December 10, 2023

Monet’s Water Lilies Reimagined with LEGO® Bricks by Ai Weiwei

A classic French impressionist artwork is making its way to London, but not as you know it. Monet’s Water Lilies have been reimagined with LEGO® Bricks by contemporary, world-renowned artist, Ai Weiwei. Entitled Water Lilies #1, the brick work can be seen at the London Design Museum in England from April 7 to July 30, 2023, if you happen to be in the neighborhood. The piece is part of the first design-focused display of Weiwei’s work.

Monets Water Lilies reimagined with LEGO® Bricks by Ai Weiwei
Water Lilies #1, 2022, by Ai Weiwei. Lego bricks. Photo © Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua

LEGO® reimaginings of classic artwork are familiar to the AFOL community at this point. We’ve seen sets from the LEGO® Group featuring the works of Andy Warhol, Van Gogh, and Hokusai. However, Water Lilies #1 by Weiwei puts all those sets to shame. If you have the chance to go see it, this piece will be one to behold. Featuring 22 colors and almost 650,000 studs, Water Lilies #1 spans over 15 meters in length. It will occupy an entire wall of the Design Museum.

Close up of Monets Water Lilies reimagined by Weiwei with LEGO® bricks.
Detail from Water Lilies #1, 2022, by Ai Weiwei. LEGO® bricks. Photo © Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua

Unlike the LEGO® sets we’ve seen, Water Lilies #1 is not a recreation of an artwork. It truly represents a reimagining. The museum press release offers the following insights:

By recreating this famous scene, Ai Weiwei challenges our ideas of reality and beauty. The new image 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.

Ai Weiwei reimagined Monet’s Water Lilies with a personal touch.

Monets Water Lilies reimagined by Weiwei with a dark portal representing his childhood home.
Detail from Water Lilies #1, 2022,by Ai Weiwei. LEGO® bricks. Photo © Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua

Water Lilies #1 is not the only LEGO® piece in the show. The exhibition, titled Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, will feature another brick artwork as well. One that perhaps strikes a nerve with the LEGO® Group itself. However, before we delve into that, a little context first. Ai Weiwei is a Chinese artist and documentarian whose work spans multiple different media. In fact, this is not even the first time he has worked with LEGO® bricks. As a medium, Weiwei began utilizing LEGO® bricks in 2007, with his first public display of LEGO® work taking place in 2014 at the infamous Alcatraz. The series of portraits displayed images of 176 political prisoners from around the world built from LEGO® bricks.

Trace, 2014, by Ai Weiwei. Image sourced from Fore-Site, @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Accessed 03/24/23.

Weiwei’s activism and political opinions have landed him in trouble with Chinese government. In fact, while his exhibit opened on Alcatraz, he was detained in China. After being arrested for “economic crimes” in 2011, the Chinese authorities did not let Weiwei leave the country until 2015. It was around then that the artist got into a row with the LEGO® Group as well.

The LEGO® Group blocked Weiwei from purchasing bricks for his art.

While preparing works for a 2015 exhibition at the National Gallery in Melbourne, Weiwei attempted to bulk order LEGO® bricks. The response from the Danish company created quite a commotion in art and activist communities. According to Weiwei’s Instagram account, a representative from the LEGO® Group responded: “I am very sorry to let you know that we are not in a position to support the exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei by supplying the bulk order.” This was apparently due to the political nature of the art in question. You can see Weiwei’s response from Instagram below.

This prompted something of an international uproar. LEGO® donation boxes went up at 20 different museums around the world to support Weiwei’s cause. The artist himself turned to Chinese clone brands to complete his exhibit in Melbourne. With millions of donated bricks flooding in amidst an international uproar, the LEGO® Group reversed their decision. None other than Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen himself released a statement in the Wallstreet Journal claiming the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Apparently, it was nothing more than an internal mistake by a lowly customer service representative. The LEGO® Group denied the initial decision had anything to do with their plans for the Chinese Market. Coincidentally or not, about a month after refusing Weiwei’s brick order, Merlin Entertainment announced the plans to open a Legoland Park in Shanghai.

Legoland Shanghai was announced a month after the LEGO® Group refused Weiwei’s brick order.

For his part, interviews indicate Weiwei seems content with the LEGO® Group’s reversal, though he notes it was a little too late. Afterall, he already had millions of LEGO® bricks from around the world to work with. Which brings us back to upcoming exhibition in London. The second LEGO® piece Weiwei will share features all of the bricks donated to him as a result of the LEGO® Group’s temporary ban. The art piece represents one of five “fields” in the exhibit. Each field comprises different types of objects laid out on the museum floor. Each field contains anywhere from thousands to millions of individual pieces collected by Weiwei over 30 years and representing human ingenuity. While we can all agree that LEGO® bricks certainly fall under than umbrella, the story of their acquisition and subsequent display could be seen as a jab at the LEGO® Group. And rightly so.

Untitled (LEGO® Incident), 2023. © Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Sadly, I have no plans to visit England this summer. However, some of you out there might. Heck, a large portion of True North Bricks readers even live on that side of the pond. Here’s your chance to see Monet’s Water Lilies reimagined as an epic 15-meter long LEGO® art display. Additionally, you can experience what is likely the largest brick pit most of us have ever seen. Will you be stopping by? What do you think of this story? Let me know in the comments below or reach out on social media.

Until next time,


Ai Weiwei at the Design Museum, September 2022. © Rick Pushinsky for the Design Museum.

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