Ai Weiwei, “Water Lilies #1” (2022), LEGO bricks (photo © Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio; all images courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua)

Artist Ai Weiwei has been known to use LEGO bricks as an art material, leveraging the analog bit shape of the square building blocks to generate so-called “glitch aesthetics” that comment on digital disruption, paranoia around systems, and miscommunication (among other associations attendant to their subject matter). In his newest and largest LEGO work yet, slated as a feature of an upcoming exhibition at the Design Museum in London, Ai presents “Water Lilies #1,” a recreation of Claude Monet’s ubiquitous Impressionist work.

The exhibition Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, which opens in April, will present works related to the COVID-19 crisis and takes everyday objects as subject matter and art material, including toilet paper rolls, a broken Song dynasty teapot, and hundreds of thousands of LEGO bricks.

“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,” Ai said in a statement. The plastic bricks have been part of the artist’s vast and varied medium repertoire since the early 2000s.

“Water Lilies #1” features 650,000 LEGO bricks.

“Water Lilies #1” is nearly 50 feet wide and features 650,000 LEGO bricks in 22 different colors. The effect, even in pictures, evocatively abstracts the dreamy aesthetics of Monet’s original work. It includes an additional element, courtesy of Ai — the depiction of a dark doorway creating a sucking portal in and out of the mural.

“On the one hand [Ai] has personalized it by inserting the door of his desert childhood home, and on the other he has depersonalized it by using an industrial language of modular Lego blocks,” the Design Museum’s Chief Curator Justin McGuirk told CNN. “This is a monumental, complex, and powerful work and we are proud to be the first museum to show it.”

Close-up of “Water Lilies #1”

But the artist has had a long and mixed relationship with the iconic building brick company, as his earliest LEGO works included portraits of political prisoners, the content of the 2014 exhibition Trace, which took place on the decommissioned prison island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. The contentiousness of this subject matter led the company to decline a future request for bulk bricks during preparation for his major international exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei, which was slated to open at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne in December 2015. A passionate advocate for free speech, Ai subsequently denounced the toymaker as committing an act of censorship based on their corporate policy that “the motive cannot contain any political statements.”

“As a powerful corporation, Lego is an influential cultural and political actor in the globalized economy with questionable values,” Ai said at the time.

Statements made through Instagram prompted fans of the artist to donate thousands of LEGO bricks in support of his artistic endeavors, and LEGO eventually reversed its position on selling bricks in bulk to the artist — as evidenced by the more than half-million that will soon be on display for an ever-clamoring public.

A new addition to the original composition, the doorway of the artist’s childhood home
Detail of “Water Lilies #1”

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....