chance to imbue their serious grey cityscapes with this colourful and playful practice of building with Lego, Vormann marries the sense of communal activity and fun associated with Lego, to a particular cognitive process associated with the brick, that allows them to see their world afresh.

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Jan Vormann, Dispatchworks

Here is an answer to the question what is unique to the work of art made of Lego? Lego always presents itself in two states: we see the basic elements thathave been composed to make it, and the complex form that still announces its origin in these basic elements. Lego constructions wear the elements of their composition on their sleeve in such a way that you cannot see the unified whole and recognise it as Lego, without simultaneously recognising that it is a construct of basic elements that can be redeployed in different ways. The wonder and joy we find in Lego art comes from the thought processes we go through in realising both of these conflicting states in the same object.

A Lego aesthetic can be taken right back to a classic problem of Seventeenth Century rationalist philosophy. Leibniz the German philosopher in a letter to his friend and fellow philosopher Arnauld on the 30 April 1687, debates the problem of substance, in terms of things which have a unified substance, and those which remain simply aggregates of other substances.[xi] A pile of stones is an aggregate of stones and can be dissembled back into its individual elements, whereas a person is a combined unity of things, which is understood as a whole, and cannot be dissembled into basic substances.

Taking Leibniz’s argument out of the context of the debate it was intended for, the universality of Descartes’ conception of substance, it provides a useful way of approaching how we think of the construct we call a work of art, and more specifically a work of art made of Lego.

Normally we are used to an artist disguising the elements that make up their works of art; as a result we read these creations as unified wholes. Only under analysis are the structural forms of for example language, musical notations or brush strokes revealed. For a work of Lego art, things are quite different. The aggregated form of the work is always announced and is in fact essential to the work being a work made of Lego. As a viewer of a work of Lego art one is always aware that it has been built from individual elements, and could in fact be returned to these basic parts.   In this process the viewer is constantly made aware of the power of their own imagination, that they can see in a work’s aggregated basic elements unified forms. Equally they are made aware of the artist’s own imagination in realising this composition. The strange paradox found in the wonder of imagination experienced when viewing a work of Lego is that it also always forces imagination to fail. Because the work always presents itself as an aggregate of elements, it wrong foots imagination, forcing it to simultaneously see the uncreated pile of plastic.   This foil keeps open the speculative possibility of our imagination to unify the elements into coherent wholes. This duplicity explains the unique nature of a Lego work of art, in the ability to persistently activate the power of creative imagination in all of us by constantly presenting its aggregated state.

Understanding this simple process helps us to make sense of the two most common responses people make when confronted by a Lego work of art. One I would define in terms of a work’s ability to dissimulate, the other in a work’s veracity.

It is incredibly common when viewing a hugely complex piece of Lego art, to exclaim, “I can’t believe that’s Lego.” These Lego artworks seek to dissimulate and hide their aggregated nature by hiding the individual components of their construction.   However despite the aim to dissimulate, they actually work as art when their aggregate composition is revealed. The discovery that the unified object is in fact a pile of bricks is the moment when we become aware of the power of imagination required to realise it, by both the artist and ourselves. The more successful the dissimulation is, the more powerful the realisation of wonder and the power of imagination experienced when the work gives up its disguise.

At the other end of the scale, a work of Lego art may represent something we are familiar with in another context, a building, a figure from popular culture or even everyday objects, but do so with veracity to the fact that it is Lego. We respond by saying look at this or that thing made in Lego with a sense of wonder implied. In these instances, not only is the power of imagination felt in our ability to comprehend the Lego creation as a unified whole, but also in the fact that it operates at a subtextual level to disclose the unannounced use of imagination we initiate to make sense of our everyday world.

Returning to Sawaya’s work having established the cognitive cartwheels artworks made of Lego puts us through, we can answer the question Jones was unable to.   Yes, Sawaya’s figures do create a sense of wonder and the feeling of play experienced when the imagination is activated, but they do more than this. By choosing the unity of the subject, and the idea of a person and the constituent problems of identity this involves, the process of imagination required to maintain the unified image of Sawaya’s figures against the aggregate composition, attains an existential significance that could only be achieved by being built in Lego bricks. The images of the subject, here, even in their coherent forms, expose the disunity of the self, and the significance of the play of creative imagination needed to create our conception of identity. Sawaya’s works have made their way into the gallery, not just because they present a spectacle of Lego building skill, but also because they marry the process of viewing Lego as art with a cognitive process that resonates with the questions he is asking regarding what it means to be a person.

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Nathan Sawaya, Mask, photo © Erica Ann

The future of Lego as a recognised art form begins from an understanding of how it operates as an art form, something, which requires a more serious analysis than the journalistic appraisal that files it under fun and cultural novelty. There are already a host of talented builders out there in the Lego community pushing at the barriers of both technical skill and content for Lego creations. Mike Doyle’s curatorial project Beautiful LEGO[xii] is already starting to pull together the very best of this talent and present it in a form that unabashedly calls itself art.

Doyle being interviewed on the Lego podcast Beyond the Brick[xiii] ahead of the release of the second volume of his Beautiful LEGO series gave perhaps the clearest insight as to how the very best builders are starting to consider the relationship between Lego as a medium and the content it can deliver. Doyle announced his current project, a political response to the practice of mountaintop removal, a devastating mining technique currently being implemented in the USA. By rendering this practice in Lego bricks, he will potentially force the viewer to imagine the mountain, as the miners do, as an aggregate of resources to be exploited. The battle in the imagination between the useful pieces and the unified image replicates the societal struggle we make between respecting and exploiting our environment. By aligning this particular debate with the medium of Lego, Doyle is proposing a work which makes us not only realise, but carry out an intellectual struggle in our viewing of the work, which practically demonstrates the problem of seeing the work as both a representation of nature and the standing reserve[xiv] of bricks it is formed of.

Artists like Doyle and Sawaya are rapidly changing the perception of Lego as an artistic medium and utilising specifically its unique features to explore issues which only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. If Sawaya’s recent gallery success and Doyle’s publications are currently seen as novelty projects, which expose the versatility of Lego, in the future they may well be remembered as the forerunners of a new artistic medium and a cultural rethinking of what constitutes serious art.

Endnotes   

[i] Jonathan Jones, ‘Bricking It: Is Lego Art?’, Guardian (2014) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/sep/23/is-lego-art-creative-play-sculpture-nathan-sawaya (accessed 29 December 2014)

[ii] Nathan Sawaya, The Art of the Brick, Old Truman Brewery Gallery, London, United Kingdom, September 26, 2014

[iii] See the homepage of Antony Gormley: http://www.antonygormley.com/

[iv] See the homepage of Industrial Light and Music: http://www.ilm.com/

[v] See for example the retrospective mythology created by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard in their Lego Space: Building the Future, No Starch Press, San Francisco, 2013

[vi] A folk art that is maintained because it is linked to an insatiable consumer habit – the Lego enthusiast can never have enough bricks.

[vii] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014)

[viii] Ferdinand Cheval, Le Palais ideal, Châteauneuf-de-Galaure, 1879-1924

[ix] Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project (2004)

[x] Jan Vormann, Dispatchworkshttp://www.janvormann.com/testbild/dispatchwork/ (accessed 29 December 2014)

[xi] G. W. Leibniz, ‘Correspondence with Arnauld 1686-1690) in Philosophical Texts, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p.123

[xii] Mike Doyle: Beautiful LEGO, No Starch Press, San Francisco, 2014

[xiii] Beyond the Brick: Episode 139https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcpNchpBu28&index=4&list=PLdoWYTc3JobHRJDRTIVVk2LHhMqH8XMub (Accessed 29 December 2014)

[xiv] Standing reserve is a term used by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his 1954 essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, and is used to differentiate between human instrumental use of nature and nature as being. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Writings, Harper, London, 1977

Thanks to matt and Tim for their input and support.

5 thoughts on “Building a Case for Lego Art

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