Chinese artist Ai Weiwei looks at his sculpture
Ai Weiwei looks at his sculpture ‘Forever’ in London last month

The anti-establishment Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has begun collecting donations of Lego in an effort to get around the toy company’s refusal to sell him a bulk order which he plans to use for an art installation.

Mr Ai, who has a history of confrontations not only with the Chinese state but also with western governments and institutions, has set up collection points around the world to receive donations of the cheerfully coloured toy building blocks.

Lego had cited a wish to avoid politics in its justification for refusing to sell.

China’s most prominent artist wants to collect enough Lego to make what is almost certainly going to be a politically provocative thumb in the eye of the Chinese leadership.

On Monday Mr Ai’s Instagram account said: “Ai Weiwei has now decided to make a new work to defend freedom of speech and ‘political art’. Ai Weiwei Studio will announce the project description and Lego collection points in different cities.”

On Friday Mr Ai published a picture on his Instagram account showing Lego’s refusal of his request for a bulk order for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Mr Ai’s followers on Twitter have since taken up his cause, with some pledging to donate their own childhood Lego sets to his exhibition.

Mr Ai called the refusal “an act of censorship and discrimination”.

Previously he has used the blocks to create portraits of Chinese political prisoners, including Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, on Alcatraz Island. Though he was prohibited from travelling at the time, local staff converted the portraits he drew into images using 1.2m Lego bricks in the prison’s hall.

“In cases where we receive requests for donations or support for projects — such as the possibility of purchasing Lego bricks in very large quantities, which is not possible through normal sales channels — where we are made aware that there is a political context, we therefore kindly decline support,” said Roar Rude Trangbaek, a Lego spokesman.

Mr Ai has often been outspoken in his support of democracy and freedom of expression, two themes which are uncomfortable to China’s authoritarian leadership. He was detained for three months in 2011 and subsequently placed under house arrest, with his passport taken away.

While there was never any official explanation for the campaign against him, friends and human rights experts said it was linked to his praise for pro democracy movements that year. Mr Ai’s passport was only returned in July this year, enabling him to travel to Europe.

An opinion piece in the Chinese edition of the Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, praised Lego for being motivated by “good business sense”.

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