Features Guest Column Published 4 October 2014

The Art of the Brick

Kirsten Tambling visits Nathan Sawaya's Lego exhibition at the Old Trueman Brewery.
Kirsten Tambling

Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world? This question is put to the eponymous protagonist of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, a novel introducing teenagers to philosophy. The answer – that the little plasticbricks can be endlessly reconfigured – introduces Sophie to Democritus, the Greek philosopher who believed (as indeed do physicists today) that everything is made up of tiny and eternal particles called atoms.

When first created by Ole Kirk Christiansen in the 1930s, the infinitely reconfigurable Lego bricks closely resembled Democritus’ atoms. But, with the introduction of ever-more commercialised Lego sets, many of the pieces become increasingly context-specific; in 2011, Lego began to segregate its world, creating catwalks and shopping mall sets for girls, and most recently it has come under attack by Greenpeace for signing a deal with Shell. It seems that Lego may finally have lost its innocence.

The Art of the Brick, at London’s Old Truman Brewery, might seem to put some of that innocence back. In Europe following a world tour, the exhibition proclaims that it has attracted 1.5 million visitors worldwide, making it – in the marketing speak of its catalogue – ‘an exhibition for the whole world to enjoy’ (presumably looking side-eye at Tate Modern, MoMa, et al). But The Art of the Brick is essentially a retrospective, celebrating the work of Nathan Sawaya, the corporate lawyer turned artist who appears throughout the exhibition catalogue smiling, laughing and knowingly scratching his head, in poses drawn from the other sort of catalogue.

‘You can pretty much build anything with Lego blocks and take everything apart to later rebuild something else,’ says Sawaya, and indeed many of his works show themselves in the process of that Democritan creation, destruction or metamorphosis. ‘Building Red’ is a meticulously constructed so-coloured humanoid figure in the process of building his right arm, while ‘Yellow’, the exhibition’s poster image, is an equally block-coloured figure opening his chest to spew yellow bricks. This instantly recognisable colour palette, scaled up to often human-sized sculpture, makes the exhibition in general visually brilliant, and there’s something easily enjoyable about it, from the opening replicas of Old Master sculpture and painting straight out of Legoland, to the bright red apples, oversized pencils and ‘Tiger-Giraffe’ hybrid sculptures with echoes of Duplo.

There is, nonetheless, an undercurrent of defensiveness throughout the show in the ‘But is it art?’ mode. I found no intrinsic argument against art made out of Lego – indeed, the opening replicas of Michaelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo highlight the engineering challenges common to all sculpture, Lego or otherwise. But while The Art of the Brick may well be ‘Art’, it isn’t really very good art. Sawaya is very good at building Lego models, but having loosened his corporate tie, he now appears determined to ‘inspire’ and evangelise to others, with the result that many of those images of metamorphosis are explicitly, often cringingly, self-referential. Grey corporate grey hands pull back on a red figure yearning for artistic freedom in ‘Grasp’, a ‘Cracked’ head ‘depicts how I feel in the morning’ and the maxims peppered throughout the wall labels still have the recycled air of the boardroom pep talk about them (‘Follow your own path! Find the courage within!’ ‘We’re all capable of more than we think’).

Each labels is adorned with Sawaya’s signature, as much a logo as the painstakingly branded LEGO® bricks; in the context of this corporate brand-awareness, it feels drily appropriate that the works are displayed in the reverent pools of light exhibition designers refer to as ‘boutique’ because of its origins emphasising the desirability of products and brands in high-end shops.

This foregrounding of the artist to the exclusion of a visible curator coupled with the work’s obsessive quality and the repeated assertions that Sawaya has not yet met with approval from the ‘art world’ had a strange echo for me in the recent run of exhibitions in London devoted to ‘outsider art’. Moreover, each statue is accompanied by records of its ‘brick count’ and ‘time taken’ – the Lego Tyrannosaurus, by far the largest work in the show, took 80,020 bricks and ‘a whole summer’ to build – an obsession with size and endurance that invites comparisons rather with Ripley’s Believe it or Not than Andy Warhol’s Pop Art (though Warhol appears here, in a Lego portrait). But ultimately, if Sawaya is an outsider, he’s coming from the other end of the art market. Brick count and endurance translated too easily for me to corporate money, marketing and brand awareness. Much like the toy itself, The Art of the Brick is a long way from Eden.

Nathan Sawaya’s Art of the Brick exhibition is at the Old Trueman Brewery, London. 

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Kirsten Tambling

Kirsten has worked at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum, The National Gallery and Dr. Johnson’s House and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She’s also a zine self-publisher and impulsive project schemer.

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