Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Political agency of toys II

Back in October I blogged about the political agency of toys in relation to Greek artist, Nikos Papadopoulos’ use of Playmobil figures in his political art. We might add to that example with the Lego based work of Ai Weiwei. It seems the use of toys is a powerful medium for communicating your political message, particularly when toy companies attempt to ban use of their products for such ends. The press seem to love these stories, with Ai WeiWei featuring in multiple articles within individual outlets and receiving a lot of coverage and support via social media.

Lego has a longstanding policy of not endorsing “the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda”. The Danish firm is founded on a peculiarly utopian ethic about the nature of play and creativity. This includes refusal to make military themed ranges. This ethos reflects its founding in the small Danish town of Billund in the 1950s.

Despite the firm’s desire for political neutrality it seems it cannot avoid politics. Lego found itself in the news after refusing to fulfil a bulk order of bricks for the Chinese dissident artist, Ai Weiwei. The artist was quick to claim this was “an act of censorship and discrimination”. In an Instagram post, he connected Lego’s action to the recent announcement of plans to open a new Legoland in Shanghai.

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Image: aiww/Instagram

In response, Lego stressed that the Legoland parks were sold to British firm, Merlin Entertainments, 10 years ago. The Danish firm is, however, said to be expanding its presence in China as growth in the US, which has traditionally been its biggest market, has slowed. The company is reported to have invested a “three-digit million euro figure” in a new manufacturing facility in Jiaxing. This is to help keep up with regional demand after the company reported that Asia provided the highest regional growth rate back in September.

After the story of the ban hit the news Ai Weiwei was apparently ‘swamped’ by offers of second hand Lego.

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The artist even set up a Lego collection point in Beijing, a parked red car.

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Photograph: aiww/Instagram

Others have questioned Ai Weiwei’s criticism of Lego.

“The values Lego pushes are creativity, education and the freedom of play. It is not a global conspiracy, just a great toy…

Surely Ai Weiwei can see the difference between the best toy on the planet and a force for oppression.”

Of course, Lego cannot determine how its products are used. After all, while the company includes construction manuals in its kits, it is founded on an ethos of prompting creativity. Ai Weiwei, like other activists (including those mentioned previously on this blog: Legofesto; Ian Cook et al) is free to buy Lego kits from retailers rather than relying on a bulk order form Lego directly.

This story speaks again of the political agency of toys, objects that carry a peculiar power through: their intimate connection to the innocence of childhood and the vulnerability of the child’s body; the sensorial effect of miniaturisation; and their provocation of, and enrolment in playful practices that can both reproduce and subvert socio-cultural ideas and practices.


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