The art of the brick – The London Economic

By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic 

Bricks have long been a focal part of Shoreditch. The factory red of its industrial past, the distinctive yellow residential stock bricks and post-modern grey office blocks paint the canvas of London’s East End which, when you’re mindful of their presence, display a tapestry of colours tantamount to an autumnal walk in the park.

And on this particular Sunday morning I had good reason to be mindful of their existence as I took the Overground train to Shoreditch along the brick passage that cuts through Wapping and emerges in London’s old industrial heartland at Whitchapel. Walking through the brick viaducts and along Brick Lane I saw the regenerated Old Truman Brewery that is the temporary home of Nathan Sawaya’s Art of the Brick exhibition that showcases millions of LEGO building blocks in new conceptual pieces of art and replicas of iconic classical artwork.

The vast, sprawling buildings of the Old Truman Brewery was once home to one of the largest brewers in the world and remained active right until 1989 when operations moved to Burton upon Trent, but an inspired regeneration has seen its many acres of buildings turned into a site for restaurants, bars, shops, businesses, events spaces and fashion markets. Today you can still grab a beer from one of many pop up stalls that are typically ‘hip’ for the area. Turner & Roast (the home of Meat Porn sauces), Mother Clucker’s southern fried chicken, Venezuelan street food, coconut water smoothie bars and the like are all fairly typical of the market’s offerings. It’s an idyllic place to hold any art show, but particularly symbolic for Sawaya’s latest exhibition.

The New York-based lawyer turned artist has spent the last ten years or so creating pieces of art from LEGO bricks and now has a collection that travels the world made up of more than 80 pieces of art and in excess of 1.5 million LEGO bricks. In a merge of pop art and surrealism the exhibition sets out to “change your view of LEGO”, snapping the world into place one brick at a time and by and large it succeeds spectacularly.

First of all the medium of the LEGO brick is a tremendously powerful one. It evokes feelings of nostalgia but also tears up the conventional practice of being given ideas on a box to replicate, thus engaging the child in all of us while at the same highlighting sophisticated and complex concepts. In this way I found the portrait replicas and imitations of historic art found at the start of the exhibition to be a little redundant. They were certainly flawless pieces of art, but failed to use the medium in its most effective capacity.

The turning point came at a computer sculpture that was originally meant to simply replicate a desktop but had been transformed at a later date when Sawaya added a long hand coming from the screen to depict how technology has reached into our lives. What was once a replica of the diagram on the box had become a challenging and provocative piece of art. It stood alongside a sculpture of a man supporting a huge pencil to depict how writing can set our creativeness free and a face that had been carved into the ball of a crotchet to depict how one can become the music when listening to heartfelt compositions.

Then there’s the man building his own right arm to demonstrate how life strips us apart and we build ourselves up again and Sawaya’s Pièce de résistance, the soul-shattering, agonising sculpture that features in the billboard above and his made this exhibition renowned. The recycled Peace symbol at the end of the exhibition differs from the typically monochrome pieces in that it’s recycled from bricks that have been played with and are now art. As you move towards the exit and through the play area of children constructing their own models this wonderful life-cycle is reinforced. The cartons of bricks sets their creativity free and it’s heartwarming to see a new wave of life being given back to the brick, although the row of LEGO computer games that are oversubscribed with interest adds a rather gloomy perspective.

The exhibition runs until Sunday 4 January 2015 in the The Old Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL. Between Monday and­ Thursday, adult tickets cost £14.50 and kids £8. Between Friday and Sunday adults cost £16.50 and kids £9.50. A family ticket for two grown-ups and two children is £40 or £47 at the weekend. Concessions are also available for students, groups or schools.

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