Ai Weiwei is taking up a professorship in Berlin. Those who expected him to quietly teach and avoid politics will be disappointed: The artist's latest controversy involves one of the world's most iconic toys - Lego.
Ai Weiwei was offered a position as a visiting professor at Berlin's University of Arts, the UdK, over four years ago in April 2011. At the time, the dissident Chinese artist was being held in a secret prison in China. He was released after spending 81 days in custody. The Chinese authorities then kept his passport for four years, which prevented him from traveling.
Ai Weiwei arrived in Germany in August 2015, after the document was finally returned to him. He is now embarking on a three-year stint as a guest professor at the university.
The artist said during a press conference on Monday (26.10.2015) that he would include a project on refugees in his teaching, but didn't want to focus on human rights.
Brewing up a Lego storm
In his most recent controversy, Ai Weiwei revealed this weekend that he had ordered a large number of Lego bricks for his new project, but the company had refused to deliver them:
The Danish manufacturer explained its decision in a statement to "The Guardian": "As a company dedicated to delivering great creative play experiences to children, we refrain - on a global level - from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda."
The news set off a social media storm.
An overwhelming number of fans offered to send their own Legos to the artist. Ai Weiwei decided to set up collection centers to receive all the donations.
Last year, Ai Weiwei used thousands of the plastic pieces to make portraits of political activists such as Edward Snowden and Nelson Mandela for an exhibition on the prison island of Alcatraz.
The dissident artist now plans "to make a new work to defend freedom of speech and 'political art'," he wrote on Instagram on Monday. His works will be shown alongside those of Andy Warhol in an upcoming major exhibition in Melbourne in December 2015.
In the meantime, Ai Weiwei quoted another one of his favorite conceptual artists, Marcel Duchamp's 1917 work "Fountain," which he had signed "R. Mutt": The Chinese artist posted on Instagram the picture of a toilet provocatively filled with Lego bricks.
Commenting on the strong involvement of his fans on social media, Ai Weiwei compared the Internet to "a modern church," where the community can take part in finding solutions together, he said at the press conference in Berlin.
Big plans for Lego in China
The Danish toymaker has been focusing on China since sales in the US started slowing down. The company reported last September that Asia is now their highest-growing regional market.
Among the business deals which were signed during the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Britain last week was a new Legoland amusement park to be built in Shanghai.
Merlin Entertainments, the world's second-largest visitor's attractions company after Walt Disney, is teaming up with a Chinese partner in this $300-million investment. Lego's parent company Kirkbi owns a 30 percent stake in Merlin.
Through the government-affiliated Chinese edition of the newspaper "Global Times," Lego was praised for "refusing to be implicated in a political statement" and being motivated by "good business sense," wrote Hu Singdou, from the Beijing Institute of Technology.