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

LEGO and Photography

Two years ago I was given the opportunity of writing for the magazine Bricks Culture; a privilege which continues still.  This was my first article written for the publication, and featured in Issue 1 back in April 2015.  I’m still fond of the piece and its argument that draws the disciplines of building with LEGO and photographing LEGO together.  Print copies of the magazine, which features a whole host of other interesting articles, can be purchased here.

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I will be a Fisherman by Shelly Corbett

Several years ago I was lucky enough to interview Bjarne Tveskov [i], the iconic LEGO designer responsible for the creation of the much-loved Blacktron and Futron space ranges. He was talking to me about the process designers went through to create the alternative models shown on the back of the LEGO boxes during the 1980s. This is what he had to say about the Blacktron Alienator (6876): “Also I like how the box design guys made the footprints on the space surface for the image on the back of the box, even though the model isn’t actually able to lift its feet from the ground!”

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Blacktron Alienator designed by Bjarne Tveskov

What caught my attention in Tveskov’s statement was that LEGO’s merchandising of their product ranges often-exceeded direct representations of the toys. Creating through set design and photography believable worlds, places where for example the Blacktron Alienator really could walk. These photographs encouraged imaginative responses, where the truth, or limitations of the toys were put secondary to the stories, ideas and aspirations they conjured up.

Undoubtedly, the relationship between LEGO and its photographic representation is much more than a point and click affair. Here is a company that understood some 30 years ago that to sell successfully you needed to offer your audience a world that triggers and sustains the imagination. A product has to work as both a toy and as a work of art: as an image that demands and rewards repeated investigation.

The space ranges, such as Blacktron, developed through the dioramas and aptly focused lunar lighting a specific iconography. The yellow sandy dunes, undulating craters and starry sky, looking to all extent and purpose like every six-year-old’s romantic idealisation of outer space. More so than the individual box-art images, the collective catalogue spread photographs, where whole ranges were presented together, fully realised LEGO as a living and breathing environment. Looking back at space imagery from the early 1980s, those simple sets in situ still inspire awe.

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LEGOland Space 1979

The other ranges that LEGO ran at the time were of course subject to the same treatment. Castles were situated in perspective-angled hills so as to exaggerate scale. Pirates exchanged cannon blasts across choppy seas. And possibly my favourite photographed diorama, this magnificent town display replete with Space Shuttle launch, captured an undisclosed Florida cityscape and NASA test site.

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LEGOland Town

Whilst these endeavours were clearly driven by a marketing strategy, one that has to be acknowledged as highly successful during the 1980s and early 1990s, it also challenged the way future generations and returning adult builders would come to interact with LEGO. Even if we remain partially blinded to the fact, all of us now consume LEGO, not only through the process of building LEGO sets or creations of our own, but also through the proliferation of photographic images of LEGO we are exposed to.

I can personally link this shift, where I embraced the LEGO photograph, back to a very specific moment, one I’m sure many fans of LEGO, young or old, will identify with. The six-year old me was tucked up in bed with the new LEGO catalogue. By torchlight, deep under the covers I reviewed, examined and absorbed all those images of the current LEGO ranges. At one level this was driven by a consumer urge. Mentally I selected the big yellow castle as something that had to make it onto the Christmas list, but at another level the idea of possession was far from my mind. Ranges like Fabuland, Scala and the large train sets, which either were beyond financial reach or clearly not aimed at my demographic, garnered an equal focus as the magnificent new space sets.

LEGO realised quite wisely that no child would likely ever own all the sets in its ranges, nor were they likely to want to. So whilst the product instilled an inclination to collect themes or sets, as a totality the product range encouraged selection and choice. And whilst the ownership of actual sets might be limited, the aesthetic engagement with the full scope of possibilities did not have to be so. By taking the time to present its products, through artful photography, it created a secondary free product. Wonderful images which enthralled in their own right.

This investment in the photograph is most clearly seen in LEGO’s support of photographic imagery beyond the obvious merchandising points. Yes, we find some of the best LEGO imagery on box fronts, in catalogues and adverts, but places such as the back of boxes (unlikely to obtain more than a fleeting glance on the shop floor) and the published Ideas books also took extraordinary lengths to produce the highest quality photographs.

Tveskov brings home the point in the same interview I referred to earlier. He describes the alternative builds, and in fact the whole presentation of the reverse of the LEGO boxes, as a place where the designers, box artists and photographers could have fun. For the smaller sets, the possibility of reverse engineering the alternative builds was a real possibility, but not a necessity. On the larger sets, a task only really achievable by the more skilled and experienced builders. As such, the alternative builds were never considered as actual models one would make. Other sets, such as the Technic models included instructions when the alternative was thought of in this manner. Instead the alternative build was always to be considered as an image, as a photograph. Perhaps it is for this reason too, that the quirky impossible presentation of the Alienator, with its duck feet imprints also becomes a secondary image, one for the back of the box.

The idea of consuming LEGO as idea or an image, so as to inspire rather than to be made was most expertly realised in the Ideas books. These publications allowed the LEGO designers free range to work with elements currently available in the company’s sets. The books came with limited instructions for a few of the smaller builds, but ostensibly were glossy photographic catalogues of what you could do if you only had enough bricks. Taking up what the catalogues had introduced through the commercial need to sell, the Ideas books gave the child a selection of mind-expanding marvels that could be achieved in LEGO without subtext. For many of us these might have been our first art books, collections of the most stunning photography. A small chance to aesthetically reflect and expand our building ambitions.

I would argue that once cut loose from the necessity of neat, polished commercial products, the most fully realised examples of some of LEGO’s early genre experiments came to fruition in the photographs of the builds in these books. Compare the sprawling web of sci-fi wonderment presented in the Ideas book, to the space catalogue entries of the same period, and we are immediately struck by a shift in experimentation, complexity and scope.

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Images from the the LEGO Ideas books

Leaving the past behind, it seems clear that LEGO and photography had very quickly found a symbiotic relationship, one which now seems hard to disentangle. What importantly is revealed is that a sophisticated relationship to LEGO is never just about the craft and skill of building. It also includes a desire to express or show something through the process of making, and equally an enjoyment and value in reflecting on a LEGO creation as a realised image. LEGO when photographed fulfils both of these criteria. By distancing itself from its process of creation, the builder is able to identify what they wish to show: and the viewer removed from the context of the bricks, as components that can be dissembled, is able to concentrate on the creation itself.

The understanding of this particular interdisciplinary relationship further helps to refute certain myths about LEGO. Whether it can be an art form or not, and whether the creative or building experience constitutes its most authentic expression.

I have recently written on the question of LEGO’s authenticity[ii] and whether or not it is inextricably linked to creative activity . In this article I challenged the views of the blogger Chris Swan [iii], that were taken up by the BBC journalist Justin Parkinson in his controversial article ‘ Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ [iv]  Swan’s argument hinged on the principle that the authentic condition for LEGO is always found in the moments we experience when building. Once complete, the correct response to a LEGO construction is to dismantle it and begin the creative process once more.

What Swan missed, and which this discussion relating to photography opens, is that the moment following the completion of a build, where the builder’s first impulse is to show what has been built, is as significant as the building experience itself. That joyful moment when the child runs to Mum or Dad, and exclaims “Look! Look what I have made!” Clearly in a creative act, as imperative as the desire to build is the desire to show. And by proxy we accept that there is something to reflect upon, something for an audience to see and feel.

LEGO cannot be perceived of as art if it must remain ideally as Swan argues an exclusively creative act, it must also be a showing, a site for reflection.

The problem for the child is that following the creation of a LEGO model they reach a troubling state of affairs. One we can all recall from our childhood. The need to show what has been made, and the desire to explore a new project, to show something else; both are valid positions, but cannot be mutually sustained. Enter photography to the rescue!

The potential ephemerality of the LEGO build is rescued by the possibility of its presentation as an image. The photography of LEGO allows us to both dismantle that which has been built and continue to show and reflect on what was made. LEGO’s engagement with its audience fostered this understanding at an early age, and I believe presents the possibility of a construction toy becoming an artistic medium shared by a creative community.

Returning once again to personal experience, I can pinpoint the second occasion in which photographs impacted profoundly on my engagement with LEGO. During the summer of 2003 I stumbled through a nostalgic Google search for classic space LEGO into the world of the nascent LEGO fan scene. Suddenly, before my eyes were hundreds of photographs of amazing fan-built spaceships. The expectation of seeing photographs of those old, but still wonderful sets from my childhood was supplanted by the thrill of so many new and fascinating images. The six year-old me had climbed back under the duvet and found a new multi-volume copy of the LEGO Ideas book, one that I had never known existed. To say I was excited was an understatement.

I consider this day, rather than the day I actually started building again, as the end of the so called dark ages, that period of life where you cease to engage with LEGO. I became a lurker on many of the main sharing sites, sporadically dropping in and seeing what new and amazing creations people were building. During this period that lasted some 8 or 9 years, I barely touched an actual LEGO brick or even saw one in the plastic as it were. My engagement with LEGO occurred via the Internet and the photographs I found shared there.

At first the photos I found were of a limited quality, often in low resolution, framed by the domestic clutter of dining room tables, carpets and bed spreads. However, as technology advanced, digital camera resolution increased and broadband Internet connections became commonplace, these photos increased in quantity and quality,

As I followed this growing scene I came more and more to see that photography was transforming what the LEGO experience meant. Rather than a bedroom hobby, an insular building experience, where completed models might be shared with close friends and family, it was transforming into a collective enterprise, where the raison d’être for building was to share what one had made. More and more the projects being completed were not made simply for the thrill of creative building, but as something explicitly to be photographed. Where photography had once rescued the builder from the dilemma, whether to dismantle or not, this question held less and less importance; the photograph was the conclusion of the building process and not the build.

Photographs of LEGO were creating in the words of the French novelist and theorist André Malraux, a ‘museum without walls’, the phrase also being the title of his seminal work on the relationship of photography and the museum[v]. In this book he referred to the way in which a public comes to view and consume the great works of art in the age photography, and how this would in fact alter the art world as a result.

Malraux’s theory begins by noting that in the 19th Century, even the most read and prolific writers, Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine, did not have full access to the artistic treasures of the world. Even if they travelled, the paintings of El Greco, Titian and Michelangelo may only be viewed once in a lifetime and then committed to the vagaries of memory. In contrast, through the ability to photograph these works, the archive of paintings, sculptures and monuments is made immediately available to us. No longer do we need a museum with walls to house these works, only our own curatorial imagination, which selects as it wishes works that interest and inspire as required. And in turn each of us imagines our own ideal museum.

When it comes to a new and emerging art form such as LEGO, which has no cultural heritage, no monuments, no churches or museums, the concept of the creation of a museum without walls becomes even more important than it was for the traditional arts.

The LEGO community’s emergence from a shared archival project, in the form of vast online folios of work, marks perhaps one of the first truly democratized art forms. An art where traditions are formed by the sharing and cultural connections of those who make and create the images, and not deep-set cultural institutions, academia, the museum and big business funding. Beginning from a humble origin, a toy that denies no one access based on training or craft, shared by the people’s medium of the camera, is created the unique artistic event that is currently happening on our doorstep.

In a spectacular synchronisation of technologies, these photographs presented within the photo sharing sites and social media applications, gives the individual via like-buttons, shared links and folders, the tools they need to articulate these archives as their ideal museum.

It came as no surprise to me having watched these developments, that when I took up the bricks as a creative medium, from the outset I thought about creating models that would be photographed and shared online. I was intentionally knocking on the door of the museum without walls with my bundle of digital image. And the sense of achievement I felt as I saw my work ‘liked’ and commented upon, taking its place in so many peoples’ ideal museums, explains a great deal about why LEGO as a creative hobby continues to grow.

This is where LEGO’s relationship with photography pushes beyond Malraux’s theory. It is not an archive that we passively engage with. To be a LEGO builder and photographer is to be part of a grand artistic experiment, a shared living breathing museum, which we influence, change and evolve with each new photograph we add to it. The museum ceasing to be just a receptacle for culture, becoming instead a greenhouse, a hothouse environment for creative experiment and growth.

As with all successful interdisciplinary relationships, LEGO’s embracing of photography changes what both art forms can be. LEGO builders recalling those first constructed catalogue vistas started to take on the LEGO box and photographers’ roles as well as the designers’.

We see this happen right across the LEGO community, where photographs are staged and organised to present theatrical and believable worlds. Some seek to replicate in their photos the work of those original box designers, however at the extreme end of the spectrum you find builders like El Barto[vi], who has taken this relationship to grand heights in his ongoing alternative Basttlestar Galactica saga and representations of Homer’s Odyssey. Through the uses of stage lighting, carefully ordered scenes and photo-shopped backgrounds he treats each and everyone of his builds as stills from an ongoing film. This is not simply a way of recording a building process, but the genuine combination of two art forms.

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Other builders, such as Tim Clark [vii], have used the translation of a LEGO build into a photograph as a way of accessing the toolkits available in photo editing software. The result, a further interdisciplinary encounter between illustration and LEGO, as found in images like his stunning City on the Undiri Moon.

 

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Undiri Moon by Tim Clark

The conclusions found in these new hybrid ventures are the inevitable creation of builds that actively exploit photographic structures in order to exist. Forced perspective building being one growing and popular genre of building/photography. Chris Maddison’s [viii] rolling farmland exemplifying what can be achieved when we use the camera to trick the eye.

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Do You Think My Tractor’s Sexy by Chris Maddison

Matt Rowntree’s [ix] recent reproduction of John Carpenter’s memorable film poster for the film The Thing again evidences a build that is completed through its photograph. Built on a glass table, so as to incorporate an iridescent effect, the conceit explores aspects of lighting central to the build that can only truly be seen in its photographic representation.

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The Thing by Matt Rowntree

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Photographing The Thing by Matt Rowntree

Where there is no doubt that photography is changing and expanding the creative possibilities open to LEGO, it equally brings a further levelling effect to the archive. As Malraux noted in his study, photography gave new emphasis to works of art that often went unnoticed in the gallery. Small intricate pieces could be enlarged so as to stand side by side with large frescos, and difficult to view art forms such as tapestries could be better displayed. The photography of LEGO does something similar, allowing smaller and unexpected genres to compete and attain the recognition they deserve against the huge and piece intensive creations, which ordinarily demand attention when physically displayed.

Another of the unexpected results of the ongoing relationship between LEGO and photography comes from the influence it is having on the discipline of photography itself. The scale of LEGO creates a unique subject for the creation of images. When mini figures or recognisable LEGO parts are situated in the world they alter the ratios we ordinarily expect to find. Snow becomes the harshest blizzard, water’s reflective details are magnified and a vista, which for a human might seem everyday and ordinary, becomes sublime when viewed from the perspective of a mini-figures eyes.

The seriousness with which this work is taken has found photographers who focus on LEGO being accepted into the gallery on the merit of this work alone. The recent exhibition at the Brian Ohno Gallery [x] in Seattle collected together some of the best work in this field from talented photographers like Shelly Corbett [xi], Boris Vanrillaer [xii] and Vesa Lehtimäki [xiii].

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In LEGO We Connect exhibition

Even in this briefest of summaries, the way in which LEGO and photography have grown from a relationship founded in the marketing strategies invested in 30-40 years ago, to become the essential presentational medium it is today cannot be denied. So successful has the relationship been it now seems almost impossible to separate the two art forms. LEGO as a community, as an artwork, as an archive and a site for experiment has been benefited form its correspondence with photography. So much so, that when we talk about LEGO as a cultural phenomenon we really ought to say ‘LEGO and photography’.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ MOCpages (22 December 2012) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/349429 (accessed 13 March 2015).

[ii] David Alexander Smith, ‘Authentic/Inauthentic LEGO or what’s the right way to build?’

[iii] 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 13 March 2015).

[iv] Justin Parkinson, ‘Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ BBC (26 November 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 (accessed 13 March 2015).

[V] André Malraux, Museum Without Walls, Martin, Secker & Warburg, London (1967).

[vi] See El Barto’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/52907196@N07/.

[vii] See Tim Clark’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/timLEGO/.

[viii] See Chris Maddison’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmaddison/.

[ix] See matt RowntRee’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/104851154@N02/

[x] In LEGO, We Connect, Brian Ohno Gallery, Seattle, March 2015.

[xi] See Shelly Corbett’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.

[xii] See Boris Vanrillaer’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.

[xiii] See Vesa Lehtimäki’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/lehtimaki/index.html.

Is there something funny about these bricks?: Lego and Humour

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Lego Batman gives a knowing wink in Lego the Movie

“I only work in black….And sometimes very, very dark gray.” says Batman in The Lego Movie[i], and a ripple of laughter spreads across the movie theatre. All at once the audience realises that Lego Batman is funnier and probably cooler than Christian Bale, Adam West, Michael Keaton and even George Clooney’s Batman. But why is this?

The Lego Movie has a sparking screenplay written by the talented team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and whilst I wouldn’t want to take anything away from their work (if only the Oscar selection committee felt differently), I feel this is only one part of the answer. Lego’s growth not just as a toy, but also as a cultural form, has been tied to its ability to carry a joke. Yet, this often-symbiotic relationship between Lego and humour has gone without serious discussion. So, what is it about the reflection of our culture in bricks that we find so funny?

One of the critiques against Lego’s recent developments has been its rush to embrace mainstream franchises, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Simpsons and later this year Scooby Doo. The critics note the crass consumer drives of this process, and the loss of a more innocent Lego era, with its smiling mini-figure faces, and imaginative building at its core. The more realistic take, is that Lego needed to make this leap, and develop a cross media approach or face the collapse of the company. It could be argued that the use of humour in the Lego branding process is one way in which the company sought to retain its identity amongst the overwhelming range of intellectual property it now represents.

Fiona Wright, Vice President and General Manager Lego UK, speaking at the AFOLCON in London last November[ii], made the link between the company’s franchise development strategy and humour: young boys, Lego’s core target market in the early 2000s, responded to humour in market research. The result was a light comedic take, as shown at the conference through a series of cinema adverts for Lego Star Wars. By adding knowing irreverence to its subject matter, whilst retaining warmth, Lego effectively found a new way to sell other properties under its own banner, and remain true to both.

This marketing approach soon became a standard for Lego. Sticking with Star Wars, the Lego Star Wars games excelled in finding this balance between source material and parody. Take the reworking of one of the saga’s most serious moments, Darth Vader’s paternal announcement, “I am your father”. In the Lego video game[iii], the mimed version of the necessarily vocal proclamation literally makes a charade of the scene. And we laugh.

The Lego video games made an unexpected decision when they put the process of building, which arguably is at the heart of the Lego experience, second to narrative and humour. At one level this seems obvious, the conventions of video games, or at least mainstream successful games, relies on the player taking on an intentional role. As such Lego video games start from the premise that they begin at the point when the Lego model has been made and play begins. What Lego got right was how this play should be guided, with irreverence, and a willingness to poke fun at the untouchable master narratives of these mega-properties they now represented.

So whilst the critics of Lego’s franchise model relegate humour in these ranges to a brute marketing strategy, deployed at the cost of the building experience, there is something more at stake. Something about how as consumers, we consume.  Not in the blind sedated way a critic might simplistically suggest, but in a knowing and often self-critical way. Put another way, being complicit with the seduction, allows one to laugh at the seducer, whilst still being seduced. From personal experience, the way Lego has handled its relationship with Star Wars, compliments my own life-long relationship to the saga. One that I often jokingly describe by saying: “you can only truly be a life-long fan of Star Wars, if you are a life-long critic of Star Wars.”

The re-presentation of the Star Wars universes, as a subtle self-parody, in Simon Critchley’s phrasing allows us to laugh at ourselves rather than laugh at others[iv]. It would be incredibly easy to write a biting analysis of the Star Wars machine, a loose flabby inconsistent narrative, driven through with poor and often annoying characters, all joined together with a mighty capitalist marketing machine. But Lego Star Wars is not satire, a call to us to name Star Wars an artistic failure, to sneer and chastise through nasty laughter. We embrace Lego Star Wars because we love Star Wars. We consume the products of the franchise and know we are being drip-fed a narcotic, part nostalgia part promise. And we do all this willingly. The humour in Lego allows us to laugh at ourselves, and our love of that which is patently ridiculous, but importantly be able to do this and retain love for the original.

Still, this doesn’t quite answer the question as to what uniquely about Lego helps it operate as a medium for humor. The heartfelt caricature is not unique to Lego. Perhaps Mel Brook’s magnificent send-up SpaceBalls[v] stands as the perfect parody of Star Wars. When we have Dark Helmet, why settle for Lego Vader?

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Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in SpaceBalls

If we go back to the original quote from Lego Batman, there is conceivably an answer to this question. The clue is that we understand and find Batman funny when he discloses his building style. That Batman’s imagination is limited by a colour scheme. In the Lego world everything can be reduced to an aesthetic. By clicking bricks together Lego renders even complex themes simple and malleable. We laugh at Lego Batman, because we understand him according to ridiculously reduced criteria, and feel the gulf between this and the deep and moody character of the comics and films. This is funny because it knowingly flaunts this reduction, and ironically leaves us with a character more essentially Batman than Batman.

This type of humour, where anything can be reduced to a style, and where styles can be exchanged like so many hats, is deeply embedded in the Lego building community. As builders we find Batman funny when he declares his adherence to the black and gray theme, because we know at once we can all build like Batman; every builder with black bricks in his or her box of pieces is Batman. Take for instance Kevin Ryhal’s stunning Batspeeder [vi]. Here, with the slightest whimsy we see just how easily Batman can fit into the Star Wars universe; with both the Star Wars aesthetic and Batman’s jet-black criteria being met.

Kevin Rhyal's Bat Speeder

Kevin Ryhal’s Batspeeder

This type of irreverence, displayed through design and aesthetic expression, whilst not unique to Lego, certainly finds a medium perfectly suited to this expression. This isn’t just parody, but parody through an imaginative understanding of design. And in the building community, this flexibility and ease of reverential irreverence, that strange balance between laughter and love, is so commonplace we often miss its unique quality. This isn’t the bold marketing driven humour of Lego’s franchise campaigns, this is the knowing nods of thousands of fan builders, venerating their subject matter, because they know how to build what they love, without feeling any compulsion to treat it with unjustified reverence. In fact because they know it intimately enough to build it, allows them to lovingly laugh at it. This is the same intimacy expressed when we find ourselves able to laugh at our own foibles, because we know them better than anyone else.

There is no better case for this type of humorous building than Louis K’s All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter [vii]. Vader, make mine a 99!

Louis K's  All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Louis K’s
All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Yet this is just one genre of humour, and not the whole story as to why Lego works so well when it makes us laugh. The consistent way humour has been deployed by the company in recent years across its product ranges should not be confused with the full range of humour it can carry.

I still remember this 1980s advert from Lego, replete with voice over from the irrepressible Tommy Cooper, that markets Lego with a very different brand of humour. Here Lego keeps up with the flow of humorous associations, and the ludicrousness that such a train of thought can take us on. The mouse that calls forth the cat, that calls forth the dog, that calls forth the dragon, that calls forth the fire engine, and so on.

This charming advert tells us a great deal about the versatility of Lego. It is funny, not because it references another art form, a franchise or model to parody, it is funny because it illustrates thought. The slapstick repartee of Cooper’s back and forth dialectic, where his monologue continuously outwits itself (apart from when it unintentionally undoes itself by mistaking a slipper for kipper), is matched step by step, with Lego brick creations. The humour arises from us finding in the inanimate aggregate of bricks the wit and speed of Cooper’s comic mind.

Turning once more to Simon Critchley, and his short but wonderful study On Humour[viii], he notes Wyndham Lewis’ memorable quote:

‘To bring vividly to our mind what we mean by ‘absurd,’ let us turn to the plant, and enquire how the plant could be absurd. Suppose you came upon an orchid or a cabbage reading Flaubert’s Salammbô, or Plutarch’s Moralia, you would be very much surprised. But if you found a man or a woman reading it, you would not be surprised.

Now in one sense you ought to be just as much surprised at finding a man occupied in this way as if you had found an orchid or a cabbage, or a tomcat, to include the animal world. There is the same physical anomaly. It is just as absurd externally, that is what I mean.—The deepest root of the Comic is to be sought in this anomaly.’[ix]

What can be divulged from this analysis is that there is an anomaly experienced every time we encounter a pile of bricks and find through the power of our imagination, that this stack of plastic appears alive, even human.  The juxtaposition between the inanimate brick and Cooper’s thought process makes us laugh.  There is something essentially funny when a group of recta-linear bricks act like a cat, and even funnier to see them present a stream of consciousness.

From this observation, we may have stumbled across another key as to what makes Lego funny.  Mini-figures for example have an innate potential for humour because they present the inanimate brick as simultaneously invested with human characteristics, able to drive cars, sell ice cream, dance, cry and love, and still remain a collection of plastic parts.  The Lego movie gains its amusing core from this simple but universal comic root – to be human and free, and not, at the same time.

In the building community, this type of humour is most readily seen in what are commonly called brick built figures.  These comic creations imbue life into bricks in a way that not only surprises us, but also on occasion makes us laugh.  One builder whose work often exemplifies this theme is Riccardo Zangelmi.   He takes not only the inanimate brick, but creates inanimate objects, or animal life, that exude human vitality and character.  Although we see the simple bricks and pure building skill in his work, it is the fact that it always comes as a surprise to find these constructs inherently alive and in action that makes them special.  Like the cabbage reading Flaubert, the struggle of life and death or should that be between life and bread, between toaster and sandwich is fundamentally absurd[x].

Riccardo Zangelmi's  Mr. Sandwich and Angry Toaster

Riccardo Zangelmi’s Mr. Sandwich and Terrible Toaster

As before with the case of Star Wars, although it is possible to find a comic operation in certain building techniques, are these unique to Lego?  Surely when we see a face formed by a house’s door and windows, or laugh at a cat on YouTube dancing in a tutu, we experience the same operation of the imagination?

Returning to my proposition on Lego art[xi], what helps us understand the unique nature of humour’s operation in Lego is the fact that Lego is always simultaneously understood as being in two states.  Our imagination sees both the formed thing, and the unformed aggregate of bricks that make it.  Viewing Lego enacts a state of paradox, a permanent visual pun.

So, when we find a Lego creation funny, either because in the case of Lego Batman we find the complex image of Batman simultaneously representable by simple basic aesthetic conditions, or where we find life and character in a collection of inanimate bricks, in both cases we are sustaining a paradox.  Humour that operates on the principle of seeing one thing whilst also understanding another is aided by the aesthetic form of Lego.

In answer to the question what makes Lego funny the following case could be presented.  Lego is not innately funny, but its aesthetic conditions, boost, support or act as a catalyst for humour, by putting our minds in a state capable of holding opposite or contradictory conditions together.  And when we find these associations funny, Lego only helps enliven the thought processes that achieve this.

I’d like to close this brief encounter with Lego humour by returning to the earlier Wyndham Lewis quote.  The first condition of his anomaly being that we find the inanimate acting as a human funny, the second that we should equally on these grounds take the human acting as a human funny.  When we laugh at what Lego makes us think, by holding contradictory conditions together, we actually get a chance to find our own human imaginative capacity ridiculous.  As humans we create contradictory worlds, conceptions of others, and ourselves; and we normally treat these inventions as stable and true.  When they are rendered in Lego they reveal their contradictions, the artificiality of their being made.  Lego allows us to laugh at our world and ourselves, because we understand that it and the Lego creation are both made and understood from the position of our own contradictory inventiveness.

Endnotes

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

[ii] See the AFOLCON website http://www.afolcon.com/news/.

[iii] Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, Travellers Tales (2006)

[iv] Simon Critchley, On Humour, Routledge, London (2002)

[v] SpaceBalls, dir Mel Brooks, (MGM 1987)

[vi] Kevin Ryhal, Batspeeder (2013), https://www.flickr.com/photos/57996423@N06/9315005865/in/photostream/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[vii] Louis K, All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter (2011) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/247503 website accessed 25 January 2015)

[viii] Ibid 2002.

[ix] Wyndham Lewis, The Meaning of the Wild Body, Harcourt Brace, New York (1928). P.248.

[x] Ricardo Zangelmi, Mr.Sandwich and Terrible Toaster (2013) https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickbrick/9422228965/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[xi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/20150103building-a-case-for-lego-art/ (accessed 25 January 2015).

Building a Case for Lego Art

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



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

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

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

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

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

Antony Gormley, Construct, Firmament and Standing

Antony Gormley: Construct, Firmament and Standing

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Nathan Sawaya, Circle Triangle Square

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Ferrell in The LEGO Movie

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Ferdinand Cheval, Le Palais ideal

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

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Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project

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

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

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Jan Vormann, Dispatchworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nathan Sawaya, Mask, photo © Erica Ann

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

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

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

Endnotes   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[x] Jan Vormann, 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.