LEGO fables – telling stories with bricks

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LEGO Fabuland

Two children found a termite nest on their father’s farm.  The oldest child became fascinated by the structures the termites created, and spent many hours playing, replicating them in drawings and models.  The younger child played a different game, visiting the termite nest daily, leaving cake crumbs and leaves for the small creatures to use.  As an adult, the oldest child designed aqueducts that brought clean water to her city, and was rewarded by the king for this important work.  The youngest child became a philanthropist establishing almshouses for the very poorest people, and was similarly rewarded. The moral: there are many ways to play, and each may lead to its own good.

This little attempt at a fable could be taken as an allegory for the way we think about the types of play LEGO bricks afford.  Unconsciously we attribute to LEGO certain types of play, which culturally have been considered consonant with the practical problem solving games of engineering[i].   And whilst there is no doubt that it provides a fantastic springboard for this way of thinking, there are indeed other ways of playing with bricks some of which require an active participation with the worlds they create.

One of the outcomes of this intentional interaction is that worlds built from LEGO bricks create a stage for a type of play that performatively encourages storytelling.  For an art form that predominately deals with static 3D models, the fact that it has become so conducive to narrative exposition is something that requires deeper investigation.

Rewind some thirty-nine years to the late 1970s and the advent of the now iconic mini-figure.   This inspirational design profoundly changed the company’s thinking.  By introducing characters to the range of elements sold as kits it altered the way in which LEGO bricks would and could be played with.  Crucially adding faces and articulation to the figures, allowed them to be more than the place-holders for characterisation that the earlier faceless figures had been.

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LEGO mini-figures on the cover of the 1978 catalogue

Of course figurative elements had existed long before the creation of the mini-figure.  There are brick built figures aplenty, like those found in the Moon Lander and the Maxi Figures found in the Homemaker sets.  However all of these cases still needed to be built and remained more of an adjunct to the model building process.  Whilst the maxi figures featured elephant trunk like articulation, their clothes and bodies were still built from bricks; actually playing with them proved more problematic than one would expect (the three-year old me could attest to this).

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LEGO Maxi-Figures

The mini-figure on the other hand in no way attempts to be a figure built from LEGO bricks.  They are discrete entities, designed as a stand-alone system.  Yes, they do adhere to the broad logic of interchangeability, with their studded heads and hats and variety of trousers, but ultimately there is really only one – although that rule is often broken – way to build a mini-figure.

The characters’ success came from the ability of this new system to interact with the standard brick.  The anti-studded bottoms and feet of the mini-figure meant that its narrative and character driven system of play could intersect seamlessly with the building and model making potential of the traditional range of elements.  And in reverse, the clip logic of  the mini-figure hand introduced new connective elements to the standard range of pieces.

Sets that now contained a range of mini-figures altered the established idea of LEGO as a model kit.  Whilst models were still built, they were now constructed for the reason of providing a world in which the mini-figures’ stories could be told.  And a new realm of play between building and story telling was born.

Intuitively children grasped the concept that you could tell stories with LEGO bricks. The question ‘why build?’ had attained a new dimension and arguably a new audience.   The LEGO company also understood the value of  this new approach, and explored it in the Idea Book published in 1980.  More than just a collection of inspiring models to build, the book told the story of two archetypal mini-figures, and their journey across the then current LEGO themes.  From town to castle by way of outer space these two heroes offered a reason to build.   The replication of the real sacrificed in favour of a fantastical world of adventure.

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LEGO Ideas Book 1980

But the mini-figure was just the first step into these new realms of play that aligned with narrative thinking.  Following quickly on the heels of the mini-figure LEGO developed the Fabuland range of sets.  Taking the aspects of characterisation that the mini-figure had opened, these sets saw the creation of an anthropomorphic group of friends.  The mainly alliteratively named Charlie Cat, Robby Rabbit, Ernie Elephant and others, living together within the eponymous Fabuland, put story telling play, and the play of the fable, at the centre of the LEGO experience.

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Fabuland

The range has garnered both advocates[ii] and critical response over the years.  On the negative side, it is seen as reducing the LEGO building experience, in its employment of large pre-fabricated pieces, such as windows and scooters, which required no building.  It represented for these critics a ‘dumbing-down’ or ‘juniorisation’[iii] of the LEGO building experience.   Of course the sets were designed for the younger range of  the company’s audience, and the simplicity of the building experience offered, stood in contrast to the tastes and needs of the advanced builders who made up the vast majority of the critics  At the other end of the spectrum, the charming design ethos of the characters combined with the development of many new and ironically multi-use elements made the series a fascinating addition to the LEGO catalogue.

It could be argued that the critics had missed the point; that a deliberate choice had been made by the LEGO Group with regard to Fabuland’s range of elements.  These constituted a new system of play, in much the same way that the mini-figure had.  The notion that the sets were created to facilitate model making was replaced by the need to foster story telling.  Quickly utilisable objects and units such as windows and doors provided the best way of generating narrative play.

As with the mini-figure, the success of the venture stemmed from the retention of universal connectivity, which allowed Fabuland to adapt to both standard LEGO bricks and DUPLO bricks.  In this sense its system of play remained essentially open to the more recognisable LEGO building experiences, at both the younger and more advanced ends of the company’s demographic.

This freedom has seen a small but continuing engagement with the theme from the adult building community.  Many took the naïve forms, and accentuated their architectural tropes to create a unique and knowingly twee alternative reality.  Those skills that had been developed by the architectural and castle builders found new fertile territory in these works.  The advancement in techniques undermining the  perception that the simplicity of building must essentially tie the range to a younger audience.  Builders like Tikitikitembo[iv] prove the point when they take the fable element to its literal conclusion, using Fabuland combined with more advanced building techniques to recreate traditional children’s tales like The Three Little Pigs.  The anthropomorphic figures continuing a long tradition that uses the characteristics of the animal to explore our human foibles.

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Three Little Pigs by Tikitikitembo 

So whilst the extension of the Fabuland theme by the enthusiasts explored the aesthetic terrain of the theme, by proxy they also continued to develop its affinity for story telling.  And not just any story telling, the animals that LEGO created being direct descendents of Aesop’s own creations.   The result a fusing  of the problem solving and creative building experiences with the narrative devices of the fable

This return to the fable is something of a theme in children’s literary of the late 70s.  Fabuland mirrored the terrain writers like Roger Hargreaves and his Mr Men books, and the lesser-known anthropomorphic Timbuctoo[v] series, had taken in embracing the fable and its ability to tell allegorical tales.

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Roger Hargreaves lesser known Timbuctoo series

Following the transition made by Hargreaves to Television, so Fabuland became LEGO’s first interdisciplinary foray.  Edward and Friends[vi] the Fabuland show, produced by Film Fair, the same company responsible for cult classics like The Wombles and the 1970s Paddington television series, shared the Mr Mens’ sense of storytelling.  Each of the animal characters explored moral problems through simple narrative dilemmas.   Fabuland in its translation from building toy, to more traditional narrative forms such as television and even a range of associated books, revealed just how versatile an aesthetic LEGO was for telling stories.

This resurgence of fable like stories in children’s literature and television can be tied to a larger trend in literary theory.  In 1967 the literary theorist Robert Scholes had written his seminal text The Fabulators[vii], which was followed in 1979 by a second volume on the theme entitled Fabulation and Metafiction[viii].  Scholes’ considers a range of novelists, such as Borges, Durrell, Pynchon and Barth, as actively choosing to create worlds that whilst referencing the real operated as alternative fabulatory constructs.  This shift away from a concrete notion of the real, allowing a fresh way of dealing with ethical and social problems aside from the realist literary movements.  He writes, “modern fabulation, like the ancient fabling of Aesop, tends away from direct representation of the surface of reality but returns toward actual human life by way of ethically controlled fantasy”[ix].  The fabulator’s narrative does not seek to show the conflicts between the individual and society, rather the struggle between a world and the ideas, dogmas and conditions that allow it to exist.

The genre of science fiction – another theme the LEGO Group and popular culture were embracing in the late 70’s – benefited from this theory.  It also reflected a changing public taste, where the modern myth would be played out in the alternative realities of other futures, galaxies far, far away and romatacised pasts.  In these self-contained mini-verses big ideas regarding what it means to be human and their ethical grounds could be explored as concepts.

The LEGO Group’s embracing of play that revolved around the creation of fabulous other worlds replicated this cultural movement.  Children were being encouraged to explore their world through the imaginative creation of their own fantastical constructions and characters.  And in turn were being asked to think ethically about what constitutes a world, and what those parameters mean for its inhabitants.

So far my exploration of the LEGO Group’s development of the narrative potential in their sets has spoken of the theme purely in the context of children’s play. That narratives are discovered in bricks through the children’s act of playing and telling stories.  And whilst this may be a place where many of the adult building community first started to explore narrative devices, the variety and complexity of their work now challenges the idea that play is a purely childish aspect of the LEGO art form; something that serious builders and artists outgrow.

To understand the importance of the role of play in a LEGO creation’s ability to tell stories it helps to think how it differs from traditional art forms.  In one sense you might think that LEGO artworks function as illustrative counterparts to narrative pieces.  The number of LEGO builds that realise a scene from a film or book would seem to support this.  The 2013 VirtuaLUG[x] collaboration, which saw the collective recreate in diorama form the story of The Wizard of Oz being a case in point[xi].   Does this piece only work if you know the story of The Wizard of Oz as a film or novel?  The answer is emphatically no.  Although an illustration, if one did not know the famous story, through its set-up it provides the components to allow one to link scenes together, to create a story – it just might not be the story that inspired its build.

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VirtuaLUG The Wizard of Oz

This is the crux of the matter.  To tell the story present in the LEGO artwork, the audience has to play with the aspects of the build.  Inventing and playing with features of the creation, making creative and imaginative connections – telling new stories of their own.  Like the child who tells stories with the Fabuland world they have made, the audience who view a LEGO artwork, has to use those same skills, effectively remembering how to play and engage with an alternative world.  Play is the active component in this dialectic between static 3D creation and the temporal story.  Play makes every spectator of the narrative LEGO artwork an author too.

To anyone who has spent time studying painting this revelation tells them nothing new.  For example the allegorical painting of the Middle Ages require the active participation of the viewer to disclose both narrative and meaning.  However, narratives in LEGO further increase its audience’s intentional interaction beyond the two-dimensional image.  A LEGO creation that tells a story is never finished; the interlocking pieces and the placement of the characters, always remain open to reconfiguration, rebuilding as is the want with LEGO elements’ intrinsic malleability.

Taking the premise Mark Currie puts forward in his book on narrative time, simply titled About Time[xii], there is a conflict in the structure of a written narrative, and I would argue a similar issue in the narratives produced in film.  That the moment of reading, where we find ourselves part way through a story, not knowing what awaits its characters in the future, is an illusion of a future possibility; it is already structured as part of a finished whole – the story is already written.  Even the author who writes, and begins with open possibilities, must eventually relinquish this privileged position and commit their story to the block time order of a narrative.  However, should we concede that the audience of a LEGO art work which presents narrative possibilities, is not a reader, but already a potential builder, and re-builder of the work, how does this change the narrative scenario to that found when reading a novel?

The stories that LEGO artworks offer do so not through the traditional conditions of recording a sequence of events and happenings, nor through the active interpretation of events that have been established.  They begin by asking its audience to play with them.  To take on an intentional role, to tell stories with the figures and pieces present.  When we look at a LEGO artwork, which implies narrative, we begin by seeing all the physical connections that can be made, where figure may stand, where houses, castles and buildings may be restructured, and we begin to play and imagine what might be.

In the more traditional illustrative pieces of LEGO art, this capacity to play remains purely cognitive.  We become virtual builders.  The skill of the LEGO artist in these cases is to create a world that induces imaginative play and shows paths and associations of bricks and characters that an audience finds inspiring to think about.  As soon you find yourself saying “where are those knights going”, or “what cargo is being loaded onto that spaceship”, and start to answer your own question, then you are initiating a playful activation of the nascent story unspoken in every creation.

This focus on generating narrative has become a core part of the LEGO experience, no more so than in the official LEGO video games.  It might seem surprising that the actual act of building is so minimally represented in these games, that is until you understand them as forays into the art of play driven storytelling.  The analogue between LEGO building and the video game comes from the requirement that worlds are built so as to be explored and played within.

The LEGO video game presents these worlds made and ready to explore.  However, as is the constant struggle in video games, the dilemma between narrative exposition and compliance to the requirements of the game limits the range of stories that can be told.  So whilst the LEGO video games returns a tangible intentional quality to story telling, it does so at a cost, through the adherence of the narrative to the game’s rules; to competition and problem solving.

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LEGO City Undercover video game

Perhaps the video game can find some answer to its genre specific conflict in LEGO’s narrative potential.  The assumption regarding the generation of a narrative from an artist’s LEGO creation, is that these works are created, finished and only virtually engaged with.  If the LEGO builds of adults however reclaim the open play of childhood, where would this lead the narrative potential of the medium?  What would happen if an audience wasn’t only asked to look at a build, but participate, play, change and move components around?

This would extend the argument that Scholes’ has made with regard to fabulation.  The other worlds built from LEGO bricks, unlike their literary counterparts, don’t simply present the ideals and concepts in separation ready for investigation, they offer the possibility of changing altering and setting up new ideas and intentions beyond those that the original builder perceived.  Playing with a world, with the fluidity of an ancient god, puts not only the mini-figure back into the playful hand of the adult, but also the ethical responsibility for the stories they tell with them.  And here we end back at the fable that started this invesigation, with child who played with the termites as a benevolent deity, and subsequently learned the value of caring for their world.

Endnotes

[i] See Sir Harry Kroto’s infamous comments as recorded in The Telegraph article ‘Why Britain needs more Meccano and less LEGO’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1333215/Why-Britain-needs-more-Meccano-and-less-Lego.html (accessed 30 May 2015).

[ii] See the Fabuland Builders Guild webpage, http://www.eurobricks.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=17396 (accessed 30 May 2015).

[iii]  According to Brickwiki, “Juniorization is a term used by Adult Fans of LEGO to both describe and criticize the inclusion of a few highly specialized elements in sets instead of already existing elements that could be assembled into the same configuration.”

http://www.brickwiki.info/wiki/Juniorization (accessed 30 May 2015).

[iv] See Tikitikitembo’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/64693712@N05/.

[v] Reference to add.

[vi] Links to the Edward and Friends episodes can be found here, http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Edward_and_Friends.

[vii] Robert, Scholes, The Fabulators, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1969)

[viii] Robert, Scholes, Fabulation and MetafictionUniversity of Illinois Press, Chicago/London (1979)

[ix] Ibid, p.3

[x] See the Virtualug homepage, http://www.virtualug.org/.

[xi] See the Brothers Brick review of the collaboration, http://www.brothers-brick.com/2013/07/09/virtualugs-wizard-of-oz-diorama-will-knock-off-your-ruby-slippers/.

[xii] Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh (2010)

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Classical Coupling: Matt & Linda Rowntree

Matt and Linda Rowntree are a couple that share a passion for LEGO.  For the past four years they have helped run online building competitions, contributed to large-scale collaborative builds at a host of conventions across America, as well as making a series of amazing film and popular culture themed creations.  Whilst Matt has often taken the lead in this activity Linda has been involved at every step of the process.  I asked the husband and wife team to work on a special build, an illustration of a Classical Greek myth, where their creative talents could fully work together for the first time.  This is what happened.

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Icarus by Matt and Linda Rowntree

David Alexander Smith: Both of you have been involved in the LEGO community for some years; how would you describe your different interests and how did each of you get hooked?

Linda Rowntree:  I was never interested in Lego growing up.  I became hooked the day I realised that I needed Matt to build (if he does not have a creative outlet, he is not a happy boy.)  It was hard to get him to build without me joining in; I think he felt guilty being by himself building.  I needed to build so Matt could build.  The sets that finally hooked me where the insectoids and the technic sets.  I think my interests are in the oddball, weird pieces that come together to make something fun.

Matt Rowntree: My interests are all over the place, I’ve always tried to consciously step away from comfort zones and identifiable styles.  I’ve been with bricks my entire life from the early 70s and never had an official “dark age.”  It was more of a “dim age” when I was in college and really couldn’t access my bricks practically with work, school, more work, Linda, more Linda, and more work.  And more school.  I was really busy then.  I found the community back around 2013 looking for techniques relating to my “first” SHIP (SHIP being the acronym for a 100-stud plus long spaceship, meaning seriously huge investment in parts).  Up until then, I knew the world was filled with crazy people but I had no idea that they could be concentrated into a couple websites called MOCpages and Flickr.

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The Ecosse (LL-928 “upgrade”) by Matt Rowntree

DAS: What is your build set-up like at home, and does it allow you work together?

LR: Don’t tell Matt but I see our Lego set up changing as soon as he finishes his new SHIP (currently being built for Simon Liu’s month-long building challenge SHIPtember).  Our Lego room is perfect for the one person sitting at the desk in the chair with access to everything.  If you are not the one sitting in the chair you need to ask for pieces to be given to you or try to find a working space.  A re-work will need to be done for our next project together.  Hint, hint.

MR: Fine!  I’ll get another chair.  Good grief!  The space has evolved forever and always will.  It has been conformed to fit my building technique and organisational madness, which tends to frighten Linda off a bit.  The organisation, that is, not the madness.  Actually I suspect that frightens her as well.  Come to think of it, it frightens me too.

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Matt and Linda in their Studio

DAS: How would you describe your respective styles and creative approaches?

LR: I like my builds to be whimsical; I don’t want people comparing my builds to the actual object.   My creative approach is still a learning approach, “Hey Matt, do you think that if I did this it would work to give this effect?” From there it starts a conversation and experimentation.

MR: Brick on brick.  I usually have a vague notion of a direction, but I try to let the pieces and colours do the work.  I do tend to corral it to maximise the fun for myself as it seems pointless otherwise.  It’s likely a major factor in how Linda and I work so easily together.

DAS: Is there a build of each other’s you really like and why?

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Marvin the Martian by Matt Rowntree

LR: There are several builds I like of Matt’s.  The Looney Toon’s build was spot on and placed me back into my childhood (this was entered in Chris Phipson’s MocOlympics building competition).  The Emotitron build puts a smile on my face every time I see it.  The Perry Mason build, however, I would have to say was my absolute favourite.  It did not get a lot of viewership; however, I believe people were confused by the colours.  His goal was to use the wild colours to create the grey scale just like they did in the old black and white movies.

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Emotitron 024 by Matt Rowntree

MR: Unfortunately, Linda hasn’t really put much together other than some interesting table scraps.  However, in the body of work that we’ve created together, I would have to agree with her about the Perry Mason build.  She came up with the brilliant idea and I built it strictly to get a solid smile out of her.  That tends to be the gauge of success in any build for me.

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Perry Mason by Matt Rowntree

DAS: Have you worked on a project together before?

LR: I am always a part of the builds.  This project however was the first project where I feel my vision was a part of the final project and that I showed up in the build.

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Inception by Matt Rowntree

MR: It would be much easier to list the ones that we have NOT worked on together to some extent.  Her critical eye and brilliant ideas are always present and keeps my tunnel vision in check especially if they are venturing off the rails.  She helped rein me in on the Inception build as well as the Forbidden Planet.  Our builds also tend to tell a story, so she is more of a proper editor in that light.

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Forbidden Planet by Matt Rowntree

DAS: I set you the challenge of illustrating a Classical Greek myth.  What did you choose and why?

LR:  Initially this was a solo build.  Matt chose the subject and built several of the elements before it became our collaboration.  I had never heard the story but instantly saw why he chose it.

MR: Icarus was the one that stabbed me straight in the brain.  However, I wanted to challenge the standard imagery of a young man contorted midflight as the feathers venture out in all directions.  Those iconic images usually focus on the sun and its power over the human element.  With this build, I wanted to eliminate the sun and rely more on the expression of hubris through a feeling of vertigo and that moment of realization as the first feather disembarks.  I felt that there was much more of a connection with the viewer in that respect as we have all found ourselves at that point when we realized that ignoring a certain bit of advice was not a wise decision.

DAS: How did you go about planning the project?

LR:  For me it was a lot of discussion with Matt about changing his vision to include my own.  I had to come up with solutions and present them to Matt in a way that opened his eyes to a new vision and welcomed it.  Trying to change tunnel vision is not as easy as it sounds.  Also, since the feather and wing were already done, I took the lead on the Labyrinth.

MR:  My initial idea was to build a framework of the wing with feathers and have a single feather falling away with a wax drip.  I knew it would tell the story, but it also relied too much, I feel, on the viewer knowing it as well, in addition to being led by the title and the challenge description.  I also added the element that is forgotten in the story about the advice Daedalus also instilled about complacency and flying too low by adding Daedalus in a smaller size about midway up.

DAS: Were there many problems along the way; how did you solve them?

LR:  The Labyrinth was probably the simplest element in the build but honestly it was our biggest challenge.  Since the wing and the feather were already done we needed to find a way to incorporate the old vision with the new vision without scrapping what was already done.  The solution forced the Labyrinth to be a specific scale to read as a Labyrinth without it being the focus of the build.  I think we built six different versions of it before we were happy.

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The Challenge of the Labyrinth

MR: The iterations of the Labyrinth were definitely challenging.  This final version was spot on with its smaller scale in comparison to Daedalus and the large feather and wing.  However, this also led to what became the most difficult challenge:  The photography.  It was built to be photographed from above in forced perspective to increase the vertigo and make the primary subject the feather, the lighting and focus for all the elements proved argumentative, to put it nicely.  In the end, compositing each element separately was the only way to get everything right.

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The unique photography set-up

DAS:  How do you feel about the final piece?

LR:  I think the final piece did what we set out to do; it does tell the story in a single image quite well.  I am happy with where my ideas took it and I feel it made the project more complete.  The initial vision was to only shoot the one feather with the wax dropping off of it.  With this version I see us working together for a more complete vision and I find that exciting.

MR:  I would say that it is our most complete vision fully realised.  Like The Thing movie poster, I felt that there really wasn’t much more to do other than sign it (something I have very rarely done being an artist never fully satisfied with execution exceeding expectation.)  I love how this piece of teamwork explored the entire process regardless of specific successes or failings.  To me, the conversation was always open and free to go wherever it wanted and it was fun to follow and watch it evolve.

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The Thing Movie Poster by Matt Rowntree

DAS: If the opportunity arose would you work together on another build?

LR: I am happy to say that we have a very large project we decided to do together.  We will be starting it once Matt’s SHIP is complete.  I think working on this build together has allowed us to finally see eye to eye and has helped us to understand and respect each other’s visions in a way that now allows us to build together.

MR: No way!  Just kidding.  I don’t think that there is any other option but to work together; it is how we have done everything and will likely be the way we do everything to come.  I may have done the heavy lifting in the past, but I think with Linda’s comfort growing in the language of LEGO bricks and her receding intimidation of my organisational methodology, I see more equal time developing with the bricks.  Her visions have no boundaries developed through years of LEGO building trial and error; so, there is freshness that I love exploring and building upon.  Although, I’m not giving up MY comfy chair!

Check out more of Matt and Linda’s creations here.

This interview was originally published in Bricks Culture 7.

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Irish Yoga by Matt Rowntree

Bjarne Tveskov

This is a reposting of my interview from 2015 with Bjarne Tveskov the legendary former LEGO designer and creator of several of the most-loved of the 1980s space sets. We discussed spaceship building, Minecraft, digital technology  and life as a professional LEGO designer.  (This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4)

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A selection of Bjarne Tveskov’s iconic 1980s space sets

Three years ago I was just starting to discover how welcoming the LEGO community is.  Not just the fellow fans, who quickly became friends, but also the talented individuals who have and still work professionally for LEGO.  Without expecting too much I dropped a speculative email to the LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov, probably best known for his work on a number of the iconic eighties space ranges, including the Blacktron and Futuron themes.  A warm reply came back: yes he’d love to chat with me about the smaller pocket money sets he created.  And with this began my involvement in writing about LEGO.

Back to the present, and this summer Bjarne and I struck up conversation once more, after I posted a collection of my classic space LEGO creations online.  And as things often do, we soon found ourselves talking about design process, how LEGO is developing as a cultural phenomenon and the links between LEGO and digital creativity.  As before, when I suggested this might be the basis for an interview, he didn’t need much persuading.

Starting at the very beginning Bjarne took me back to the mid-eighties when he began working for LEGO.

“It happened pretty much by chance.  I was reading a local Sunday paper where I lived, and there was an advert in there, that I still have, where LEGO were looking for designers for LEGO Space and LEGO DUPLO.   And it didn’t make a lot of formal demands on your background… It asked something like: if you had done experiments with science fiction models, or if you could draw or paint and had a good sense of shape and colour, that was about it.  And I thought well that could be me somehow, so why not try.  So I made an application, probably the first I ever wrote for a job. I thought maybe it could be a freelance thing. I was 17 years old and still in school at the time, so it didn’t seem a realistic option as a full-time job.  I just had this vague concept that there would be people designing LEGO sets, and that it would be cool do to this, but what this black box of LEGO design was, I had no way of knowing at the time.

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The original advert Bjarne replied to

As well as LEGO I was also into the early home computer scene at the time, especially a lot of the stuff that came from the UK back then, the Sinclair ZX81, the Spectrum and suchlike.  So I put this in the application too. I think it was one of the reasons why I was called in for an interview, because LEGO was already starting to look into computers.  The first generation of video games were starting to get big in the mid-eighties, and my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen could also see that this could be important for the company’s future.

LEGO was already collaborating with the Media Lab from Boston, which were one of the earliest sponsors of research into technology related to play and education.   So I think an enthusiasm for computers was my hook into the system, not that we were directly doing anything with it when I first started.  The work was still exclusively taking place in the company’s educational Department, where they were making these control products which could manipulate simple robots. But there was a sense that these digital developments could one day become a core part of the LEGO business. But sometimes my computer skills came in handy; I was working at creating alternate monorail layouts for the 6921 Monorail Accessory Track set. It was pretty tedious trying out many different combinations, so I made a piece of software for the Sinclair QL computer which enabled me to ‘build’ a lot of tracks on a screen instead of building on the floor. In 1990 I got to change my job from designing models to combining LEGO and computers.  I became a concept person, one of the first to look at how to combine LEGO models and digital experiences for the consumer market.”

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6921 Monorail Accessory Track Set

Despite Bjarne’s interest in computers and love of LEGO there was something else that proved to be of even greater value to the company in the early days.

“I had a good interest in science fiction, the whole Star Wars thing and a TV show called Space:1999.  It was a big thing for me at the time to try to construct the weapons from these films, and the Eagle spaceships from Space 1999 especially.”

To land his job with LEGO, Bjarne had been sent a package of bricks and asked to build a space model to accompany his application.

“The model I built for my application was almost like an Eagle from Space 1999.  And this brings up a theme I think I’ll continue to touch on, how designers absorb ideas from other creations and recombine them, taking aspects from different areas and applying them to new ones.  Which really is a LEGO thing, but also my thing I would guess.”

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The model that landed Bjarne his job at LEGO

I wanted to know what it was like working for LEGO at this time.  How did the role of designing toys for the company differ from the model building he’d previously undertaken?

“It was a learning curve, but not as steep as I feared.  I jumped in and started doing things pretty quickly.   It was very much a culture of building and building and building.  And most of it of course was pretty useless, but it was still a process, where I tried to absorb some of the LEGO designers’ principles and get feedback on what I’d done.  I started by building some twenty spaceships, and I plastered them all with tiles because I thought it would be a cool look, but I learned it wasn’t really the way to go.

I started to pick up more by looking at the other guys who had been there for years, and the results they were getting.  And I tried to just imitate design tricks and techniques they used, I think this is also a great way to learn.  But you could never get all the way there when you tried to copy something, there still had to be some twist you added.

The other skill I learnt was the craft of building something that didn’t fall apart when you handled it.  You would take some models to a kids’ testing session, to see how seven year-olds put something together.  That was the biggest culture shock, realising that you were not building for yourself or other designers or marketing; you were building for someone else with different skills and abilities.  Children follow this development curve, where you can do certain things at certain ages.  Things like symmetry are kind of mind-blowing, if you are five or six you cannot really comprehend this.   This is a constant that is not changed, evolution maybe. As you grow as a designer you get that much more skilled, but the kids you are building for remain on the same level.  And every year there is a new generation of seven year olds.

As designers we have this craving for creating new things, and new design themes, but normally in a five-year span you gain a completely new audience who doesn’t know or care about what went before.  As a result this craving for doing the new stuff is accompanied by a process of doing the same thing over and over.  If you look at some of the space models from back then you can see the same themes are conceptually present today.  What a child can play with and how they build are not so different.  Which is also something nice, LEGO as a product changes but stays the same over the ages.  It is still amazing to me that it has been thirty years since I started, and I am still working with LEGO, although as a freelancer now, on products like Nexo Knights that will appeal to both new five year olds and at the same time reference older themes that adult fans will recognise.”

It seemed from Bjarne’s description that the design environment at LEGO was very free and open to creative experimentation.   I asked him how design briefs were established at LEGO.  Did the designers produce them through experimentation, or did the company develop specific themes or narratives, or stipulate the use of certain elements?

“The biggest limitation was price range and the need for us to replace sets at certain price points.  Beyond that there wasn’t a lot of pre-established story, in fact we tended not to talk that much about the back-story, which I also think was a strength.  This openness is one of the keys to the longevity of those early space ranges, in that you put your narrative on top of the sets.  Of course fans will speculate and deduct a lot of stuff on how it was meant to be, and there are some elements that you can pick out, but the overall story was very broad.  That was until we introduced Blacktron and Space Police and so on, where you had more defined roles.  In the beginning it was just engineers in space exploring, and there wasn’t a lot of briefing about what that model was doing; it was a lot more about the functionality and the look and design of the model.”

This affirmed for me something I’d instinctively felt about the early spaces sets, that the designs implied pragmatic use but in an oblique way that resisted any implied intention.  These explorers and engineers were exploring or detecting something, but what and why remained a mystery.  The success here had always seemed linked to specialised pieces and their use.  I asked Bjarne about this, who designed the pieces, and was it the designers or wider company policy that decided on which elements were introduced with each range?

“It is a push/pull thing with the design of new pieces.  A lot of the design was driven by the introduction of new pieces: this quest for newness or a new twist being generated by these new elements.  In the earlier years there were grey space models and blue space models and white space models.  It started to get more uniformed when I came in, in the mid eighties, when we started running more themed series with the launch of Futuron and the Blacktron ranges.  But the pieces these sets deployed very much came from my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who was a great influence.  There was normally a budget for some new pieces to create some novelty every year, and he was driving forward all the time by proposing a lot different pieces.

Very often we would build around new pieces, as was the case with my first model (6884 Aero-Module).  It has this big blue piece specific to the Futuron range, and is basically this piece with wings so that it can fly.  These new pieces gave the designers the possibility of doing very different things to what had gone before.  As a LEGO designer you are driven by how to really utilise these pieces and how far you can push them.  I was never content with putting pieces in an ordinary orientation, and always looked to twist them and make interesting shapes.”

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LEGO set 6884 Aero Module  with its distinctive blue canopy element.

I suggested that the same principle applied to fan builders who revisit these themes.  In my own case I often look at the palette of pieces that the designers used at the time, and see if I can see things they didn’t do, or find new angles through the use of pieces that weren’t available at the time.  Bjarne expanded on this line of argument.

“I think this is unique to LEGO, that you can simply work with existing pieces.  I’ve always been somewhat envious of the guys who design the pieces, because it seems a higher level of design somehow.  On the other hand it is quite an art to put together existing things in a way that is new.  Basically you could do a whole year of new models without any new pieces, it is probably harder but it is possible.”

This love of new pieces, I suggested, was something that both fans and designers shared.  As a child I’d actually used the argument that a slightly larger set had more new pieces to persuade my mother to increase my pocket money allowance.

“I think that still works, you see the fans going through the new sets and seeing all the new uses for the new pieces.  This attitude says something more about this idea I mentioned before of combining things that already exist.   Although I have never really designed any new pieces, a lot of the newness I created happened by combing things that were already there.”

I reminded Bjarne of the example he had given me in his previous interview, that he often looked for elements in other ranges, and transplanted them into space builds in new colours or deployed in new orientations.

“This was a humorous thing, taking some castle pieces and putting them into space.  I always wanted to use a baguette piece in space somehow.  It would have been awesome.  I tried but I never managed to get that through to an actual set.  I think that is part of what I enjoy seeing in other peoples’ creations, where they are using really unusual pieces in new contexts.”

Perhaps I suggested this ability to find connections and mix uses of pieces defines the LEGO design process.  And I wondered if he noticed this in the development of LEGO design.   Is there so much of a distinction today between the builders using the product in the wild and the way designers working for LEGO combine themes.

“Information technology has become a thousand times more complex and multi-faceted because of the Internet.  Now you can look at many more creations online, which has amplified and crystallised the capabilities of the builders.  As a result there is a much bigger awareness of LEGO as a medium, and as a great creative palette.

To be honest we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world in the eighties, apart form the building sessions where children tested the products.  But on the other hand, it is a bit false to think of an inside and outside with LEGO, because all the people coming in are fans and have already taken ownership of the product.   It is very hard to say what is inside and outside; of course you can eat in the canteen and you get a paycheck, but on a broader level it is so much more blurred, with a lot of the new designers coming in being super-fans who in many cases already know more about LEGO than those of us on the inside.”

I noted that there is something wonderfully democratic about LEGO,  anyone can pick it up and use it intuitively, but also that it is not constrained by any specific design principles provided by the LEGO group.

“ I don’t think LEGO in any way would want to constrain its product’s use.  It is so much bigger as an idea than the company.  The LEGO group take care of the product, but everyone who uses it somehow owns it.”

LEGO seemed to me to be aware that beyond the production of toys it could be used in other contexts, as seen in the  development of Modulex.  And then there are the cases of LEGO being used to solve real problems such as the Braigo Braille machine.  It could even be seen as widely experienced education that now influences many designers who played with the product as children.

“Well there are several ways you could discuss this.  I could say that of course I have been influenced by LEGO for a very long time.  I had my education through LEGO if you will.  It influences everything I do outside LEGO.  The basic principle of trying to do quality stuff, to do something that works well, that is just ingrained into LEGO. I think that the modular way of thinking as an approach to designing is also learnt a lot through LEGO.

LEGO also lets you take your time.  In the early days there was a lot of time given to us to get stuff right.  Of course there was time pressure, but there was also time to develop things.  I think now things are much more compressed.  Back then there was a three-year cycle.  There is not so much times these days.  I recently worked on the first little micro scale Minecraft sets. The whole thing was so fast, it was something like six months from idea to product.

As for the broader impact of LEGO onto design, or the more specialised niche ways of using LEGO, of course these applications happen, but I’ve never really been so much into using LEGO directly in other contexts.  About ten years ago I was into creative process facilitation, but I didn’t really use LEGO so much.  I also tried Serious Play (LEGO’s methodology designed to enhance creativity in business), but it never really worked so well for me. It’s really more about the general LEGO idea and the values behind the product.”

I was interested in the ides of the speed of thinking that Bjarne had suggested LEGO offered as well as it being a way of training us in new modular ways of being creative.

“Yes, it is kind of like you have been marinated in this LEGO way of thinking, rather than using LEGO as such.  A lot has been said about LEGO’s influence on software design.  And interface design with the whole modular pixelated thing.  As well as thinking about object orientated software.  The canadian author Douglas Coupland had all these theories about this in the nineties that we were quite inspired by.  In his 1995 novel “Microserf” he describes a software called Oop! which is very similar to what you can do today with Minecraft or LEGO Worlds

I worked mostly with the combination of digital and physical products in the nineties.  And there was a sense then that LEGO could work as the operating system for a lot of this digital thinking, but the idea was probably a bit too early then.  You can a see a lot of it now coming back in a more mature way in the digital worlds where LEGO has found its place in games.  There is still a long way to go though in combining LEGO with digital technology at a deeper level beyond branding or IP rights.”

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For me, I suggested, the link between video games and LEGO has always been a difficult one to square.  Video games begin from a position of immersion, whereas LEGO tends to begin from a point of creating a world.  Perhaps the modular coding techniques found in introductory programme systems such as Scratch might be closer to the LEGO experience?

“Totally.  The thinking is quite similar, and was what the collaboration with the Media Lab has been all about.  The intelligent brick which turned into Mindstorms, the programming language for kids called ‘Scratch’ as you know came out of the Media Lab too.  LEGO is such a basic invention somehow, that it will probably exist in one form or another no matter what.  Back in late nineties LEGO lost the belief in putting models together; would kids still want to do that, or are they into instant gratification and video games and these other fast moving experiences.  But boy was that wrong.  It seems like such a big and encouraging thing that children still want to put together that police station out of 500 small individual pieces.

I think the brilliance of what Minecraft got totally right, that we at LEGO hadn’t managed, was to put the ‘why’ into why you want to build on a screen.  Like the early space stuff, there was not a lot of story in Minecraft, but just enough that you could start doing something. It has this, low threshold high ceiling, ideology we talked a lot about at LEGO, in that you can basically go on forever; there is always more to do.”

I suggested that you could see LEGO as an established way of playing that was joining with these new modular experiences such as Scratch and Minecraft and informing future generation’s creativity.

“You can also ask is LEGO a nostalgic thing or is it the future, I think it is both.  A lot of the territory we are moving into now is more fragmented, with more modular technology being established.   On the one hand we have a future orientated convergence where everything goes into the mobile phone, but then again we have this tinkering and maker culture emerging that harks back to something else.  I think here LEGO can and will play a part, in both convergence and in tinkering.

I guess it is a bit like the Back to the Future film trilogy.  What is fun about that movie and makes it timeless is its future nostalgia; that we now live in that story’s future – back to the future in that context is now the past.  In a way LEGO space is timeless in a similar way.  If you look at the stuff it still is somehow futuristic and somehow nostalgic and somehow out of time, in a way other sets might not be.”

I expanded on Bjarne’s theme, that the  space sets represented a dream of a future that never was, in the way they referenced the optimism of NASA’s space exploration programme.

“There is a lot of NASA DNA in LEGO Space definitively. You also start to see some of this ideology coming back in films like The Martian.  I’m hoping for a new era of ambitious space exploration.”

With the tantalising idea of a new era of LEGO space sets I asked Bjarne if he saw any influence of his own work, or potentially even this future nostalgia, in other designers’ work

“Sometimes I get to talk to some of these people, and I quite often get people saying they used to play with my models as kids, which makes me feel very old, but is also very nice.  I can’t point out design cues, if you like, in their work though.  In terms of hearing that people appreciate those old designs, and that it meant something to them, that is a very deep thing. We are all literally and figuratively building upon each others ideas. Kids, fans, designers, all sharing and adding to the same vast pool of creativity and knowledge. The LEGO system is both the ultimate concrete example and the best metaphor of how new ideas are born and developed.

I also wanted to note that the toys that you never got are a big influence for grown ups and a different sort of nostalgia – these have a big impact on what you build now.  I know that there were big sets that I didn’t have but that I looked at in the catalogue.   The LEGO catalogue is a great inspirator for kids both back then and now. There is a whole research project to be done into what your toys do to you as a grown up.”

As well as the catalogues, I suggested that the alternative models that LEGO produced for the box reverses also provided tantalising inspiration.

“It is coming back again, this focus on more open-ended creativity rather than only building from instructions.  And you can also do that more now that we have digital ways of communicating and sharing creations online.  A lot that is very interesting for the future of LEGO comes from the question of how to open this up.”

With this focus on a positive future for LEGO, that combines both a traditional understanding of the joy of building with bricks with the bright new world of digital expansion, we ended our conversation.  And if I had been in any doubt before as to the importance of Bjarne’s work in the development of LEGO, his thoughtful observations only went to further convince me that he would have as important a part to play in its future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building the Essential: LEGO Hair and Other Archetypes

Baby Makes three

Baby Makes Three by Shelly Corbett

One of the most unexpected crossovers from the world of LEGO building to mainstream culture comes in the form of the vernacular expression ‘LEGO hair’.  A popular insult applied to a person whose hair is overly perfect, hair-sprayed to within an inch of petrification or which displays bizarre geometric angles.   Of course whilst the slang is based on a direct visual analogy, it suggests more: that to have LEGO hair is to be fastidious to the point of obsession, vain and uncompromising.

As an aspect of everyday speech this insult proved its full acceptance into our dialect when it found its way into the script of popular BBC television daytime soap opera Doctors[i].  In the aforementioned episode the prim and proper wig wearing Practice Manager Mrs Tenbee, was described as part of a character assassination as having LEGO hair; and we all knew what this meant.  An overt focus on an ideal external image might betray limitations in one’s ability to adapt and cope with change.

What is perhaps most fascinating about this description, is not so much its social application, but what it indicates about our understanding of LEGO building.  There is something about LEGO hair that exceeds the imperfect, bed headed, unruly hair styles we all sport.  LEGO hair is unlike any real hair; in its ideal plastic pre-formed way it is seen as the archetype of hair.

This link between beauty, perfection and the expectations we all have about creating an ideal self-image, has been explored explicitly through the medium of bricks.  Dutch art director Elroy Klee[ii] has created a series of immaculate LEGO wigs that resemble fashionable hairstyles, an African afro, short crop and blonde layers, using only black, red and yellow pieces.  These life-sized and anatomically engineered artworks were designed to be worn by three models as part of an advertising campaign entitled Mind Play[iii].

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Mind Play by Elroy Klee

The photographs of the three women make explicit connections between the idea and visual construction of beauty.   Fashion has long propagated a fantastical vision of the beautiful via a complex aesthetic process: the art of make up, photographic filters, lighting and other camera tricks and the digital editing-out of a model’s supposed ‘imperfections’.  The results being that the models we see presented on the pages of glossy magazines embody an imaginary ideal rather than any individual.  By taking one part of this process, in this case hair styling, and subverting it, these images play with the preconceptions we all have with regard to the aspirations of perfection manufactured by the fashion industry.  To fully control and model hair in this case means having it replaced by a brick built plastic alternative.  The result: a perfect layer cut, a perfect afro and a perfect fringe cut – but all unreal.  All three women look beautiful, but with a knowing nod to the archetype of beauty they have become: with this ideal literally being worn upon their heads.  Less than a critique this witty visual gag engages and opens up a space to think about what it means to aspire to perfection; and how much of that aspiration is linked to a desire to create an identity rather than accept the person we are– bad hair and all?

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Mind Play by Elroy Klee

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Mind Play by Elroy Klee

However, when we use the phrase ‘LEGO hair’, we are unlikely to be imaging the sculptural beauty of Elroy Klee’s creations.  It is far more likely that the first image that springs to mind is that of the original mini-figures’ brown or black bowl-cut hair element.  This simple piece of brick design being used for several years to stand in for all the hairstyles possible in the LEGO mini-figure world, alongside its pig-tailed female equivalent.   As a design exercise these LEGO elements boiled down the essential features of what makes hair, hair, creating an archetypal form in a single piece.

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Original LEGO hair

Interestingly the LEGO hair elements pre-date the perhaps most iconic aspect of the LEGO mini-figure, its ubiquitous smiling face.  The female pigtail variant was used in the mid-70s, when LEGO produced a number of sets with figures with non-articulated torsos and blank faces.  In this era the hair element not only signified an archetypal style but also a gender.  To differentiate the male figures, which were often determined by their hat and role – fireman, policeman and so forth – from the female figures, the LEGO designers used the hair element to signify all women.

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Defining a gender by their hair

Given our society’s current progressive views with regard to gender equality, this reduction of femininity to something as trivial as a hairpiece seems archaic and redolent of the time that produced it, but beyond the sexist overtones there is something magnificent to be said about the essential economy of the design.   If it is possible to define LEGO building as the exercise of using the imagination to create new and different creations from a limited stock of elements, then creating a single brick capable of representing one half of all people in the LEGO world bordered on genius.   As an aide to both play and creative thinking, the archetypal form of the LEGO hair element opened up a multitude of opportunities.

This focus on original elements in the LEGO system defines the path that the company took in the late 70s and early 80s.  As they moved away from a range of basic building blocks supplemented by a handful of specialist pieces, such as wheels and windows, they became increasingly interested in developing a universal LEGO language that would support children’s narrative play as well as their creative expression.  During this period the company introduced a number of iconic elements that are now synonymous with the LEGO aesthetic.  One only has to think of the LEGO cup, the LEGO wrench and the LEGO flower to start to see the direction the company was taking.

What each of these elements did, by embodying the essential qualities of the object they represented, was to create an immediate short hand that allowed access to a set of quick and easily transferable skills that a child needed to make a world.  By placing a unique element such as a LEGO steering wheel on almost any other brick, the child was able to create a vehicle with a cab that a mini-figure could sit in.

The LEGO designers made use of this newfound set of possibilities speedily creating within the smaller sets sold in the pocket money ranges a collection of archetypal models.  Using a tiny number of pieces, which crucially made use of these new archetypal elements, they made the very personification of a police car, a fire engine and a lunar buggy, amongst many other classic creations.  Crucially the children who bought these sets with their limited stock of elements could quickly achieve similar results.

Perhaps this development helps us understand one of those false arguments that persist within the LEGO community.   That today, with its almost viral propagation of specialist elements, LEGO sets have lost the creativity that these earlier toys had.  Of course this argument begins from a false premise: that the increase of building options reduces building options.  Patently this is untrue, with the unique and endlessly innovative use of new parts being made by builders within the community daily.  Still, there is some foundation to this argument, that is tied less to a loss of creativity, and has rather more to do with the corruption these new elements have on a pure archetypal world with its limited set of defining elements.

Those who mourn the passing of the LEGO themes of the late 70s and early 80s are grieving for the end of a short-lived perfect Platonic world.   Recalling Plato’s idea of the Forms[iv], which argued that all things in our world, which appear different and unique are defined by singular universal ideas, might be applied to the LEGO system of this period.  If Plato sought to answer the question of universality by noting that the multitude of individual horses in the world were all defined by an archetypal idea of the Form of a horse (four legs, a mane, hooves and so on), then these specialist LEGO bricks that stood in for all people, or all doors, or all flowers, literally created a Platonic world of Forms.  Fascinatingly the classic era of LEGO building might reflect the classical era of Greek philosophy.

Whilst the direct belief once afforded to Plato’s ideas has long since been challenged, modified or outright rejected, culturally its link to how we all perceive a notion of perfection remains embedded in our language and way of thinking.  It is of course no surprise that a generation of children presented with a building system that beautifully represented these ideas of perfection would cling onto the sort of idealised creations and ways of looking at the world it provided.  For the LEGO builder of a certain age these archetypal elements provide a wistful nostalgia for a lost Eden; a time when building meant contributing to a simple yet perfect world that relied on well-understood symbols and conventions.

As the inevitable shift in design continued within the LEGO ranges, developing ever more specialist elements, the relation between these elements as ideal Forms started to waver, and with it part of the purity of the shorthand building language that came with it.  Where once a hair element was enough to identify a gender, there were now hundreds of hair elements to choose from in every conceivable colour, shape and form.    Those who hankered after a lost Eden of ideal building saw a shift away from creating with ideal Forms being replaced by a process of selecting the most appropriate element.

If the diversification of hair elements revealed one problem, the creation of other pieces such as large purpose built aircraft nose cones, huge rock elements and all manner of pre-fabricated flora, exasperated the situation.  The call went out, this is not the pure-building we knew; this is directed construction of a highly unimaginative type.

However the problem was not with the creation of new elements, specialised or otherwise, but with a deep-set understanding as to what essentially LEGO bricks are.  For the critical voices who bemoan the diversification of pieces, the LEGO system is split in two: the bricks that are considered raw elements – plates and standard bricks, and specialist elements that have singular defined uses.  As long the former outnumber the later, the specialist elements simply help support basic brick construction.  However should they outnumber the former, they are perceived to determine what is to be built, with the raw elements simply supporting the ideas or Forms already established by these specialist pieces.

This is just one way of looking at LEGO bricks.  The more generous approach is to understand that all LEGO elements belong intrinsically to the same system, with no artificial division used to distinguish them.  As long as a brick has a capacity to be connected with other bricks it is considered part of the general economy of bricks.  As such, given this rubric, a hair element is only ever considered the personification of hair as long as it is connected to a mini-figure’s head as hair.  As all LEGO builders know a LEGO element always has a use that was never intended by the original designer.

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An innovative use of the hair element by Karf Oohlu

A builder like Karf Oohlu[v], who I interviewed to years ago [vi], exemplifies this.  As soon as new mini-figure parts are released he is busy building and experimenting with them; overturning the designer’s original idea.  The hair element being a particular favourite of his for this type of subversion.  This can be seen in builds such as Rage where a spikey red hair piece is used to represent the thrust on a bio-sentient spaceship and Ha Silly Billy where a similar red hair piece is used to recreate a camp fire.  Another builder Takamichi Irie[vii], takes this theme even further in his minimalist animal creations, where a LEGO hair piece is repurposed as a snail’s shell.

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Snail by Takamichi Irie

What this way of altering an intended use for a piece reveals is something akin to the way in which philosophers have come to challenge the Platonic view of the Forms.  If you take a classic critique of the certainty of truths in metaphysical Forms as presented by Nietzsche in his famous essay ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’, we find an argument that helps us better understand what the relationship between the original designed use a piece has and the multiple applied uses it can be deployed to achieve is.  Nietzsche argued that Ideas are not truths but actually ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms’[viii]: that rather than presenting stable ideas, metaphysical truths were in actuality the product of creative associations.  In conclusion he argued that there are no predetermined essential ideas, only the ideas humans make in an attempt to describe and understand their world.  The same is true of the LEGO system of elements.  There are no essential or true uses of pieces only the metaphorical use of pieces to create new models, new ideas and new archetypes.

So when we talk about building the essential, of finding something archetypal in the process of making, we are not searching for a singular or universal ideal that fits all.  Whilst a LEGO hair element can stand in for all hair, the essential nature of hair is approached in a LEGO creation from a multitude of equally valid techniques, whether this be the pig tailed mini-figure of a 1970s mini-figure to the elaborate afro sculpture made by Elroy Klee.

This notion of what it means to build and discover the essential with LEGO bricks has been something that the company has kept close to its heart from the outset.  An open and imaginative mind can find in even the smallest selection of pieces the right associations to create a metaphor or idea of what they believe is essential about something.  This is seen writ large in the LEGO commercial 15 Bricks in which two children create rockets, submarines and unicorns from the same fifteen elements.  Arguably through the constraints of piece limitation each of the children locate what facets of a rocket or a unicorn fundamentally make them what they are and locate the appropriate pieces to realise this.  The same principle is found repeated again and again in the marketing approach of the company: that the joy of LEGO building is found in its providing of the tools to make simply anything from the most basic of elements, aided only by the power of imagination.

If this approach is true for children it remains equally so for the adult building community.  Where often the media and fan forums celebrate the huge creations, the builds made from hundreds of thousands of pieces and the mind-boggling complex, there is equal skill displayed in those tiny creations that seek the essential in the smallest number of parts.  Take for example the e11even contest[ix] in which builders were challenged to make models with exactly eleven pieces.  The sheer variety of building was staggering.  From Custom BRICKS’s Eiffel Tower[x] to Kaptain Kobold’s Tardis[xi] the quality of imagination rivals anything we see from the super-builders with their million-plus piece studios.  Crucially they also present a way of building open to anyone who has ever bought a LEGO set no matter how small.

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Eiffel Tower by Custom BRICKS

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Tardis and Dalek by Kaptain Kobold

One of the drives that makes LEGO building such a compulsive practice undoubtedly comes from the quest to uncover the essential.  These small pieces of plastic providing the tools that help us search for what is most important and archetypal about our world, from the homes we live in to the cars we drive, via nature, space exploration and anything else we can think of.  Yet it isn’t a fixed project, none of us are looking for the same perfection, or even the same hairstyle to appropriate.  The LEGO system of bricks is like all living languages, shot through with established conventions and apparent fixed meanings, but when any of us speak we do so with a poetic slant, we change and adapt the words to mean what we want to say, to invent and create a dialect for ourselves and our communities.  In the LEGO community a hundred builders might set out to build their idea of a horse, with the result that the idea of a horse ceases to be fixed to the LEGO element of a mini-figure horse, instead proliferating through a multitude of builds a shared cultural understanding of everything that is equine – there are even examples of hair piece horses.  In the LEGO community building the essential means expanding an understanding through the presentation of difference and diversity, and this principle might in itself be the essential factor behind every LEGO builders’ ambition.

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Horse by Mosterbrick

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Sleipnir by Mike Nieves

Endnotes

[i] See the BBC website Doctors page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mh9v

[ii] Elroy Klee website: http://elroyklee.com

[iii] More details on the Mindplay project: http://elroyklee.com/portfolio/mindplay/

[iv] See book 4 of the Republic. Plato, Republic in Plato: The Collected Dialogues ed. Hamilton and Cairns, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1961.

[v] See Karf Oohlu’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dragon55/

[vi] ‘Interview with Karf Oohlu’ in Bricks Culture Issue 3, Republic 66 Media, London 2015

[vii] See Takamichi Irie’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/legomichiiiiii/

[viii] Fredrich Nietzsche, ‘Truth and Lying in a Non Moral Sense’ in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings ed. Geuss and Speirs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999 p.146

[ix] See the E11even Contest Flickr group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/e11even/

[x]  See Custom BRICKS Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/custombricks/

[xi]  See Kaptain Kobold’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaptainkobold/

 

This article was first published in Bricks Culture 7

Building in Two Dimensions

 

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Big Bad Wolf by David Alexander Smith

One of the more surprising claims I’ve made to my fellow LEGO enthusiasts over the years is that for me LEGO building is a cheap pastime.   This seems to fly in the face of AFOL convention. Everyday we are bombarded with images of fans’ bespoke building lairs, replete with hundreds of thousands of bricks. The forums cluttered with enthusiastic discussions about new sets and the addictive perils of Bricklink stores. Yet somehow amongst this consumer noise I have found myself spending very little on bricks, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t do so if the opportunity arose.

When I returned to LEGO building in my late 30s I was faced by, shall we say certain financial challenges: 2 small children and their associated nursery fees, as well as a new house with a big mortgage to pay. I couldn’t complain, life was good, and I was lucky enough to be able to support my family; but in the short term there was little left over for frivolous hobbies.

Around this time my wife gave me a bag of LEGO rescued from my Mother’s attic as a nostalgic Christmas present.  A story familiar to many members of our community quickly followed. What started as a bit of fun on Christmas Day turned into an obsession by the end of January! More surprising was the fact that it unlocked my childhood ability to create and play with whatever I had to hand. The old 1980s LEGO company slogan, ‘a new toy everyday’, ringing more true than ever.

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Christmas Scene by David Alexander Smith

I revelled in the fact that I had enough bricks to build what I wanted, and of course what I made could always be dismantled to make something new.   Combining this approach with the power of digital photography, I was satisfied with quickly amassing an archive of models. Whilst I started buying the odd specialist piece or small LEGO set, there was no desire to scale up and amass a huge collection. Besides my finances strictly prohibited this.

So for the first eight months of my new life in the LEGO community I satisfied myself with building space models and vehicles similar to those of my childhood.   I still do, as my space dinosaur series proves. But inevitably I needed to expand my subject matter; a certain creative itch needed to be scratched. There had to be a way to carry over into LEGO the work I had developed as an art student, and informed my life working in a university drama department.

Initially I was stumped.   To do what I wanted would require a massive increase in the amount of bricks I owned. I looked at the big brick artists like Sean Kenney and Nathan Sawaya, who combined a reverence for LEGO building with artistic vision in typically huge sculptures, and quickly realised that their scale of work was an impossible dream for a brick-poor builder like myself. How could I engage with the beauty of brick-built art with such a meagre collection?

The answer came as it so often does from working within strict limitations. I was determined to make a piece that paid homage to my series of drawings and paintings of a phantom figure. Inspiration hit, a shadow only needed to be rendered in two dimensions, and this would allow me to build at a decent scale without heamorging elements. The result was my first artistic piece, Magic Cat, Lonely Boy, The Bird and Their Shadow, which captured something of the feel of my artwork. It also hinted at another way of celebrating the LEGO brick, rather than the simplicity of the 2×2 piece it leaned heavily on the wonderful set of angles found in the slopped elements of the system.

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Magic Cat, Lonely Boy The Bird and Their Shadow by David Alexander Smith

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The Attic by David Alexander Smith

 

The next step forward in my development of a two-dimensional building style came a few months later when I started to realise just how much I could build with only a handful of bricks. The small piece Musicians that followed was an homage to my artistic heroes, Picasso, Klee and Chagall. It deployed a simple yet unique aesthetic, different yet strangely resonant with my paintings.  An aesthetic that celebrated the LEGO building system and at the same time required very few elements to implement.

 

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Musicians by David Alexander Smith

Work followed quickly on two pieces that took this idea of building flat figures and applied it to popular culture. Luke and Vader, a recreation of the epic light saber duel from Return of the Jedi saw me work at developing a silhouette style. Batman at the Graveside polished the technique further, finding a way to realise more detail. As well as fun pieces like my Wind-Up Robots series, which spoke to many AFOL’s childhood memories.

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Luke and Vader by David Alexander Smith

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Batman at the Graveside by David Alexander Smith

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Wind-Up Robot by David Alexander Smith

 

A path was now set, where I would quickly and effectively build complex brick images from a handful of elements. A sequence of works emerged that explored the potential for LEGO to illustrate classical myth and literature, from Ancient Greece, to Marlowe via Arthurian legend.

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Dr Faustus by David Alexander Smith

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Stranger on the Road by David Alexander Smith

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Oedipus and the Sphinx by David Alexander Smith


These works gained some traction in the LEGO community, ultimately ending up as a four page spread entitled ‘Shadow Play’ in Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO: Dark book. The most successful of these pieces, a rendition of Plato’s parable of the chariot, featured as a winning build.

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The Parable of the Chariot by David Alexander Smith


Later in this same year I took some of these creations to Brick 2014 in London. Despite my initial horror at having to display black silhouette pieces on black table cloths (quickly remedied with a white sheet), the show was a success. I also noticed myself at odds with my fellow contributors. When asked how many bricks they took to make, I repsonded with the unimpressive 200-300 pieces. How long did they take you, about an afternoon I answered. By the end of the show I had become evangelical about how much could be done with tight piece constraints, and I was encouraging adults and children alike to consider building in two dimensions.

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The Strategists by David Alexander Smith (Displayed at Brick 2014)


After the success of these silhouettes I found myself at another impasse. Without investing in many many more black elements the series had reached its conclusion. That life sized silhouette of a Victorian lady would have to wait. Also I was becoming dissatisfied with the erasure of the brick quality of the builds. As I was becoming more successful at building silhouettes, the fact that they were made of bricks was becoming less obvious.

An answer came from the use of negative space and my love of folk art traditions. I found that by punching holes in my work, a paper-cut, print or lace like quality could be achieved. Initially these models were worked out in black and white, in pieces like The Owl and the Pussycat, Chinese Soldier and Portrait of Frankenstein’s Monster.

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The Owl and the Pussycat by David Alexander Smith

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Chinese Warrior

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Portrait of Frankenstein’s Monster by David Alexander Smith


However what quickly became apparent was that the development of these negative spaces allowed the return of colour to my work. By utilising a double-layered technique I was able to colour-in and add patterns to my work. I looked to Russian folk art as a way of exploring this new technique.

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Russian Composition by David Alexander Smith

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Two Figures by David Alexander Smith

 

Five years in on this artistic journey, I still regularly turn to two-dimensional building as a way of creating what appear to be larger artistic builds from my still small LEGO collection. It seems to me to be a style  ever more regularly used by a whole range of builders, and a welcome addition to the huge array of creative options that LEGO offers. But perhaps more than many of the other more traditional forms of LEGO building, its true creative potential is still to be fully realised. As an experimental adventure, it is a way of building I can see myself pursuing for years to come – whether it be through more folk art or returning to pop culture themes like Futurama.

 

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Three Birds by David Alexander Smith

 

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Futurama by David Alexander Smith

LEGO Representations of Nature

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Rose by Sean Kenney in situ

Suppose we had secretly played a trick on a lover of the beautiful, sticking in the ground artificial flowers (…) and suppose they then discovered this deceit.  The direct interest they previously took in these things would promptly vanish… [i]

Immanuel Kant wrote this in 1790 in the Critique of Judgment, arguably the book that began the modern intellectual engagement with art.  One of Kant’s philosophical aims was to differentiate between what is beautiful in nature and what makes a work of art beautiful.  He stated that art should never literally recreate nature.  Instead the flower that the artist crafts always announces that it is a representation of nature; the art being in how close the representation is, how near it seems to nature, without deceiving us in any way.

Sean Kenney’s[ii] LEGO sculpture Rose (2012)[iii], illustrates Kant’s point beautifully.  A LEGO flower planted in a landscape garden, which at first glance appears completely at home in its surrounding.  The bricks expertly arranged to capture the organic flourishes of leaves and petals.  Yet there is something uncanny about this picture; this rose is two meters tall.

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Rose by Sean Kenney

Kenney’s use of scale recalls the playful juxtapositions found in Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures, between over-sized everyday objects and the natural environment.[iv]   But where Oldenburg’s work makes us look again at mass-produced objects by removing them from the human scale of ready-to-hand use, Kenney’s work reflects on a different aspect of modern life, the humble LEGO brick.

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Vitra Balancing Tool by Oldenburg & Coosje

The choice of scale for Kenney is dictated by both artistic vision and the practical limitations of the bricks. To achieve the arabesques and fluid shapes of nature with basic recta-linear pieces, Kenney has to build at a ratio where the individual steps between parts are less pronounced when realised as part of a larger curve.

As a result the minutia, the dainty flower, the butterfly or the elegance of a tiny humming bird, if modelled in LEGO, to achieve an adequate approximation of its natural form has to be rendered at a giant scale.  This highlights for the LEGO artist the particular dilemma of trying to exactly replicate the natural form in bricks.  The LEGO artist becomes trapped between two forms of failure: to render at a 1:1 scale is to see nature as LEGO, blocky and determined by the shape and form of bricks; to try to break the conventions of the recta-linear form, the 1:1 scale must be exceeded.  But perhaps this isn’t a problem at all?

To represent nature in LEGO is always to begin from a position where exact replication is denied.  Accepting Kant’s thesis the LEGO artist does not try to deceive their audience by making dissimulations of nature.  LEGO creations explicitly show us that they are made from individual elements.

Kenney’s Rose works as an artwork to a large extent because its scale is compensated by the context in which it is shown.  By allowing the viewer the space to stand back and grasp it as a singular image it succeeds in representing nature.  But as with all such images it attracts its viewers to look closer.  As the viewer approaches the sculpture, the success of the representation is replaced by a demonstration of the artist’s LEGO building skill.  Standing in front of the LEGO flower they are confronted by a close-up view of thousands of connected pieces.  The wonder we feel here comes from correlating this detailed view of discrete pieces that no longer hold together as an image of a flower, with the previous unified perception.  The irony being that to show its true LEGO form, the artwork that represents nature has to give up its power to represent and instead declare itself made of bricks.

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Rose (close up) by Sean Kenney

The audience that attends Kenney’s exhibition applaud his talent when they realise that the representation fails to be a flower, only then can they declare “I can’t believe it is made of LEGO.”  And unlike Kant’s lover of the beautiful who no longer found interest in the artificial flower when its ruse was rumbled, the LEGO flower by openly declaring its constructed origin retains our interest.

This idea can be further analysed in the 2014 exhibition of prehistoric animals shown at Milestones Museum[v].  Created by Bright Bricks[vi] the UK based professional team of LEGO builders headed by Duncan Titmarsh and Ed Diment, these life-sized creations of dinosaurs and mammoths offer another encounter with the LEGO representation of nature.

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Mammoth by Bright Bricks

The huge prehistoric creatures of the Bright Bricks exhibition retain an expected relation to their viewer.  Unlike the flower, the scale of a real mammoth or dinosaur unsurprisingly dictates that we stand back from them so as to accommodate their whole form in our field of vision.  It is this hugeness that in part fosters our fascination with these archaic beasts.   Their rendering in bricks providing a way of aesthetically increasing our awareness of their size, in a manner that a traditional museum model might not.

As with Kenney’s work these prehistoric recreations also ask us to move closer and inspect them at a face-to-brick proximity.  As with the flower, as we approach the dinosaurs and mammoths, they give up their rendered coherence.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with the leg of a mammoth made of LEGO one is left confronting a wall of brown bricks.  Yet, this is not a negative experience.  By understanding the link between the mass of bricks and the previous image of the mammoth, we feel something about the complexity of pre-historic nature.

LEGO bricks when used to represent living things are perfectly placed to explore the concept of nature as a complex system, which immediate human sensory perception is ill equipped to understand.  Over the last two hundred years we have become increasingly more sophisticated in our scientific understanding of nature, as a way of overcoming these sensory limitations.  Stepping back from the unintelligible immediate encounter, and instead relying ever more on rational codes and scientific systems to explain what our senses have difficulty comprehending.  LEGO offers an important alternative to this conceptual knowledge, an aesthetic idea of the complexity of nature.  By showing us the disconnect between the discrete elements of a LEGO sculpture and the image the sculpture forms, it allows us to feel something about the building blocks of nature without deferring to a scientific system that stands in place of the contingent and real thing.

In the case of the long-dead creatures of the Bright Bricks exhibition, the feeling we obtain about the scale and complexity of these once majestic animals, allows us to feel something about a time we can no longer access.  Where a more traditional model of a dinosaur might try to convince us that it is as close a representation of a real dinosaur as science currently offers us, the LEGO model of a dinosaur activates a wonder and awe for their scale and majesty.   By remaining resolutely a LEGO creation and failing to fully realise the dinosaur, it lets us feel speculatively how much greater than our attempts to recreate it, the dinosaur must have been.

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Roaring Megalosaurus Head by Bright Bricks

To be a LEGO artist that chooses nature as a subject is to take on the challenge of nature’s complexity, knowing that they will fail to replicate it. It is for this reason, as Mike Doyle eloquently put it in an article published in the magazine Bricks Culture[vii], that we value the technical skill of the LEGO artist.  An appeal to virtuosity has special significance for the LEGO builder, as a large part of the encounter we have with a LEGO artwork revolves around the fact that it is seen simultaneously as a singular form and as something constructed from elements.  The artist’s technique is always exposed if it is recognised as LEGO, and consequently those skilfully articulated LEGO elements become a crucial structural component of the work.

This differs from more traditional art forms where on most occasions the virtuosity of the artist is put secondary to the unified vision they create.  It is only really the art historian who stands close enough to the Rembrandt self-portrait to delineate the impasto brush stroke of white paint that perfects the depth and form of the face.  With the LEGO sculpture, every viewer aims to get close enough to recognise that the form is made of bricks.  This dual state of comprehension, between image and individual elements becomes the foundation of appreciating LEGO art.

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Rembrandt Self Portrait 1660

Extending Doyle’s claim, technique is integral to the LEGO experience: but, building skill in itself does not define the LEGO artwork.  Although we marvel at the skill of a builder like Sean Kenney, it is not simply his skill we want to experience when we approach his LEGO rose.  Virtuosity is a handmaiden for a deeper experience.  To represent something as complex as a natural form in LEGO bricks requires skill.  Without the application of technical skill there would be no correspondence with nature.  However, for the work to succeed, the skill used to create it needs to fail and its original LEGO construction be exposed.   This is what makes the LEGO brick such an enticing creative tool, its utility and almost endless reusable ways of being connected to other elements also signifies why it can never be mastered if instated as part of a representational art form.  The LEGO brick understood as a part of a building system stands in opposition to an idea of an organic thing that cannot be separated into constitutive parts.

The importance of proximity between viewer and work is now more readily understood.  A LEGO sculpture of nature appears to succeed when the viewer remains at a distance, where individual bricks cannot easily be distinguished form one another.  However, once the spell is broken, and the discrete bricks are revealed to the viewer so too is another important issue pertaining to scale. LEGO bricks are made at a human scale; best understood by the relationship they have to a human hand.

When we are presented with a LEGO creation, and recognise that it is made from a collection of connected elements, this other understanding complements it: that the pieces of LEGO have been manipulated and connected by a person.  The complexity of the creation is relative to an act that can be manually carried out by us.  In this revelation our own powers of creation are compared to those of the natural world. It shows us the limits of scale available to the human hand, and by proxy how the real world exceeds our physical abilities.

Yet despite these limitations, there is for the LEGO artist a desire to make something natural from a host of manufactured bricks, a drive that sees a square brick and wants to build a circle.  A builder’s tenacious skill momentarily seems to make the square peg fit the round hole.  This human attempt is essential in the LEGO representation of nature. For an audience to continue to feel something from this encounter with the LEGO sculpture the point of failure needs to be approached again and again.  And the more skilful and complex the approach, the more it engages us and opens the possibility of the aesthetic experience of its failure.  To paraphrase the writer Samuel Beckett, the aim is to build better so as to ‘fail better’.[viii]

If this somewhat technical account of how we understand a LEGO representation of nature works seems a little abstract, it can further be seen played out, sometimes unconsciously, in the value judgments made by the LEGO enthusiast.  Take for example the debates that have perpetuated in both the adult fan community and the media more generally, relating to The LEGO Group’s development of specialised pieces.  There seems to be little conflict when a specialised piece is developed with the aim of replicating a form within the fields of industrial or architectural design.   I am yet to encounter the rejection of the development of wheel or window parts.  Equally when such parts are used according to their specified use, even when articulated by the most masterful of builders, a LEGO creation rarely receives negative feedback.  A wheel, is a wheel, is a wheel.[ix]  Whereas the use of specifically created rock or tree pieces is seen as lazy, lacking in skill and fundamentally falling below the bar of creativity expected of the LEGO artist.

As a result the big ugly rock pieces, as they are colloquially referred to in the LEGO communities, have become a focus for what is deemed undesirable in the building fraternity.  In its place sub-genres of landscape building have sprung-up, and the ability to form detailed rock formations or foliage has become a badge of success.

Whether it is a space base, built into a lunar landscape or a castle nestling in an idyll,[x] the comments that accompany the creations focus as much, sometimes even more, on the terrain the creation sits in, over the architectural forms.

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Peace Sells by Luke Watkins

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M:Tron Magnet Factory by Blake Foster

The LEGO builders who stick to building recreations of human designs, the car, vehicle and architectural builders, use LEGO bricks in a way reminiscent of Oldenburg’s project.  Instead of scaling-up, they minaturise the places we live and work in, and the machines we drive and use, so as to allow a fresh aesthetic perspective.  The bricks, cogs and axels they use still reflecting the original forms they draw inspiration from.  The builder of landscapes has other aims.

Thinking speculatively about the boundaries LEGO art might be crossing, the aspirations of landscape builders define one important expanding horizon.  It comes as no surprise that the third instalment of Mike Doyle’s curatorial project Beautiful LEGO[xi] takes inspiration form nature.  However, it is perhaps one of Doyle’s own creations that most successfully show us what building LEGO nature might achieve.

Speaking in 2014 on the LEGO podcast Beyond the Brick,[xii] Doyle explained that his LEGO creations always begin from a political basis.  And that he believed that they should not simply be a building experiment or declaration of skill, but initiate a discussion around an important issue.  The work he was completing at the time engaged with the ecological debate around mountaintop removal.

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Mountain Top Removal by Mike Doyle

Mountaintop removal is the process commonly employed in the United States, where mining operations asset strip natural resources by literally removing the summit or summit ridge of a mountain.  Controversy has followed this process, which suggests that after the removal of natural resources such as coal, nature reclaims the mined and damaged land.  Critics suggest that this does not occur in the ideal manner that the mining corporations suggest and that biodiversity is irrecoverably damaged as a result.[xiii]

Doyle by choosing this subject matter for a LEGO creation is able to use the medium to directly represent nature undergoing this assault, and by proxy also makes us feel something more about the ecological issue at stake.  Where scientists have been able to provide the rational arguments that show how the technique harms nature, the LEGO artists opens the door on a fallacy that sees nature as nothing more than a resource.  Building blocks ready to be used.

If as was argued, that the representation of nature in LEGO creates a perception where a viewer realises the extent to which nature exceeds his or her own creative powers, in Doyle’s work it also reveals the accepted truth about how we as a society think of nature.  It is common shorthand in a scientifically industrialised capitalist society to think of nature in terms of base elements, fuel and resources that can be utilised.  A way of thinking that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger presciently termed ‘standing reserve’.[xiv]   This concept sees existent things as materials with utility: the river that is dammed ceases to be understood as a river, and rather becomes a calculable hydro-electrical power source.

Of course the irony is that the LEGO brick reduces all representations of nature to reusable elements.  But in doing so, it not only allows us to feel something about the way nature exceeds our technical comprehension, it also exposes the limits of human understanding that seeks mastery through the application of productivity-validated systems over living things.

There is no doubt that science and technical understanding have done much good.  Our medical mastery of ourselves, and our material mastery of our environment, has made life safer, easier and longer.  But what a creation such as Doyle’s mountaintop removal does is make us feel something about how these skills might and ought to be used.  Understanding and mastery of nature is one thing, but how to deploy these skills ethically another.  How surprising then that such an opportunity to grapple with these questions should become possible through perhaps the most obviously manufactured and industrialised of creative mediums, basic LEGO bricks.

Thinking about how and why LEGO artists continue to seek to build and represent nature, the answer is perhaps a simple one?  The medium is so ill suited to capturing the sophistication of nature that it cannot help but present the impossible challenge of such a task in every built attempt.  LEGO representations of nature reveal a necessary human deference towards our world, through the willingness to fail, to make our representations of nature, just that, representations and not explanations of living things. They have the potential to temper the modern proclivity for the technical reduction of things to resource, and as such stand to remind us what might be lost in every failed representational attempt.

 

Endnotes

[i] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by Pluhar, Werner S., Hackett, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987, p.166.

[ii] See Sean Kenney’s website Art With Bricks http://www.seankenney.com/

[iii] Sean Kenney’s Rose, installed at Reiman Gardens in Iowa April 2012, as part of the touring exhibition Nature Connects.

[iv] As evidenced in an artwork like ‘Vitra Balancing Tools Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen’. Photograph by smow blog (flic.kr/p/6t3gY4), used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), cropped from original.

[v] LEGO – The Lost World Zoo, Bright Bricks exhibition, Milestones Museum, February 2014.

[vi] See the Bright Bricks webpage http://bright-bricks.com/

[vii] Mike Doyle, ‘Plastic Fantastic’ in Bricks Culture Issue 2, 2015.

[viii] “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, Grove Press, London, 1983.

[ix] Or as Gertrude Stein famously stated: “A rose is a rose is a rose” in the poem Sacred Emily (1922).

[x] See Blake Foster’s M-Tron Magnet Factory (2014) https://www.flickr.com/photos/blake-foster/14623286658 and Luke Watkins Hutchinsons Peace Sells (2010) https://www.flickr.com/photos/45244184@N04/5062189530/in/dateposted/.

[xi] Beautiful Lego is a series of coffee table art books curated by Mike Doyle with the aim of showcasing the best artistic LEGO creations being made today.  The first volume was published in 2013 by No Starch Press.

[xii] Beyond the Brick, Episode 139 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcpNchpBu28.

[xiii] See, Howard, Jason, We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Louisville, KY: Motes Books, 2009

[xiv] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Writings, London, Harper Perennial 1977.

 

This article was first published in Bricks Culture No.3 October 2015

David Hughes Brick Artist

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Jimmy from Quadrophenia

David Hughes is one of the UK’s most exciting up and coming Brick Artists. Over the past year he has become well known for his sculptures of ballet dancers and recreations of popular cultural icons from Quadrophenia to A Clockwork Orange.  I caught up with him to find out what life as a brick artist is like.

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Self Portrait

David Alexander Smith Over the past year you seem to have really struck out in terms of displaying your work, both as part of the LEGO convention scene, but also beyond that in galleries and art fairs. How has the experience been?

David Hughes Really good. There is a headline note for me, which runs through all of my thoughts on exhibiting and that is the idea of validation and recognition as an artist beyond being a LEGO enthusiast.   Does one want their LEGO work to be recognised for its artistic endeavour by people who are not LEGO enthusiasts? Is there a way of getting validation from the wider art world; and do we care and should we care about this? A lot of the LEGO fan community give me the impression they don’t care about this recognition from non-LEGO fans, and I think that is brilliant. I talked to several AFOLs at a show recently who abhorred the idea of what they do being more than a hobby – being judged or monetized in some way and how that would ruin the freedom and joy they have with their hobby and I think that is a really interesting position. However, I do care about a wider validation and want the artistic recognition and that’s why I’ve pushed my work into art fairs for example. So most of my ‘agenda’, for want of a better expression, at the moment, is to do with a drive for a wider, mainstream recognition for LEGO Art.

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PARK Theatre Exhibition

DAS Perhaps there is something to do with the subject matter of a LEGO creation, for instance your engagement with classic design icons, like the chair series of mosaics, rather than just the technical skill needed to build it, which, rightly or wrongly, defines it as ‘art’ and helps it win the recognition you talk about?

DH Yes, there is subject matter and building style, but also aspects like scale which have as much to do with this notion of recognition. I’ve noticed when talking to non-LEGO enthusiasts, with anything that is toy scale it is difficult to convince them that it is not a toy, even if the subject matter or technical skill is not toy related, and maybe even adult themed. So I do think there is a scale issue: I think LEGO art has to be different in scale to LEGO toys if it wants to be recognised as art.

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The White Swan

DAS I agree that not being toy scaled helps, but should it make the difference? In a similar vein the type of bricks LEGO artists use seem important in terms of artistic recognition. Often LEGO artists prefer to use standard bricks in a sculptural way rather than use identifiable specialist elements that resonate with the idea of a toy or play.

DH I think the toy scale issue is only at the moment and should change as LEGO art gets wider recognition. But, it is not so much the suggestion of the toy in non-standard bricks that causes the issue; actually it is a genuine lack of knowledge on the part of the general public that these elements exist and are LEGO bricks at all.

I stopped properly building when I was fifteen. I didn’t touch LEGO bricks again until I bought some LEGO sets for my kids. Initially I didn’t’ understand it, there were too many moulded pieces; it didn’t float my boat at all.  So I didn’t ‘find-it’ again as a lot of AFOLs do through contemporary LEGO sets. It was only when I was working on a project on Brick Lane in London a few years later that things changed. I kept going past Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick exhibition. Eventually I went in and it blew me away, especially because of his use of standard bricks.

So I think that a lot of the non-LEGO art world, like myself 6-years ago when I bought my kids sets, simply doesn’t know that these specialist styles of bricks exist, or that adult fans are interested in techniques other than the traditional brick on brick building.

So whilst there is some fabulous material being built by adult fans that use these elements to make technically brilliant, beautiful, artistic creations, there are, unfortunately, a whole raft of people beyond the age of 30 who don’t recognise their work as LEGO and as a result don’t understand it. That’s why I think traditional bricks work better at the moment, in builds that are labelling themselves as art.

And it is important to think about the audience and who you want your audience to be and why you want a particular audience. As I said, I want a wide, art appreciative audience, not just an AFOL audience because I am interested in art and design in the widest context. This means, rightly or wrongly, that I need to somewhat tailor my technique to appeal to a non-LEGO enthusiast audience.

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Cafe racer

DAS Do you think there will come a time when the public, the wider audience if you like, becomes more receptive to these newer building styles?

DH Yes, definitely. I think there is a time issue, where, maybe in 10 or even 20-years time, when the kids of today are the new art going general public, they will recognise these non-brickish elements as LEGO pieces and these building styles as art and this will change how the general public recognise LEGO art.

There also needs to be a way for a wider range of types of LEGO art to find its way into the mainstream art and design world and a gallery setting. I‘d like to see a show that invites a range of artists, much as Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO book did. Imagine if people who are known as LEGO artists, the crowd pleasers, are shown alongside artists using newer techniques. Nathan Sawaya talks about a movement of LEGO artists, and a curated show could present this movement. Imagine LEGO builders (all of whom I really admire) like Tyler Halliwell, Mike Doyle (himself), Adam Mullins the mosaic builder, Joe Perez and Tim Lydy coming together with more traditional brick-on-brick builders to do something like this. That would be amazing.

It should be something more than a convention; an exhibition with proper branding, design, curation, lighting and wall hanging; a proper level of gallery professionalism and the right sort of canapés at the private view. A proper art event.

DAS. Perhaps the adult hobbyists are as much artists as the self-proclaimed brick artists, even if they don’t identify as such. I’ve often thought that the LEGO scene is an example of contemporary folk art practice. We no longer learn needlecraft and folk singing as part of our childhood, instead we play with bricks, and this informs our adult creative expression.

DH Absolutely. A lot of the models I saw at Brick Live in Birmingham, were as I expected: DC, Marvel, Batman, trains, Star Wars and all the rest. Yet within these creations, especially in the diorama sections, there were quirky things, where the builders were trying out different ideas. They were challenging the rigid structures of the franchises they were representing: twisting a theme and making it personal to them. It was brilliant, a real artistic statement where these creators were saying something beyond the basic expectation of the subject matter they had chosen. This way of working could well be a form of folk art, irrespective of if it is talked about as such.

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One Good Eye

DAS What has your experience of exhibiting work outside the LEGO hobbyist bubble been like?

DH I’ve shown work at a local art fair and a more contemporary regional art fair. There is also the Boise Art Museum in America that wants to borrow some of my work so I am chatting to them about the logistics of that and Clerkenwell Design Week coming up in May.

People are generally really interested in LEGO Art, which I think comes down to the fact that in the western word nearly everyone knows what LEGO is and probably has a friend or relative who is or was into LEGO building. The comments are typically “wow” and “that’s clever” or “I didn’t think you could do that with LEGO”, rather than just that is beautiful or an interesting work of art. It seemed to be mainly the novelty of the medium that makes people stop and talk and think but then it becomes about the subject and the story of the piece. So it is really interesting that it is working on those two levels – the childlike joy of the remembered LEGO experience and then the piece as art itself. I also think it is important for me, or any LEGO artist to stand there at these art fairs or events and say I am an artist: I say it and so therefore it is. I think the branding of the idea of LEGO as art is valuable to the acceptance process.

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Autumn Art Fair Set Up

DAS LEGO creations do have this unique aesthetic; in that how they were made can be read as a code by anyone viewing them, which as you suggest, can initiate creativity as a response.

DH I know you discussed this in your blog before. I’m fascinated by the ideas you raised there about how we define what LEGO art is. Like other young art forms, for example street art, LEGO art is still identifying itself so I doubt we can currently define what ‘LEGO Art’ is as opposed to ‘Art using the medium of LEGO’.  I am really keen that I, and others, embrace the idea of ourselves as LEGO Artists as a definable, recognisable ‘type’ rather than just artists who use LEGO.

What is interesting as well is that there are a whole bunch of LEGO artists that are almost trying to hide the LEGO system, or code as you put it, in their creations. I think they like the idea of building things where you can’t see how it is made. The LEGO fan in me thinks there is something quite cool about this; in the way if you look close enough you can see the joins in their pieces but it comes back to the principle of who is the audience. Will an audience beyond AFOLs take the time to look at, and understand, the incredible technique? It comes back what are you trying to say, if anything.

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LEGO Hand

DAS That idea brings us back to scale. I think the natural scale for a LEGO artwork is when you are able to read the code and the image simultaneously. However some creations are so vast that you can only see either the code or the image one at the time – you need to be right up close to read the bricks in these cases.

DH Exactly, and that is why I build at the scale I do, where you see both image and system at the same time. It’s also why I avoid the smaller scale or a stud-less aesthetic as the majority of people would not read the work in these cases as being made of LEGO bricks. Dirk’s Denoyelle’s stud-less heads for example are technically brilliant and look great, but for the non-LEGO enthusiast they just look like big plastic heads. From a LEGO fan’s technical point of view I love these ways of building, but from an art/design-business perspective, and without us pushing what LEGO Art is to a wider audience, I think we have a few years to go before we are able to make works like this and have them recognised outside the LEGO community.

DAS It seems that you have some very specific criteria in mind when you build. How do you decide what to build, and how does this influence the creative process that follows?

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LEGO Pop

DH One of the things I have done, which is something Nathan Sawaya did, is to make copies of existing traditional artworks. This comes back to the idea of educating the non-LEGO art audience as to what LEGO art can be. Most people know artworks like the Lichenstein I’ve built as a mosaic. They recognise the image, but it is only then when they stop and look closely, or when I stand there and tell them, that they realise that it is made of LEGO bricks.

I find that there is something really good about spotting this process of reinterpretation. It is linked to a certain Pop Art approach; in that I enjoy picking subject matter that is going to be understood by people outside the LEGO fan community as an art form itself. Just as advertising slogans and popular culture were reappraised when they became the subjects of pop art works.

Looking at some of my specific pieces, the Lichenstein for example, is mainly about the technique of translating an image into brick form and inviting the audience to take a closer look. Whereas the Alex head is from the 1972 book cover image of A Clockwork Orange, and is more about the idea of turning a known 2d image into a 3d object. It captures something about the uniqueness of sculpting an object in bricks, which began as a flat print, and seeing how it is turned into a model.

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Clockwork Orange

The skulls were a bit of fun, but also again about realising a cultural motif, in this case the festival of the Day of the Dead, in an unexpected medium.

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Day of the Dead Red Skull

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Day of the Dead Yellow Skull

DAS Is your process different when your subject matter is not about translating from an established cultural image?

DH The six dancers, the grey ones, are at one level more about pure brick exploration. They really were all about whether it is possible to take an orthogonal hard brick and recreate one of the most graceful art forms – dance. These sculptures were about using a solid material, an orthogonal building system, to make something graceful and emotional too.

It was quite a technique led investigation. I think they are successful because of the scale and the two-tone approach, which allows them to be obviously LEGO whilst still being read in terms of curves and movement. They are not trying to be scale-model representations of dancers but sculptures that hopefully invoke an emotional response in the viewer in their own right.

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Dancer Series

DAS It is fascinating that you use the way the works are technically made to activate interest. Is this something you have used in other pieces?

DH The architectural and chair series mosaics use of stripes is perhaps another example. Being an architect myself I find it interesting to turn iconic modernist or brutalist buildings into something that looks like a silkscreen print. Like the reinterpretation of the Lichenstein, these are icons that are recognisable by the art and design world as being ‘classic design’. Using a graphic or lino cut style and the vibrant colours of the LEGO palette presents the buildings in a new way. In these works the designer Morag Myerscough’s use of colour was a great influence.

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LEGO Battersea Power Station

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Verner Panton Chair

DAS Where do you see future projects taking you?

DH I recently completed Afternoon of a Faun, derived from an iconic image of the dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq from the 1950s. It is a beautiful and tragic image. The piece is really taking the grey dancer series to the next level, in terms of scale, technique and colour and continuing to explore ideas of presenting emotion.

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Afternoon of the Faun

And I’ve just finished a wall hung sculpture, Leave me alone don’t leave me alone (Blue), which explores ideas and a story around depression and anxiety and I think will be the first in a series. It was a piece I did after writing an article for @inmyheadcase about my own struggles with anxiety and depression. I feel that I have learned a great deal from the work so far and am ready to get more personal, begin to ask more questions and for a new challenge in these pieces.

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Leave Me Alone and Don’t Leave Me Alone (Blue)

I’ve also just finished a solo show at Park Theatre Gallery Space in north London, mainly the mosaics but also photos of some of the sculptures; and then I will be participating in Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) in May. The organisers have approached me and seem excited for me to be involved. They know of me as an architect in the design sense, and I think the idea of one of them, one of their guys as it were, becoming a LEGO artist really appeals to them. I’m also making a new sculpture commission for British Ceramic Tile, one of the CDW sponsors, which will be displayed in their London showroom for the event and then stay there permanently. We are making a short film about the process and inspiration of the piece.

I’ve also recently been invited to exhibit and make a collaborative piece over three days for a cool, contemporary new art fair in London in September. What’s interesting is the organisers really like the idea of us making something with the people attending – we all know this is done at LEGO conventions with the kids with say the Fairy Bricks mosaic or the pumpkin making at last years Brick Live, but we are looking at transporting that idea to an adult, hipster, gallery attending audience, with a subject matter that reflects that context – that’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see where this exposure takes me next.

Discover more at:

dhughesdesign.com

Instagram and Twitter – @daveh_design

 

Exhibitions:

Clerkenwell Design Week, Platform, House of Detention, 12 Sans Walk,

London EC1R 0AS

23 – 25 May 2017

British Ceramic Tile, London Hub, 26 Seward Street, London EC1V 3PA

23 – 25 May 2017 and beyond