Home Arts & Culture REVIEW: ‘Brick Wonders’ Exhibition

REVIEW: ‘Brick Wonders’ Exhibition

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Brick Wonders

People will have a variety of reasons for visiting Brick Wonders, the exhibition of Lego models now showing at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery until 15th January 2017. Some will take their children, in the hope of inspiring them to greater creative endeavours with their own hoards of plastic bricks. Others will be drawn by memories of playing with Lego when they were children themselves, now matured into an appreciation of just how clever these deceptively simple design icons really are. But as someone who was never greatly enthused by Lego (my childhood preferences, you may not be surprised to learn, tended to the bookish, and nothing much has changed since), what does a festival of brightly-coloured interlocking blocks have to offer me?

Beneath the general banner of ‘wonders’, the exhibition is divided into a number of sub-headings, including ‘Wonders of the Modern World’, ‘Wonders of the Ancient World’ and ‘Wonders of Nature’. A range of models (plus large photographs of models) illustrates each one. For unexplained reasons, many of the chosen exemplars have a perceptible Trans-Atlantic orientation: I’m not sure, for instance, how many British youngsters will even have heard of the Hoover Dam, let alone been awed by it.

The exception is a hyper-local model – created specifically for this exhibition – of Coventry Cathedral, the original of which stands just across the road. The clean lines of modernist architecture lend themselves well to re-creation in Lego, and this is perhaps one of the more successful models on display.

And staying positive – it’s difficult not to be impressed, as you tour the various exhibits, by the careful planning, patient skilfulness and enormous attention to detail that has gone into the creation of each one; and also by the astonishing versatility of Lego as a medium. But the question I kept coming back to was this: does it really qualify as art?

Because my usual reasons for visiting exhibitions – to challenge my perceptions, glimpse inside other minds and expose myself to new perspectives – don’t seem to apply here. From these Lego models, what I got was not an exploration of the possibilities of their subjects; rather, it was a curtailment of them, a reduction to nothing more than bright colours, bold lines and bustling Lego people – plus a highly prescriptive title that implies that the only legitimate response is ‘wonder’. No place here for light and shade; no place for conflicted, unquiet souls. In Legoland, everyone is happy. They don’t need art.

The problem, I think, is not so much Lego itself, as the intrinsic blandness of these incarnations. In fact, its associations with childhood mean it’s not impossible to re-imagine Lego as a vehicle for thought-provoking and relevant artefacts. The poignancy of seeing of a much-loved play-time friend used to create, for example, a scene of child migrants in the Calais jungle, could easily be imagined. A life-sized Lego statue of Donald Trump, on the other hand, could fuse that longing for old certainties and search for simple solutions that form the bedrock of his appeal, with the same emotional responses that many adults experience when they remember playing with Lego. What would that say about Trump – and about us?

In a way, it’s the absence questions that actually poses the questions in this exhibition. Can we designate as art something that, while carefully and skilfully crafted, is so unchallenging? Can we designate as art scenes that, quite without irony, seem to depict a world of such clarity and certainty – a world so free of doubt – that the disruptions of art appear redundant? At what point do we say ‘sorry – but this isn’t art’?

In these strange times of ours, the news that, in spite of everything, we still live in a world where it’s possible to make a career out of modelling Lego ought to make everyone happy. Lego is a brilliant invention that has given pleasure to millions, and well deserves its special place in our affections. Whether it also deserves a special place in our art galleries is an area where – at least on this current showing – I think the jury is still out.

Brick Wonders, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Jordan Well, Coventry CV1 5QP. Every day until 15th January 2017 (check for Christmas openings). Admission free.

Summary
Lego is a brilliant invention that has given pleasure to millions, and well deserves its special place in our affections. Whether it also deserves a special place in our art galleries is an area where – at least on this current showing – I think the jury is still out.
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