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Ai Weiwei’s LEGO Portraits Depict 176 Activists and Political Prisoners

For a new exhibition in Washington DC, Ai Weiwei shows LEGO portraits that resemble surveillance and internet images.

DJ Pangburn

DJ Pangburn

Installation view. Photos by Cathy Carver, courtesy of Hirshborn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Fresh off of debuting a large-scale intervention with 3,500 refugee lifejackets at a Copenhagen art museum, Ai Weiwei is now debuting an exhibition of LEGO portraits of 176 activists. The show, titled Trace , finds Weiwei depicting individuals that he considers to be political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, a list he compiled through information provided by Amnesty International, other human rights organizations, as well as independent research.

Trace, which is now on at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is a reflection of his own experience under surveillance and incarceration back in 2011. It also marks Weiwei's first visit to the United States Capitol in conjunction with a solo exhibition of his work, and comes two years after the artist's battle with LEGO over "censorship", after the company refused to send him pieces in bulk.

Each portrait in Trace is pixelated, designed to conjure a resemblance to surveillance images and photos found on the internet. The colors in each portrait evoke the colors of the subject's national flags, while the graphic manipulation in each face is meant to symbolize the dissolving nature of the individual, or appear as though they have been encoded as digital data.

Ai Weiwei's entrance portrait with wallpaper installation. Photo by Cathy Carver.

The Hirshhorn Museum's curator Melissa Chiu tells Creators that Weiwei began creating the LEGO portraits in 2014, as one of seven site-specific installations for @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. The blueprints of these portraits were created from Weiwei's Beijing studio, during a time when his passport had been seized by the Chinese government, preventing him from traveling to the site where his work would be installed. Chiu says that Weiwei's sample portraits and templates were used by his studio assistants and hundreds of volunteers to assemble the large floor panels. For Trace, the 1.2 million LEGO pieces are arranged in six zones, with approximately 30 portraits per zone. Each zone, notes Chiu, is comprised of approximately 400 individual panels.

Trace is accompanied by a new work, a monumental wallpaper installation titled The Plain Version of the Animal that Looks Like a Llama but is Really an Alpaca. "The intricate graphic is a lavish, rococo print of Twitter birds, surveillance cameras, handcuffs, chains, and alpacas, images of both expression and control," says Chiu. "It spans the continuous nearly 700 feet around the exhibition's exterior wall." Both the work and its title humorously allude to a Chinese internet meme called "Grass Mud Horse" or Cǎonímǎ. The image resembles an alpaca and is a widely used as a symbol of defiant resistance against Chinese censorship.

Installation view of Ai Weiwei's wallpaper.

"The graphic wallpaper Ai created transforms the space, and the final installation is an entirely new experience," Chiu explains. "The chance to revisit an artist multiple times throughout their career is crucial for a museum to present a comprehensive understanding of an artist's practice, and ultimately, their canonical place within art history."

Hirshhorn first worked with Weiwei in 2012 on his first major U.S. retrospective. Trace marks their first collaboration with him on a new project that takes advantage of the museum's unique circular galleries. "We hope that Trace will help promote meaningful conversations around freedom of creative expression, and the power of artists to challenge us and to make us think about the world in a different way," Chiu says. "Contemporary art, and art museums, play a central role in sparking thoughtful discussions around the world in which we live."

Detail on 'The Animal That Looks Like a Lama but Is Really an Alpaca', 2015. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.
Detail on 'The Plain Version of the Animal That Looks Like a Lama but Is Really an Alpaca', 2017. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio.

Click here to see more of Ai Weiwei's work.

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