Saturday, 25 July 2015

Bricks as Art - Nathan Sawaya’s ‘The Art of The Brick’

Procrastination is a wonderful thing.  Those of us blessed with it can always find an excuse for putting something off.  That wobbly shelf?  The garage that needs tidying?  No problem!  We’ll do it “soon”.  Maybe even “tomorrow’.
Just not “right now”.

However, to paraphrase the old Yellow Pages advert, procrastination isn’t just there for the  bad things in life.  Sometimes it gets in the way of stuff that you do actually want to do.
Want to see that film on the big screen?  It finished last week.
Pick that book up at a discount?  The sale’s over.

So when ‘The Art of the Brick’, Nathan Sawaya’s globetrotting Lego exhibition arrived at the Old Truman Brewery in London last September, I thought “I’ll go and see that.  No rush though - I’ve got plenty of time.”

And then the closing date passed.  

Fortunately, serendipity lent a hand, and I found that the exhibition had been extended to April 12th.  No doubt due to ‘overwhelming public demand’.  

I promptly forgot all about it.

Until a week before closing.  The last weekend it was on.  And we were going away.

Clearly someone, somewhere wanted me to see it, and so very thoughtfully gave me a dose of food poisoning just before we were due to pack up and head for Wales.  But Saturday morning rolled round, I crawled out of bed feeling rather better than I had for 48 hours, and suddenly we were looking at a Sunday with no plans.

To the internet!

Tickets purchased, a slightly reluctant wife and I got up early the next morning and headed out.  Lugging a bag full of DSLR gear with me, we got on the train, and about an hour later, emerged from Liverpool Street station.  I’d gone for early tickets, so the streets were largely empty, and when we got to the Truman Brewery, that was largely empty too.  It turned out to be a pretty cool exhibition space and a major plus point for me was that you could take as many photos as you like (as long as you didn’t use flash).  Given that most places like this chase you off like a plague-carrying zombie with halitosis at the sight of a camera, this was a bit of a result. (1)

Fortunately, my better half, who’d agreed to come along, was actually quite interested to see the works, and so didn’t mind too much about our slow progress through the gallery as I snapped away. 

The first room contained a number of classical sculptures, some well known, like the Venus De Milo, Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ and Michelangelo’s ‘David’, others less so, such as ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’.  All were, at a guess, somewhere between 50% and 75% of actual size, though I’m afraid I may be way off the mark, my classical education not being all it could be.

Michelangelo's 'David'

The next room was, at first glance, a step back from the imposing statues we’d just left behind.  They were framed mosaics that replicated famous paintings, although closer inspection showed that there was more to them than met the initially-skeptical eye.

First up was ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, something that most people will recognise: a slightly distorted figure on a bridge against an abstract - possibly fiery (2) - background. 
It was only as you drew closer that you realised that while the background was a ‘normal’ Lego-tiled mosaic background, the figure itself was three dimensional!

(The) Scream - 3D.  Not a cheesy horror film.

Next to it was a replica of one of my favourite paintings, ‘The Great Wave Off Kanagawa’ by Hokusai.  This too was three dimensional, but in a much more subtle fashion, only coming ‘out of the frame’ by a couple of bricks, but enough to give the waves real definition.

Detail from 'The Great Wave...'

Most of the other (five or six) ‘paintings’ in the room were flat, and varied in effectiveness.  “Girl With A Pearl Earring’ was unusual insomuch as it was a flat mosaic with the exception of the earring itself, which stood proud.  I spent a few minutes trying to work out whether it was a genuine Lego piece or not (it was a clear ‘bubble’ sort of thing).  I’m not sure, though more knowledgable people than I can probably give a definitive answer.

If pushed, I’d probably say that my favourite in the room was ‘San Giorgio Maggiore At Dusk’ by Monet.  Depicting the monastary-island of San Maggiore in Venice, the original is impressionist bordering on abstract, and Sawaya’s work does a fantastic job of replicating this.  Made up (as far as I can tell) of nothing but 1x1 tiles, maybe with a few 1x4’s in the sky, it must have taken a huge amount of planning, or an awful lot of trial and error.

San Giorgio Maggiore in all its impressionist glory

Next up was what I would describe as ‘display pieces’.  Not supposed to be anything in particular, they were oversized objects that wouldn’t look out of place in a hotel lobby, or in one of those achingly hip loft apartments whose owners have gone to extraordinary expense to make the place look empty.  A couple of chess pieces (‘Queen’ and ‘Pawn’) sat next to a three dimensional ‘twist’ of Lego / rope.  “Writer’ was a life-sized figure holding an oversized pencil, while “Polar Bear’ was, well you can probably figure out what that was.

Queen and Pawn

Some of the other pieces in the room impressed with their size, but didn’t seem to pique the interest in the same way.  An apple that was twice the size of my head was, to my mind, just a lot of red bricks.

In fact the one that caught my eye most was one of the smallest.  Simply titled ‘The Box’, it was inspired by a Roddy Doyle short story, and featured a figure, sitting on a bed, looking at a gift-wrapped box.  It was probably no more than a foot long and about 10 inches high.  It used just a few colours, was largely straight lines, and apart from the figure, used no complex building techniques at all.  It was probably the first in the exhibition where someone with a modest Lego collection could think “I could go home and make that!”   

Inspired by Roddy Doyle's 'The Box'

The following small gallery was a bit of a mixture, containing some musical-inspired pieces (a life-like and life-sized cello, plus ‘Sing’, an oversized musical note with a human head for the ‘blobby bit of the note’ (3) ).  The other sculptures were inspired by the solar system, with the smallest - a globe of the Earth, not much bigger than a football - being the most pleasing to look at.  Made up of 1x1 and 1x2 bricks in pleasing pastel shades, it’s the sort of thing I’d like in our house.

At this point we started to get to the ‘statement pieces’, and ‘Blue’ warranted a room all to itself.  It’s a figure, swimming.  Made entirely of blue bricks, it rests on a glass, or acrylic, sheet, representing the surface of the water.  Thus Sawaya has only created the part of the swimmer visible as they’re frozen, mid front-crawl.  Sadly the combination of the lighting, and my inexperience with a relatively new camera meant that when I got home and looked at my pictures, the piece was renamed ‘Purple’.

We then moved into the largest gallery space so far, and this is where Sawaya’s ‘Greatest Hits’ were displayed.

Much of his work is based around anonymous human figures, often combined with something abstract.  The first piece, for example, was around three feet high, and consisted of a figure with his arms raised.  The arms morphed into an arched ladder, coming down in  front of him, which he’d started to climb up.

“Building Red’, meanwhile, was a bust of a Lego man, putting himself back together from the pile of bricks that surrounded him.

All very deep and meaningful.

Three facemasks, each around four feet high were striking.  ‘Blue Facemask’ was a self portait, and ‘Red Facemask’ was a friend of Sawaya’s, while ‘Yellow Facemask’ had just sat on a drawing pin from the looks of things.


Three figures , titled ‘Red Torso’, ‘Yellow Torso’ and ‘Blue Torso’ dominated the centre of the room.  They were each life sized upper bodies, but with heads of a sphere, a pyramid and a cube respectively.


A few other pieces drew my attention, but in the corner of the room was the one that everybody had come to see.

Simply titled ‘Yellow’, it’s a life-sized torso of a man, made entirely of yellow bricks, pulling his chest open from where a slew of more yellow bricks cascades onto the table.  In any medium more realistic than Lego it would be somewhere between disturbing and stomach-churning, but being in little plastic bricks it has a certain elegance.


Moving on, we reached what might have been called the ‘Angst room’.  It was certainly filled with many figures, all of whom seemed to be suffering some sort of anguish, whether it was sitting with their head in their hands, or indeed looking at the pile of bricks on the floor that used to be their hands!  

Someone's not having a good day

There was a lot of stuff in this room.  Cracked heads, disintegrating bodies, clutching hands.

Maybe Nathan needs a holiday...

The next room was rather different.

In among a few other pieces and portraits were three life-sized figures, of a middle-aged woman, a girl in her late teens / early twenties and a crow.
They were on a plinth alongside a TV screen, and a film was being looped.  We sat down on one of the benches and watched ‘Daddy Warblocks’.

Directed by Chris Nash, with Lego sculptures by Sawaya, it’s about 10 minutes long, and either kitsch or very moving, depending on how heartless (or otherwise) you are.
With very little dialogue, we see a man saying goodbye to his wife as she heads out for a trip.  While she’s gone, he builds a bird from Lego and it comes to life.
As you do, he then builds ‘Penny’, his teenage daughter, and explains the world to her, and tells her about her mother, Rita, who’s away.  The film ends with him taking a photo of his daughter who is, of course, just Lego once more.  And standing alongside her is the statue of Rita, her ‘mother’.

I loved it.

Penny & Rita

We were nearing the end of the exhibition now.  A ‘British Room’ had been created for the London show, with some icons, such as a Phone Box, the Beatles and One Direction!
You could also have your photo taken in a chair, alongside one of Sawaya’s figures.

And normally, that would have been that.  However, as we’d gone late in the exhibition’s run, we were treated to some ‘bonus content’.  ‘In Pieces’ was a collaboration between Sawaya and photographer Dean West.  The explanation and ‘concept’ as we went in was, quite frankly, complete tosh :  “Identity as cultural creation” and whatnot.

In a nutshell, West had taken some photographs, and somewhere in the photo, a piece of the scenery had been replaced by a Lego substitute.  It was fun trying to spot what the ‘fake item(s) was / were before going off and finding the original.

Some were simple.  A man standing in a swimming baths had a Lego towel on the wall and a pair of Lego flipflops on the floor.  Others were more subtle.  A railway halt in the anonymous Mid-West had me scrutinising the picture for about five minutes before my wife pointed out the Lego railway tracks behind me.

One of the cleverest was a girl standing outside a 1950‘s style cinema.  She was wearing a little red dress which was being blown by the wind, and disintegrating as a result.  The entire dress, including the fragments, was made of Lego, and to reproduce it in the exhibition hall, hundreds of individual bricks were suspended on fine filament to replicate them being blown away.

The photo

The girl and dress in close up 

And the dress itself

And that was that.  My wallet didn’t make it through the gift shop unscathed, but on reflection, it got off quite lightly.

Looking back (several months now), I really enjoyed it.  Several people have commented that Sawaya’s work is quite simplistic, just using basic bricks, but I think it’s all the better for that.  Having the time and space to look around while it was quiet definitely contributed though - it would have been a different story in the height of the school holidays.

I believe ‘The Art Of The Brick’ is on tour still - if you get a chance to go, I’d recommend it. 

(All sculptures created by Nathan Sawaya - hopefully he doesn't mind me publishing a few pictures of his work.) 

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(1) I suspect that this is going to be a more commonly adopted attitude in future, as thanks to the fact that just about everyone (except me) these days has a smartphone with a fairly decent camera on it, everyone’s a photographer.  And you try and tell people they can’t come in without surrendering their phone, and there would be rioting in the streets.  

(2) Although it could equally be a striking sunset.

(3) I’m sure that has a proper name, but I don’t know what it is.