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Carlo Volpi

Knit Blog

13th April 2015, London

The Art of The Brick

Playing with Lego was always one of my favourite activities when I was a child, just like many other kids of different generations I loved building worlds and creating adventures that started with multicoloured plastic bricks and developed in my vivid imagination.

I’m pleased to see that Lego are still in business and doing well, despite all the changes in the world of children toys. I don’t think I was ever that good at building things with Lego, unless you followed the instructions on how to build that perfect spacecraft that came with the box, it was hardly impossible to create something impressive.

But that really didn’t matter: our Lego creations were just a tool to develop stories and bring some of those imaginary tales with monsters, aliens and heroes to life. As I grew up, my interest for Lego was replaced by a passion for Nintendo and later on all play time, sadly, became study time.

Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya. © Carlo Volpi

Nathan Sawaya is one of those people whose play time continued throughout his life, and he is now making a living out of his favourite game: playing with Lego. His exhibition “The Art of The Brick”, strangely enough, held in Brick Lane, East London, has attracted many visitors and will close its doors to the public on the 12th of April. I decided to visit the show last week, just out of curiosity really, I didn’t know who Sawaya was and I honestly thought the exhibition would be a collection of various works created by different people. After all, those large scale Lego installations have been around for a long time.

After queuing for a few minutes amongst a swarm of over excited children, we were let into a room with seats and a screen and we were all invited to sit down to watch a tedious and slightly superficial introduction video by the man behind the work himself. Other than briefly talking about his previous life as an attorney and his career change in a fairly annoying manner, Sawaya didn’t really talk much about the idea and the concept behind his work.

Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya. © Carlo Volpi

I tried to forget about what I had just seen and almost reluctantly walked in to the first room of the show, a collection of classic greek and Renaissance sculpture reinterpreted with Lego bricks. There stood Michelangelo’s David, right in front of me, dramatically lit against a deep red background. It was like being in a Commodore 64 art gallery so beautiful! The shape of each brick and the three dimensional aspect of the piece was emphasized by the lighting that created some sharp, contrasting shadows. I stood there in awe for a good minute or two, how wrong was I to judge the content of the show by the lousy gallery setting, the bad carpets on the floor, the screaming children and the crass video that greeted the visitors by the entrance. At the same time, I thought about where Sawaya would want to place his work, how he saw it (is he placing his work in a gallery to create a sort of travelling Legoland to amuse children and their parents, is it a craft show or is it art?), or if he had a vision at all about the potential of his work that went beyond children entertainment.

Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya. © Carlo Volpi

I looked around and I discovered a beautifully pixelated Venus De Milo, poetically distorted into a plastic conglomerate of glossy bricks and framed by the same deepDavidLynchhell red.

Higher up on the wall I saw the famous detail of Michelangelo’s Creation, recreated in 2D, as a painting. This idea carried through the following room, where cleverly lit, almost fluorescent paintings seemed to hover over dark black walls. Each piece was a translation of a famous painting recreated by energetic, vividly coloured pixels. A 3D rendition of Klimt’s Kiss was also one of the pieces that stood out for me.

Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya. © Carlo Volpi

There were other rooms where the artist tried to be a bit more conceptual, expressing feelings of isolation, loneliness or anger, but like the video, these experiments seemed quite superficial and way too literal in my opinion. It would have been interesting to see a different side to all these emotions, or a less predictable interpretation (the first image I think about when I try to visualise despair, for example, is somebody holding their head, which is exactly what was in the show). One of the pieces in this section really stood out: it was a sculpture of a father holding his dead child in his arms, an everyday rendition of a Pieta’ that almost seemed a cathartic attempt of the artist to deal with the pain of the father by diluting it with pixels.

In another corner of the same room, three giant masks in monochromatic colours stretched out from a black wall. The clever lighting conferred a digitally divine aura to them, turning the pieces into a trinity of pagan gods of the ether.

Lego sculpture by Nathan Sawaya. © Carlo Volpi

The most interesting section of the show was a collaboration between Sawaya and photographer Dean West: the two artists collaborated on a series of landscape photographs where real elements of the set were replaced by Lego sculptures, one of the most successful in my opinion was a picture of a remote train station where the railway was replaced by one of Sawaya’s pieces.

I left the show with a bittersweet feeling: on one hand there were those great reinterpretation of classic sculptures, some other evocative pieces that were lit in such an effective way, and on the other there was the video, the uninspiring titles given to each room and the slightly pointless interactive section in the end. All these elements really didn’t do any favours to how Sawaya’s work is perceived, I do think his work had moments of magic but unfortunately I’m not sure he knows he can be a wizard.

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