Letgo room, 2015, is a major site-specific installation by leading Chinese artist, activist and public intellectual Ai Weiwei. It was commissioned for the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2015 exhibition Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei and generously gifted by the artist to the NGV. The work comprises more than three million plastic building blocks, which make up an immersive environment or ‘temple’ as referred to by Ai, devoted to and featuring portraits of twenty Australian activists and champions of human rights and freedom of speech. Ai has chosen people who represent grassroots community activism and advocacy within the fields of international law and academia, social welfare and the rights of Indigenous people, asylum seekers, sex workers and the LGBTIQ+ communities, among other cultural contexts. Each subject was asked to provide a one-line statement reflecting their philosophy and views to accompany their portrait.
Letgo room is a continuation of Ai’s work Trace, 2014, which he installed in the former prison of Alcatraz Island. The large-scale floor piece features the names and portraits of 176 international prisoners of conscience – including Nelson Mandela, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – all painstakingly created by hand out of LEGO building blocks. Letgo room was equally intended to be constructed from LEGO blocks; however, the LEGO company declined to provide a bulk order of their product due to the purported ‘political’ nature of the proposed work. Instead, the installation comprises LEGO-style building blocks manufactured in China, continuing the artist’s exploration of the copy and fake. Ai has frequently examined the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon, most prominently in his installation of millions of handcrafted porcelain sunflower seed husks at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010. As well as ideas around cultural and economic exchange, politics of labour are at the centre of his practice, and the involvement of almost 100 local volunteers and arts students in the construction of Letgo room was a key aspect in the process of creating the work.
Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing in 1957 and is currently based in Berlin. His artistic practice extends across many roles, from filmmaker and photographer, to writer, publisher, curator and architect. Ai expanded the reach of his art with a blog he ran from 2005–09, sharing notes from his daily life in China in what has been described as a form of social sculpture, before being shut down by Chinese authorities. A pioneer of online activism, he quickly migrated to new social media platforms and shares continuous updates with over 472,000 followers on his @aiww Twitter and Instagram accounts. This ability to reach out to the world became particularly important following the artist’s eighty-one day detention in 2011 (without charges being filed), when his passport was retained by the Chinese government for four years, putting him effectively under house arrest. Ai has noted, ‘The techniques of the internet have become a major way of liberating humans from old values and systems, something that has never been possible before today’. He utilised his plaform to take a stand against LEGO’s refusal to supply material for the Letgo room, installation revealing extracts from the company’s letter on his Instagram and calling for donations of second hand Lego blocks via collection points at the NGV and other places around the globe.
Katharina Prugger, Curatorial Project Officer, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)