The Ringling Introduces Ai Weiwei's LEGO Exhibit

Arts & Culture


Ai Weiwei wears many hats—artist, architect, documentary filmmaker, provocateur, human rights activist and occasional political prisoner. And he has managed to acquire all of these hats in spite of constant threats of imprisonment from China’s communist party, cultivating an outsized public profile in the international art scene and a vast portfolio across many disciplines. As The Ringling unveils Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac (2018) LEGO exhibit, area art lovers will be among the first in the US to glimpse Weiwei’s penchant for art that is fun, visually striking and not-so-subtly subversive.

As the name of the collection implies, the pieces all center on the signs of the Chinese zodiac and are all constructed out of LEGO pieces. The Zodiac motif is an extension of Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads bronze sculptures that were featured outside the museum from June 2017 to June 2018. And for anyone familiar with Weiwei’s work, the use of LEGOs seems like a natural choice by the artist. “He works a lot with systems of repetition,” says Executive Director Steven High, citing Weiwei’s Kui Hua Zi (Sunflower Seeds) installation that made use of over 100 million individually-made porcelain sunflower seeds. Each of the twelve animals gets a 7 ½ foot square panel that includes between 30 and 35 thousand individual LEGO pieces by High’s estimates. The panels weigh around 200 pounds and are arranged around the gallery space in their astrological order, starting with the Rat and culminating with the Pig. 

The color schemes for each panel are vibrant, giving the collection an almost video-game aesthetic that complements the 8-bit look of each panel. Behind each animal figure is a recognizable image from a nation-state, a juxtaposition that invites viewers to meditate on what exactly Weiwei is stating about that particular country. The Dog panel, for example, features a panting canine in front of The White House—is Weiwei associating the US with the honesty and prudence attributed to the Dog in the Chinese Zodiac, or is there a hidden hint of sarcasm? Weiwei’s Dragon panel leaves no room for doubt, on the other hand. The ornate dragon head sits in the foreground of Tiananmen Square, the site of an unsavory stain on China’s human rights record, and in the bottom right corner stands the artist in a t-shirt with an expletive on it. Clearly, Weiwei intended to criticize the political missteps that led to the massacre. 

The Ringling will host the traveling exhibit through February 2nd, 2020, and even though guests are prohibited from touching the panels, each came with a bag of spare pieces should someone be unable to keep their hands to themselves.

Pictured: The bold colors of the dragon panel make it easy for Weiwei to cleverly hide himself in the image, though his message is anything but hidden.

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