Museum Acquires Ai Weiwei Lego Selfie

Posted by December 16, 2022

Now on view in the Museum's lobby, Illumination by Ai Weiwei was recently acquired by the Museum.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei took this mirror selfie in 2009 as he was being detained by police in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. He was scheduled to testify the next day on behalf of an activist arrested for researching fatalities of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake—an effort undertaken by Ai and others to disclose the full extent of the casualties. The selfie captures Ai, a friend, and two police officers in an elevator, some of them reflected as doubles in the mirror wall. Later Ai shared the photo on social media, and in 2019 the artist turned this iconic digital photograph into a massive large-scale artwork made out of thousands of colorful, pixel-like Lego bricks.

The title refers to the bright camera flash that illuminates the scene and powerfully symbolizes Ai’s efforts to shed light on the Chinese government’s concealments. The oval light also alludes to a mandorla and can be seen as a manifestation of sacred, unprotected life in a state of legal exception, indicating Ai’s status as a politically persecuted person. These connections between law and life, emergency and exception, coalesce in many of Ai’s works yet are visualized prototypically in this photograph-turned-Lego image.

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Image credit 

Ai Weiwei (Chinese, b. 1957), Illumination, 2019. Lego bricks on baseplates, mounted on 4 aluminum panels, 120 3/4 x 151 1/8 in. University purchase with funds from William T. Kemper Foundation, 2022.