The Art of Lego

Cornerhouse Visual Arts Programme Manager Bren O’Callaghan reflects on the weekend’s lego workshop…

The idea for an Absract Lego Sculpture Workshop in response to artist Rashid Rana’s first UK public solo exhibition at Cornerhouse came to me when I first saw his new body of photo-sculpture works; ordinary, even average domestic objects that had been regressed to the razor edge of visual legibility. The use of block pixels reminded me of Lego, and so the idea was born. We would invite participants to deconstruct and rebuild their own everyday items and in doing so tackle two otherwise brain-hurty artistic concepts for themselves: minimalism, and abstraction. Can we do it? Yes we can!

Rashid’s photo sculptures are responding to Minimalist ideals and intentions – reducing, simmering down to a base flavor like a soup stock, an essence, but also mocking this technique by taking a series of flat 2D photographs of the objects themselves and re-creating them as three-dimensional forms. To use food as a metaphor, this is like taking the contents of a tube of tomato puree, the distilled, ultra-flavoured essence of a specific taste, and moulding it back into the shape of a tomato… eventually re-attaching it to the vine. It’s absurd, but there is skill and a deliberate intention behind the act.

With the expert tutelage of the UK’s only Lego-certified freelance model builder, Ducan Titmarsh of Bright Bricks, we emulated this same process ourselves in our workshop by taking two objects, a Coke can and a stack of Wii cartridge games, and subjected them to the same treatment. They will no longer look exactly like the originals, but still be recognizable as such. Think Picasso’s jumbled face-portraits, unblinking cyclopic eyes balanced upon triangular noses, or musical compositions that sound like a piano being dropped from a building. And then run over with a steamroller.

This is the bit where, in a traditional magazine layout, there would be a spiky bright yellow explosion accompanied by the subheading Did You Know…? Minimalism describes the practice and movement across multiple disciplines, but especially visual art and music, where the maker sets out to expose the essence or identity of a subject by stripping it back until only the bare bones remain. Abstraction indicates a departure from reality in the depiction of imagery; a courageous and still controversial approach when much of Western art right up until the mid 19th Century had been preoccupied by the illusion of reality and the orthodox logic of perspective.

A coke can is one of the most recognizable items on the planet. It crosses cultures and continents and despite limited editions or redesigns or a change to thefont and calligraphic text, it remains red and white and cylindrical. Cast your mind back to school art classes – were you ever asked to draw a crushed coke can? Without realising it, this might well have been your first exposure to the concept of abstraction – of moving away from a literal, clear representation of an object that still retains those core elements despite being jumbled and obscured. The curl of the letter C, the pillar box tint, a peeled ring pull. You don’t need to see all of it to recognise it for what it is.

Similarly, cast your thoughts back to early computer games, or what we know now to be early if you never actually played them. 8-bit, pixelated characters, Spectrum, Atari, Commodore. A limited number of pixels and no such thing as a graphics engine meant that characters and backgrounds were formed of little coloured blocks. Fast forward to the present and the likes of Mario and Sonic still survive in successful franchises, so the option of creating a stack of Wii games is a nod to their earlier incarnations. A thumbprint of red and whitesquares to represent a mushroom. Rectangles and triangles represent landscapes, bouncing square bombs. We used our imagination in that situation, we can do the same now.

We are making, we are unmaking. We are simplifying, we are complicating. Hence the title of the overall exhibition – Everything Is Happening At Once. Thank you to all our participants, all of who commented upon how much fun it was to combine theoretical concepts with a playful make-it-yourself opportunity. Demands were made for further, weekly Lego workshops to tackle art history (a lone voice requested Duplo – we’ll say no more).  For those who wish to continue this journey into modern art via the joyful medium of children’s toys, may I recommend John Cake and Darren Neave, an artist duo who recreate seminal YBA installations via the medium of – you guessed it – Lego!