Ai Weiwei Shows His Largest-Ever Lego Artwork At Design Museum London

Ai Weiwei has unveiled a new artwork inspired by Claude Monet’s monumental “Water Lilies” (1914-26) triptych. Made entirely of Lego, “Water Lilies #1” is a recreation of one of the most famous paintings by the French Impressionist. By choosing Monet, and working with industrial materials and pigments, the renowned Chinese artist and activist wants us to challenge our notion of reality and beauty.

At over 15m long and made from nearly 650,000 studs of Lego bricks in 22 colors, “Water Lilies #1” is Ai’s most considerable Lego work to date. It will span the entire length of one of the walls in the Design Museum gallery in London when it goes on exhibition next month as part of “Ai Weiwei: Making Sense,” the Chinese artist’s first design-focused exhibition and his biggest UK show in eight years.

“Water Lilies,” the main focus of Monet’s artistic work in the final decades of his life, captures nature’s serene beauty. Yet the lily pond and the garden depicted are artificial creations, designed by Monet for the gardens of his home in Giverny in Normandy when he had the nearby river Epte partially diverted for this idealized landscape.

Thus, by recreating this famous scene, replacing Monet’s delicate human brush strokes and colors with cold uniform industrial parts and pigments, Ai challenges the viewer to rethink how we judge reality and beauty. And to add to the disorientation, on the right-hand side sits a dark portal, the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where the young artist and his father, one of China’s most renowned poets, Ai Qing, were forced to live in exile in the 1960s. It forms a stark contrast to the waterlily paradise that dominates the scene.

“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,” explains Ai. “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.”

Chief curator at the Design Museum Justin McGuirk adds: “With ‘Water Lilies #1,’ Ai Weiwei presents us with an alternate vision — a garden paradise. On the one hand, he has personalized it by inserting the door of his desert childhood home. On the other hand, he has depersonalized it using an industrial language of modular Lego blocks.”

Ai has been experimenting with Lego since 2014 when he worked with a material associated with playfulness to produce portraits of political prisoners. “Water Lilies #1” will be shown alongside another significant new Lego piece, “Untitled (Lego Incident),” also making its international debut at the Design Museum this April. This latter artwork forms a series of five expansive “fields” where hundreds of thousands of objects will be laid on the gallery floor, including Lego blocks donated by the public in response to the company refusing to sell its products to Ai in 2014.

“Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future,” says Ai. “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.”

“Ai Weiwei: Making Sense” runs at the Design Museum London from April 7 to July 30, 2023.

See my interview with Tim Marlow, the Design Museum’s director, who discusses the role of a design institution today.