Authentic/Inauthentic Lego or what’s the right way to build?

109367141

Emmet’s instructions for life from The Lego Movie.

Is there a right way to build with Lego?   Doesn’t this question stand in stark contrast to the creative ethos at the heart of the Lego experience? You might well think so, but it is precisely this question that motivates recent critiques about the way Lego has changed, since the launch of its initial range of basic bricks. New themes, film tie-ins and a host of specialised pieces are all supposedly detracting from Lego’s creative potential.

Justin Parkinson provocatively titled his recent article for the BBC ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?’[i] The report summarised some of the common misconceptions expressed about Lego’s recent developments, drawing together from various sources the arguments against the changes the company has implemented. But do these arguments hold up, is Lego now promoting a toy that falls somewhere short of an original ‘authentic’ way of building? I don’t believe so, and will show in each case why Lego continues to propagate our children’s and our imagination.

So what are the cases for the demise of Lego’s creative and imaginative potential? Loosely speaking Parkinson breaks things down to three key points:

  1. The instructions provided in current Lego sets dictate single builds, rather than offering a child the opportunity to explore with their own imagination;
  2. Specialised pieces, that have one specific use, limit the number of creative possibilities open to the child;
  3. Lego is too simplistic and doesn’t help a child develop their building towards an ideal form, primarily with engineering and scientific application.

Starting with the principle that single sets of instructions hamper creativity, Parkinson cites blogger Chris Swan, who is recorded as saying: ‘Single-outcome sets encourage preservation rather than destruction, and sadly that makes them less useful, less educational (and, in my opinion, less fun)’[ii]. And on this out of context quote[iii] hangs the whole of Parkinson’s case. If you take the time to read Swan’s article, there is a more nuanced position. He in fact argues that children find it harder to dismantle Lego, and engage in creative re-imaginations of the bricks, if they are channeled towards models to collect and keep.

Swan is fundamentally wrong however, when he suggests that there is a preferred or more authentic way of building with Lego. Consider the irony in the statement he makes, which suggests the best way to build is to avoid the rules and work from intuitive imagination and individual creative application, when it in turn becomes a rule by which to establish value judgments about the types of ways a child can interact with Lego.

For many of us who build with Lego, the creative experience Swan explains mirrors our own enjoyment of the medium, and this gives it an unfounded rhetorical conviction; unquestionable in the Lego community. But this isn’t the only way to build, and other ways, including sticking to the instructions, are not necessarily, less fun, or less imaginative. Swan exemplifies the type of morally high-minded adult validation of Lego, that sees it as best understood as a way of educating a child, developing certain transferable skills, and activating a free creative spirit. Whilst Lego has the potential to do all this,  it should not be reduced to this alone.

Building from instructions has been part of the Lego experience from its inception, and is a core part of its imaginative potential. If we were talking about any other creative medium, the need to develop skills through instruction or imitation would be taken as a given. For example, imagine trying to compose music without first learning how to play an instrument, read music and practice scales. Unless you have a prodigious talent, it would be folly to turn your back on this wealth of experience.  The lessons learnt by following the instructions in a Lego set, develop these skills in one’s own building.

Take Emmet the everyman construction worker from the Lego Movie[iv], who carries latent master builder skills, through his long-term adherence to the instructions. His construction mech, realised at the film’s finale is an expression of all those learnt techniques redeployed. And behind this narrative we have Will Ferrel’s son, who is implied to have played with his father’s Lego display according to the rules set for him, and only once his imagined narrative required new creations, does he find the courage to build his own way. Just like Emmet’s complete submission to Lord Business’s hegemony, his skill is based on the knowledge he had acquired from his interaction with his father’s world.  As the film notes Lord Business was the greatest master builder after all.

lego-city-town-giant-mobile-crane-split-60026-yesbrick-1307-16-yesbrick@21

City building from the instructions.

13623461504_f99b20ff85_b

City building Emmet’s way.

This example exposes Swan’s child, who builds a Lego set and then methodically destroys it, as an idealised fantasy. Possibly this occurs from a filtering we all have, as to how we ‘think’ we played with Lego in our own childhood. How quickly we forget that Lego lets a child build a toy: racing cars to be raced, houses to be lived in, spaceships to explore distant galaxies with. The games in which the child engages in, is often the missing catalyst (which Swan misses) for inspired creation.  And you need to build and keep sets to create this arena for inspired play.  Rather than imagine the perfect creatively driven child and a set of abstract bricks, how many of us in fact relied on the themes of more experienced and better builders  than ourselves (normally professional Lego designers) to step forward with our own imaginative endeavors. Some of us as adults still collect and build those classic sets of our childhood to display, but then add to them with something of our own. Jon Blackford’s wonderful Classic Space display[v] shows this principle in action.  A complete set of original built sets surrounding a fantastic new creation of his own.

12414091355_cd2d31c175_o

Jon Blackford, Command Centre Layout 1 (2014).

Swan’s further assumption in his article is that Lego as a company is moving towards a range dominated by single outcome sets. This is simply not true. Lego in reality has consistently diversified its types of building experiences. Whilst core areas such as Lego City, Star Wars and Lego Friends do indeed present single outcomes sets, they are supplemented by the 3 in 1 Creator sets, Technic and as of last year the highly successful Mixels range, all of which encourage multiple builds from individual sets. Taking Mixels as a case study, here is a toy that seems to refute Swan’s perception. Its name itself inspires the idea of mixing and rebuilding. The urge to collect small pocket-money sets, off-set against a principle that smaller sets can be broken down and combined with others to make ever bigger and stranger creatures.

LEGO-Mixels-Mixed-Up

LEGO-Mixels-Mixed-Up

A deeper argument though, is not simply that there is a diversification of building styles and options being offered by Lego, which necessarily would seem to suggest an increase in the ways in which our imagination is being activated, but that the purported dictatorial single outcome set is not the negative anti-creative experience it is portrayed as. Taking the extreme examples of this type of build, the large modular town sets, the architectural building range or Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series, there are a number of positive things to be said. As the complexity of these models increase, so do the techniques required to build them. As a learning experience these sets share a huge amount of knowledge with a novice builder. Far from being a lesser educational experience to that of free invention, they simply offer a different one.

This still hasn’t answered Swan’s main claim though that single outcome sets reduce imaginative potential. The problem arises from a common misconception that Lego is a pure participatory experience. One has an authentic experience of Lego when one is building; reflection on that which is created is of a lesser order. In my last article where I built a case for Lego art[vi], I challenged the lack of analysis given to the act of viewing and responding to Lego creations. My conclusion being that Lego activates the imagination by simultaneously revealing to the spectator its built and un-built state. So if a child builds a set that inspires reflection and wonder of this kind, and this relationship is one they seek to maintain, is it fair to consider this relationship a negative or inauthentic one?

When we look at other creative mediums, we almost never distinguish levels of authenticity between making and responding to work. If you listen to a piece of music and do not immediately decide to respond by composing music of your own, would this then make your relation to music an inauthentic one. If you read a novel, and are not moved to write, has the experience diminished your imaginative experience of the work? As such, it is possible to build a Lego set from the instructions and not feel a need to build something of your own, and this too is a valid experience.

The problem Swan exposes is that we often try to pigeonhole what good play is, and consequently how imagination should be employed. When we try to reduce Lego to an ideal type of engagement, we miss so much of what it can be (in this case a source of wonder and speculation). Lego as a company has grasped this and is offering an ever widening range of experiences to its audiences, including that of collection and reflection. Those commentators who want to step back in time, put the genie back in the bottle and deny these new experiences for a perceived more authentic earlier one, are doing anything other than defending Lego’s imaginative potential.

The second case given by Parkinson involves the use of specialised pieces. Like the case for single outcome sets, this issue relates to the reduction of authentic building opportunities, created this time by the introduction of new elements. The argument is presented here through a historical perspective, that Lego in the early 2000’s got things wrong by producing sets with too many specialised pieces, which led to ‘instant gratification building’. Lego realised its mistake and has since rectified the balance. Quoting David Gauntlett’s sensible opinion regarding the shift away from this type of product, the article effectively sets up a second authenticity claim. Lego has a duty to keep its sets composed of mainly, pure, or traditional, standard bricks. The mix determining whether the ideal building experience is provided.

Once more, the case for Lego’s deterioration is attached to an unsubstantiated claim as to what the correct way to build is. Specialised pieces as a result are defined as a necessary evil.  They are something Lego needs to embrace in relation to the representational needs of its marketed franchises (how else can you make a convincing R2 D2 dome), but of course there ought to be a minimization of these pieces. The rot is in Lego, and needs to be monitored at a healthy level, or so say the critics.

This is a wrong-headed way of looking at the introduction of specialised pieces. Rather than being perceived as a threat to imaginative possibilities, these pieces have been behind some of the most dynamic creative shifts in the Lego building community.

In the most simple of mathematical terms, we can see that the increase in piece types ought to equate to increased possibilities, not a reduction of them; so why the vilification of these elements? Well for a start an influx of these pieces causes a problems when it comes to us recognising what we think Lego ought to look like. Basic elements of Lego conform to a simple geometric uniformity and a primary colour range. Imagination, or precisely the imagination required to render according to these limits is lost when too many non-conforming pieces are introduced.   Some of these new specialised pieces provide short cuts to the rendering techniques required of basic bricks, and with it a very specific Lego aesthetic. So,paradoxically as the artistic options increase with the variety of pieces, a certain artistry is perceived to be lost.  But does this change amount to a loss of imaginative potential?

David Roberts[vii], an established builder and active member of the Lego community, was the first person to comment on my article on Lego art, he observed that the Lego that found its way into the category of art, almost exclusively was made of basic bricks. In answer I would say that the rendering skill displayed by builders such as Nathan Sawaya[viii] and Sean Kenny[ix], indeed helps their work find purchase, through the resolute veracity of its Lego geometrics. If Lego is going to be taken for art, it ought to be undeniably recognisable as such…or should it?

lego-art-sean-kenney-portrait

Sean Kenny, Portrait

conan-obrien-5-300x300

Nathan Sawaya, Conan O’Brien

In reality Lego is not the stable geometric system of simple bricks that popular culture thinks it is. Rather a strange organic, constantly shifting collection of plastic shapes that connect together. From month to month different pieces are developed, or go out of circulation. Wonderful blogs such as Tim Johnson’s New Elementary[x] track all these introductions, analyse their potential for building and celebrate them. Far from being the stultification of imagination, these elements enhance, inspire and provide Lego with an ever-changing aesthetic terrain.

The imaginative potential of the specialised element can be seen writ large in the work of a builder like Mike Nieves[xi] who embraces specialised pieces. Although working in many respects in a way similar to Sawaya and Kenny, in that he seeks to render the complex through simple pieces, his selection of specialised pieces  produces a stylistic shift.   Much like witnessing the change in brush strokes implemented by the Impressionist painters, he alters the frame for Lego rendering. His new  style, reliant as it is on specialised pieces, aligns with the arabesque rather than the expected recta-linear form of traditional bricks. And yet still, they are very much Lego creations.

1334223636m_DISPLAY

Mike Nieves, Tiger V. 2

What is new in the way a builder like Nieves works, is that it opens up an additional experience for the spectator. Not only do I now say, “that is made of Lego!”, but I view each piece and take pleasure in decoding its origin. In the case of Tiger V. 2[xii] by Nieves, it is found in examples such as the use of racing car driver helmets for the construction of the head. The excited mind is forced to flip between the piece’s original use and its new deployment. These new pieces as such add a new imaginative operation, not just more creative options. All of which makes it seem even more ridiculous that they have been accused of Iimiting imagination.

The art historian Christine Poggi, in her seminal study of the development of collage in Twentieth Century art, In Defiance of Painting[xiii], quotes Picasso talking to Henri Laurens in 1948 about their experiments with collage in 1914. Picasso says: ‘We must have been crazy, or cowards to abandon this! We had such magnificent means. Look how beautiful this is – not because I did it, naturally – and we had these means yet I turned back to oil paint and you to marble, It’s insane!’[xiv]. In a way the introduction of specialised pieces into the Lego range offers similar possibilities to builders as collage did to the avant-garde artists of the early Twentieth Century. And like them, we have to question why we should turn back to a time before their existence, as if the traditional brick form was a more creative approach.

Lego creations made by the selection of objects, re-appropriations of the apparently single use element for other ends, like the experiments in collage, open up a new Lego language for builders.  For instance, when you look at a later sculptural construct by Picasso like Baboon and Young[xv], every child who plays with Lego will recognise the moment of inspiration where the toy car is reconfigured as the head of a Baboon.

medium

Picasso, Baboon and Young

The argument for the reduction of imagination based on the increase of specialised pieces fails because it fundamentally under-estimates a child’s or any builder’s imaginative capacity to see any piece as something else. In the Lego community this skill is referred to by the frequently used acronym NPU (nice piece usage), a useful stand in for the Lego builder’s ability to find a suitable gestalt for an unexpected piece. The talent is revered in areas like the Iron Builder contests[xvi] that pit Lego enthusiasts against each other, with the aim of finding as many applications as they can for highly specialised Lego elements. This capacity for ‘seeing-as’ means that the supposedly useless Lego croissant piece, may in fact be a crab’s claw, a strand of mermaid’s hair, a lion’s smile. We are not dictated to by the use implied in the set the piece was bought as part of. The new piece always offers fresh opportunities and the expansion of imaginative potential.

Iron-Builder-LEGO-Contest-1

Iron Builder Contest between Pasukaru76 and Volume X

I have left the final argument that Lego fails to support the development of young scientists, to last, because it seems on first inspection to contradict the previous two cases. However it will quickly become apparent that it shares the underlying fault with the two previously examined discussions: that it too perceives there to be an ideal or authentic way of building, and Lego’s failure has been in not advocating this. Parkinson makes this case based on statements quoted from the Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto, who believe that Lego has an ideal application, which it is fundamentally ill equipped to deal with. This being to provide an educational building system for young scientists and engineers to learn from. He is quoted saying: ‘Children should start with Lego, which is basically a toy, and its basic units are bricks. We do not build cars and other machines out of bricks.’

Of course Kroto is ill informed to make these comments, seemingly having not looked at the range of sets Lego is currently prodcuing. Empirical evidence stands against any claim that Lego fails to cater for the technically inspired imagination. There are the specialised ranges such as Technic and Mindstorms. Beyond this, there are thriving organisations such as Young Engineers[xvii] who use Lego (as well as other building systems) to foster children’s participation in STEM subjects. And then there is individual cases such as that of Shubham Banerjee[xviii] the 13-year old engineer who has designed and developed a low cost Braille printer with Lego.

braigo_BBB29387978347

Shubham Banerjee braille printer

Whilst Kroto’s ideal demands more specialised pieces, cogs, cranks, pneumatics and so forth, as well as more detailed instructions capable of teaching basic engineering skills, (the diametric opposite of the previous argued cases), ultimately there are more similarities than differences to the more culturally embedded critiques I’ve discussed. His perception of Lego’s loss of imagination is tied to linking Lego to a right way to build.

As long the critics perceive Lego according to an ideal, rather than an open system to be explored, they will bang their heads against the cases and ways it develops beyond those conditions. This is the conclusion of my analysis, that the cases against Lego’s current developments all rely perversely on a limitation of imaginative potential as a preferred alternative. They begin with untested assumptions as to what an ideal or good imaginative engagement with Lego is, and as a result fail to see the full scope of the medium. Crucially this means both accepting the reflective engagements with Lego as being as valid as the participatory ones; and that Lego’s aesthetic is not grounded in an ideal set of pieces or system of building. If you are open-minded enough to look, and really investigate what Lego is doing, and by proxy what the building community is achieving as a result, current changes are not limiting imagination rather expanding it, in unexpected and challenging ways.

Endnotes

[i] Justin Parkinson, ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?’ BBC (26 November 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 (accessed 11 January 2015).

[ii] Chris Swan, ‘The Perils of Modern Lego’ Chris Swan’s Weblog (26 November 2014) http://blog.thestateofme.com/2013/01/01/the-perils-of-modern-lego/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[iii] Swan notes on the update to his Blog following Parkinson’s article: ‘I’m very pleased that this post has been referenced by Justin Parkinson’s piece on the BBC News site ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?‘, but I fear he may have misunderstood (or misrepresented) what I say about instructions. […] TL;DR  – instructions aren’t the problem,  they’re a good and necessary part of all sets beyond basic boxes of bricks, the problem is sets that only make one thing (like a dragon or something licensed from a movie).’ Ibid Chris Swan’s Weblog.

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

[v] Jon Blackford, Command Centre Layout 1, John Blackford’s Flickr Stream (9 February 2014) https://www.flickr.com/photos/heiwa71/12414091355/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[vi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[vii] See David Robert’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidroberts01341/16252552785/.

[viii] See Nathan Sawaya’s website, http://brickartist.com/.

[ix] See Sean Kenny’s website, http://www.seankenney.com/.

[x] See the New Elementary http://www.newelementary.com/.

[xi] See Mike Nieves’ Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/retinence/.

[xii] Mike Nieves, Tiger V 2, Mike Nieves’ Flickr stream (12 April 2012). https://www.flickr.com/photos/retinence/ (accessed 11 January 2012).

[xiii] Christine Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage, Yale Universiy Press, New Haven/London (1992)

[xiv] Ibid, In Defiance of Painting, p.xvii.

[xv] Picasso, Baboon and Young, 1951, MOMA art collection. (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=81119).

[xvi] The Iron Builders contest is hosted by the Builders Lounge forum (http://builderslounge.proboards.com/), and a collection of creations made as part of the contest can be found in this Flickr group, https://www.flickr.com/groups/2167827@N22.

[xvii] See the Young Engineers website, http://www.young-engineers.co.uk/.

[xviii] See this article from the Business Insider, http://uk.businessinsider.com/shubham-banerjee-braigo-labs-2014-11.

Advertisements

Building a Case for Lego Art

In-Pieces-NYC-Nathan-Sawaya-and-Dean-West-Avant-Gallery-LEGO-yatzer-12

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



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

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

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

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

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

Antony Gormley, Construct, Firmament and Standing

Antony Gormley: Construct, Firmament and Standing

circle-triangle-square

Nathan Sawaya, Circle Triangle Square

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

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

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

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

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

1393218205000-Ferrell-lego

Will Ferrell in The LEGO Movie

Palais-Idéal_cheval

Ferdinand Cheval, Le Palais ideal

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

imagegen.ashx

Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project

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

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

Bildschirmfoto-2011-07-23-um-12.02.12

Jan Vormann, Dispatchworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ca53bb4c-88ad-4a1c-a67b-6fa763886ed8-620x372

Nathan Sawaya, Mask, photo © Erica Ann

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

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

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

Endnotes   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to matt and Tim for their input and support.