#photography & visual arts
Not the kind of toy one could buy in a regular shop. Even though at first sight this looks just like a Lego set, it is simply Zbigniew Libera's work of art imitating the original.
The artist created seven boxes for Lego sets, almost identical to those produced by the Danish company: with the Lego logo and the traditional photograph of the finished design on the package. In the case of Zbigniew Libera's sets, however, it is not a space or train station, nor a medieval castle. Instead, the artist used authentic Lego bricks to construct a Nazi concentration camp.
All bricks have been sourced from actual Lego sets. The prisoners are played by smiling skeletons (taken from the Pirates set), and the camp guards – by slightly modified figures from the Police Station set. The two largest boxes contain bricks that can be used for building a crematory and a camp barracks surrounded by a barbed wire fence with a gate, protected by two watchtowers. The middle-sized box shows a picture of a warehouse with clothes and personal belongings – taken away from the prisoners entering the camp – spilling out of its four doors. The images on the remaining four small boxes present a prisoner beaten by a guard, a group of prisoners standing behind a barbed wire, and the camp's commander. Another image shows medical experiments carried out on the prisoners' skeletons by a camp doctor.
The list continues – we see an execution by hanging, cremation ovens, bodies carried out of the crematory by fellow prisoners, and bodies dumped in a hole in the ground. All of these atrocities can also be constructed out of Lego bricks. After all, they too were human creations. If, as the slogans say, anything can be constructed out of Lego bricks (“With Lego, you can make anything you want”), it doesn't only have to be an image of a happy world, ruled by peace and harmony, but can also be a reflection of a different order, with leaders and subjects, prisoners and tyrants, executioners and their victims. The artist explained his idea:
The thought that led me to making this piece was related to rationality which is the foundation of the Lego bricks system, in a petrifying way: one can't build anything out of these bricks that isn't based on a precise, rational system.
Whilst working on the Lego Concentration Camp (Lego. Obóz koncentracyjny) project, Zbigniew Libera created a series of drawings, naturally accompanied by the company's logo. They include characteristic Lego figures, whose monstrosity is actually given away in their shadows, in which their heads transform into skulls, hands – into long claws, and a soldier – into a frightening bat.
Realization of this piece was possible thanks to the Lego company, which donated the bricks. The collaboration with the brand was initiated by the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw, at which Libera was preparing his show. The delivered bricks were used by Marek Kijewski and Kocur (sculpture titled Queen Midas Looking for Bugs/Królowa Midas szuka Bugsa, 1995), and Libera. That is why each box features the signature: "This work of Zbigniew Libera has been sponsored by Lego." Unsurprisingly, the company protested after it learned about the nature of the artist's project. The case was even taken to the Polish court, but, under pressure from Danish public opinion, Lego backed down.
In 1996, Libera showed Lego at his solo exhibition Corrective Devices (Urządzenia korekcyjne) at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw.
The assumption was to assemble objects based on the aesthetics of persuasion – ones that are not just aesthetic, visual, but truly functional, i.e. having effect on reality. I was interested in the way objects pressurize and form us. What effect do toys have on children? I was trying to think about how to compromise the functions of objects that are so present in our everyday reality.
– says the artist.
This is how Libera came up with objects resembling already existing ones, but with radically different functions or – in his words - “genetically modified.” These included unusual toys: Ken's Aunt (Ciotka Kena, 1994) – a Barbie-like doll, but with a mature woman's body, You Can Shave the Baby (1995) – a baby-doll with hairy calves, armpits and erogenous zones, Delivery Beds. Play Kits for Girls (Łóżeczka porodowe. Zestawy dla dziewczynek, 1996), and the most famous one: Lego Concentration Camp.
By transforming the functionality of objects to the point of absurdity, Libera was questioning and revealing the persuasive power of its prototypes. If Ken's Aunt is so off-putting for us, then what does it say about the paradigm of the body created and sustained by the Barbie doll? If teaching the labour position to little girls, or getting them birth simulation toys, seems so absurd and inappropriate, then what behaviour patterns and social roles are transmitted by doll prams? And if the Lego concentration camp is so controversial, then what do children learn from the sets produced by the Danish company? The artist told Bożena Czubak in an interview in 1997:
It looks like Lego lost control over their own product, of course with some substantial help from my side. This is reminiscent of similar cases in history, whereby rationally constructed and supposedly safe technologies, products, and ideas went out of hand. This observation is especially poignant in the light of the fact that nowadays wars are no longer conducted just with the use of weapons, but also through consumption and culture.
The aforementioned show Corrective Devices, where Lego was first shown, took place during summer and wasn't accompanied by a catalogue, which might be the reason why there was hardly any discussion around it. It wasn't until a year later that the piece became (in)famous – after being censored out of the proposal for the exhibition at Polish Pavillon in the Venice Biennale. As a result of this, the artist decided against taking part in the event, and the debate moved on to the media.
The pavilion's curator [Jan Stanisław Wojciechowski] informed me that he couldn't take responsibility for showing Lego at the national pavilion, explaining that it could be used by certain New York Jewish circles to accuse Poland of antisemitism.
– said Libera in 1997.
The artwork does not just comment on the educational aspect of children's toys, but also on the way in which that particular historical event – the Holocaust – functions in popular culture. When asking that question, Libera applies meaningful tools, i.e. mass-produced materials. Discourse on the Holocaust has been trivialized. By bringing it to an absurd level, the artist effectively highlights that process. That is why it was fair to include the piece in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York, where it inspired the 2002 exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art.
centre for contemporary art ujazdowski castle
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2010, transl. Ania Micińska, March 2015