Ai Weiwei reconstructs Monet painting with 650,000 Lego bricks

Water Lilies #1 will be shown at the artist’s first design and architecture-focused exhibition, where it will span an entire wall of the Design Museum, measuring 15m.

28 March 2023

Ahead of a new exhibition next month, Ai Weiwei has revealed his largest ever work using the medium of Lego bricks. Recreating one of the best-known artworks by Claude Monet, Water Lilies #1 is made using 650,000 Lego studs in 22 colours. The huge artwork will be shown for the first time at Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, opening in April at the Design Museum.

Ai Weiwei’s largest exhibition in eight years will also be a major moment for design, as the artist focuses on the medium and the history of making to consider the things that we value today.

Water Lilies #1 harnesses the pixel-like medium of Lego to suggest digital technologies, commenting on how art is experienced and disseminated today. A release from Design Museum explains: “Included on the right-hand side of Ai’s version is a dark portal, which is the door to the underground dug out 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.”

Lego has been a tool Ai has returned to repeatedly since 2014, when he was under house arrest in China and needed a way to create artwork remotely (with a clear design that could be carried out by collaborators overseas). The artist has previously discussed being drawn to the accessibility and simplicity of the kid-friendly building blocks. “I always like artworks that don’t have to be done by artists. It’s only the idea that comes from the artist,” Ai stated in a 2021 interview with The Independent. “The easier to make, the better the work is. I think Lego is no different from Rembrandt’s paint or Van Gogh’s paint. If they were alive today, they would love to play Legos.”


Ai Weiwei: Water Lilies #1. Lego Bricks (Photo Copyright © Ela Bialkowska/ OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei and Galleria Continua, 2022)

Alongside Water Lilies #1, Ai will show another major Lego artwork. Untitled (Lego Incident) is the result of a collaboration with the public that started with the artist’s incident with Lego in 2015, when the company refused to fill a bulk order request for an artwork, due to the political nature of the piece. Thousands of Lego bricks were subsequently donated to Ai from members of the public globally. Design Museum will present them among hundreds of thousands of objects laid out on the gallery floor.

The curator of Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, Justin McGuirk, states: “Several of the works in this exhibition capture the destruction of urban development in China over the last two decades. With Water Lilies #1 Ai Weiwei presents us with an alternate vision – a garden paradise. On the one hand he has personalised it by inserting the door of his desert childhood home, and on the other he has depersonalised it by using an industrial language of modular Lego blocks. This is a monumental, complex and powerful work and we are proud to be the first museum to show it.”

GalleryAi Weiwei: Water Lilies #1, Detail. Lego Bricks. (Photo Copyright © Ela Bialkowska/ OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei and Galleria Continua, 2022)

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Ai Weiwei: Water Lilies #1, Detail. Lego Bricks. (Photo Copyright © Ela Bialkowska/ OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei and Galleria Continua, 2022)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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