Design Museum showcases Ai Weiwei’s largest ever Lego artwork

In advance of the first ever design-focused exhibition opening next month celebrating the work of global artist Ai Weiwei, the Design Museum in London has unveiled a major new work constructed entirely of Lego. The work is a recreation of Water Lilies (1914 — 26), one the most famous paintings by French Impressionist Claude Monet. 

© photo Ela Bialkowska OKNO studioConstructed entirely of Lego, the work, titled Water Lilies #1, is over 15 metres in length and will span the entire length of one of the walls in the Design Museum gallery. The installation is the largest Lego artwork Ai Weiwei has ever made.

This vast new work is made from nearly 650,000 studs of Lego bricks, in 22 colours, and will be seen in public for the very first time when the exhibition opens on Friday 7 April.

In the original painting, Monet depicts one of the lily ponds in the gardens of his home in Giverny near Paris. It is an image that has become world-famous for its depiction of nature’s tranquil beauty. However, the pond and gardens were a man-made construct, designed and created by Monet himself at the turn of the 20th century. He had the nearby river Epte partially diverted in order to create this idealised landscape.

Several of the works in this exhibition capture the destruction of urban development in China over the last two decades. With Water Lilies #1 Ai Weiwei presents us with an alternate vision – a garden paradise. On the one hand he has personalised it by inserting the door of his desert childhood home, and on the other he has depersonalised it by using an industrial language of modular Lego blocks. This is a monumental, complex and powerful work and we are proud to be the first museum to show it,” says Justin McGuirk, Chief Curator at the Design Museum and curator of Ai Weiwei: Making Sense.

© photo Ela Bialkowska OKNO studio

The recreation has been constructed out of Lego bricks to strip away Monet’s brushstrokes in favour of a depersonalised language of industrial parts and colours. These pixel-like blocks suggest contemporary digital technologies which are central to modern life, and in reference to how art is often disseminated in the contemporary world.

Challenging viewers further, included on the right-hand side of Ai’s version is a dark portal, which is the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where Ai and his father, Ai Qing, lived in forced exile in the 1960s. Their hellish desert home punctures the watery paradise. 

© photo Ela Bialkowska OKNO studio

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense will be the artist’s very first exhibition to focus on design and architecture. It sees Ai using design and the history of making as a lens through which to consider what we value.

Other highlights of the exhibition inlcude dozens of objects and artworks from throughout Ai Weiwei’s career that explore the tensions between past and present, hand and machine, precious and worthless, construction and destruction, such as his Han dynasty urn emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo, which epitomises these clashes.

“Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future. It’s crucial for individuals to find a personalized language to express their experience of these challenging conditions. Personalized expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative. Without a personal narrative, artistic narration loses its quality,” says Ai Weiwei. “In Water Lilies #1 I integrate Monet’s Impressionist painting, reminiscent of Zenism in the East, and concrete experiences of my father and me into a digitized and pixelated language. Toy bricks as the material, with their qualities of solidity and potential for deconstruction, reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.”