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Fans Offer Legos To Ai Weiwei After Company Refuses To Donate Its Toy Bricks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Legos are trending on social media today and not for a reason the Lego Group is excited about. Over the weekend, the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei said the company refused to sell him Legos for an exhibition on human rights. The artist says the company is bowing to pressure from the Chinese government, and he has frequently criticized that government. NPR's Jim Zarroli has the story.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Ai Weiwei wanted to use Legos for an exhibition on human rights at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. He created a similar show last year at the former prison on Alcatraz Island. This time, the Lego Group, which is based in Denmark, told the museum it couldn't provide a bulk order of Legos in the size the museum wanted. In a statement, it said it has no trouble with people using Legos for artwork, but it didn't want to engage in or endorse the use of Lego bricks in projects that carry a political agenda. In an interview from Berlin where he is living temporarily, Ai said the response isn't surprising given Lego's expansion plans.

AI WEIWEI: I think they just want to be safe because they are expanding globally, and China is a big market.

ZARROLI: Ai is a frequent critic of China's human rights record, and he has been imprisoned by the Chinese government. He says Lego does a lot of business in China and is opening a large manufacturing plant there. And the company knows that selling him the bricks he needs would anger Beijing officials. So he says, like a lot of companies, it's playing it safe. Over the weekend, Ai went on Instagram to accuse Lego of censorship. The response on social media was deafening. He says he doesn't know how many people around the world offered support or even their old Legos. Ai says the uproar shouldn't be seen as a validation of him.

WEIWEI: I appreciate people's understanding with freedom of speech and in supporting of the art, but I know clearly it's nothing about me.

ZARROLI: Ai says many of the people who have written to him on social media have used Legos to create art of their own. They're not professional artists themselves, but they get the larger point he wants to make.

WEIWEI: They're not necessarily museum goers, but they understand the wanted, most important meaning of art is to really express yourself successfully and to be - to defend the very essential value.

ZARROLI: Ai said he was in the process of setting up donation spots in big cities around the world where people can drop off Legos for him, and he's posting details about how to do so on Instagram. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.