The recent coverage of artist Ai Weiwei’s planned use of Legos in an artwork about free speech to be included in the exhbition “Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei” at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia (book forthcoming early next year) has sensitized us to other examples of the play blocks’ use in art, including politically charged art. The new book Contingent Beauty: Contemporary Art from Latin America edited by Mari Carmen Ramírez, which we are distributing for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, devotes a chapter to a Cuban art collective called Los Carpinteros, and focuses on their use of Legos. Here is an excerpt.
On a hilltop in Podgarić, Croatia, stands a solemn and unworldly gray creature overlooking the countryside. Its defining characteristics are its broad, asymmetrical wings, which paradoxically provide balance, and its opaque but omniscient eyes—two rosettes of concrete that face in opposite directions, one toward the East and the other the West.
Dušan Džamonja, Croatian, 1928 – 2009 Monument to the Revolution, 1967; Photo: Jan Kempanaers, Belgian, b. 1968, Spomenik #1 (Podgarić), 2006 © Jan Kempenaers (School of Arts, Ghent)
Known as the Monument to the Revolution of the People of Moslavina, or simply the Monument to the Revolution, this towering form is one of several dozen grand monuments created in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and early 1970s under the rule of Josip Broz Tito. In recent years, the Cuban collective Los Carpinteros—consisting of Marco Antonio Castillo Valdes (b. 1971) and Dagoberto Rodríguez (b. 1969)—built four massive Lego sculptures, including Podgaric Toy, 2013, representing a selection of these now largely forgotten Soviet era monuments.
LOS CARPINTEROS, Podgarić Toy, 2013; Wood and LEGO® bricks; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Caribbean Art Fund and the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund, 2015.81; © Los Carpinteros; Images courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York; Photos: Jason Wyche, New York.
The group also painted dramatic watercolors of spomeniks, the Serbo-Croatian term for “monuments” and the common designator for these works today. Podgaric Toy presents a simulacrum of the original, its matte gray surface replaced with the shiny patina of hundreds of black plastic blocks adhered to a hidden wooden armature. Such a work involves an artistic operation that resuscitates a form but challenges its original meaning, as Los Carpinteros ironically transform an icon of Communist strength and social accomplishments into a toy made from a mass-produced and commercialized product.
Over the last twenty years, Los Carpinteros have generated a large body of work referencing architectural and domestic icons of contemporary Cuba. Often the artists subvert the original, functional uses of everyday objects (bricks, coffee makers, swimming pools, stadiums, and billboards) to provoke observations about the material conditions and contradictions of life under socialism. Their work carries a darkly humorous and satirical tone, their disillusionment partially a consequence of living on the island during the 1990s when the collapse of the Soviet Union and the continued U.S. trade embargo wreaked havoc. “We are the sons of the ‘Special Period,’” comments Rodríguez; he and Castillo speak candidly about the starvation and shortages of supplies that characterized this time.
Lego-based works such as Podgaric Toy represent new ground as Los Carpinteros turn attention from the symbols of their homeland to those of a sister state in Eastern Europe. The Monument to the Revolution, built in 1967 and designed by sculptor Dušan Džamonja, was once the most iconic spomenik of Yugoslavia, even appearing on the nation’s postage stamp. The work commemorates the efforts of several hundred fighters from the country’s Moslavina region who rebelled against occupation by the Axis powers during World War II. The rebel’s efforts were enlaced within a wider communist-led revolution known as the National Liberation of Yugoslavia, headed by Tito. . . . Though they commemorated specific events of the past, the commissioned artists utilized a futuristic and sui generis formal language to express the strength and modernity of the nation. Architectural feats of immense size and grandeur, the spomeniks became popular pilgrimage and ceremonial sites. However, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequential dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, they have since fallen into disrepair and are rarely visited by citizens or tourists. Los Carpinteros’ interest in the spomeniks pertains to their present-day status as orphaned monuments: national symbols that outlived their parent country and its ideals.
In the United States—where Los Carpinteros debuted the Lego-based works—it is unlikely that many will recognize the reference to Yugoslavian monuments. Instead, an American audience is likely to identify first with the Lego toy and then contemplate the eerie configuration. The Lego-made spomeniks remind us that ideological indoctrination starts at a very early age—whether in democratic or socialist states. Toys can be objects for play, but they are also instrumental in social formation. . . . The political underpinnings of toys like Legos may not always seem apparent, however Los Carpinteros had a unique vantage point informed by their Cuban upbringing. As they explain, “Legos are a Western entertainment coming from capitalism. Children of socialism did not usually play with Legos, but we had versions from the USSR, Poland, China, Czechoslovakia, and other places.” . . .
Los Carpinteros work casts into sharp relief our own comfort with the capitalist dispositions of this toy: it surely seems paradoxical to see Legos in the context of a socialist monument when so much of the toy’s current profile is built around Hollywood blockbusters and crass commercialism. To our great surprise, Podgaric Toy and Los Carpinteros’ other Lego-based works indicate how quickly utopian origins may wear away. . . . Though its physical presence is striking and perhaps sinister, what makes Podgaric Toy so haunting is how severed this piece seems from the original utopian ideals of both the Monument to the Revolution and the Lego toy. Our imagination struggles to reconcile these forms with the ideals of peace, prosperity, and equality that gave rise to them—a struggle reinforced by our familiarity and attraction to a toy that typically disguises its ideological orientation to better sell itself.