Public art of awesome: A few weeks ago, German artist Jan Vormann and a team of volunteers scattered around New York and filled in holes in the city’s walls with LEGO. He’s done similar construction projects in Berlin, Tel Aviv, Quito, Berlin, Zurich, several other cities. If my kids spotted one of these installations on a stroll around the city (the one above is from the General Theological Seminary’s outer wall in Chelsea), they’d scream like overjoyed little banshees. I love the contrast of the brightly colored bricks with the muted old-school facades. Some examples below (as seen on Vormann’s site), from Greenwich Village, the Brooklyn Public Library, Bryant Park, Central Park, and the Times Square subway station.
Sadly, as the New York Post reports today, all the installations are already gone.
I was tipped off to the project by one of my favorite blogs, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York (who in turn credits NewYorkology) (see, NYT, how hard is it to credit sources?) — Thanks! As a Jewy-Jew, I know that Jeremiah has taken his name from the kvetchy, ignored prophet of Tanach; this modern bloggy Jeremiah preaches about the quirk and personality of NYC headed for extinction. In this case I don’t share his concerns about this project being safely cute, part of the infantilization of our culture in general. I think if you look at Vormann’s work in different cities, the LEGO insertions make you look harder at their contexts. The work is accessible and witty and inclusive, but it also helps us appreciate the architecture surrounding it and makes us think about the inevitable process of decay. Using LEGO — plastic, ubiquitous — also makes us think about how everyone has the potential to be a builder instead of a destroyer…something the original Jeremiah would have appreciated between his bouts of performance art. (Perhaps it’s ironic, too, that Vormann’s works in NYC have already been destroyed or removed. Jeremiah’s Book of Lamentations is read on Tisha B’Av, the holiday that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Plus ca change.)
My kids, my nephew Jonah and my brother-in-law Jacob are all utterly obsessed with LEGO. This is an obsession I applaud. LEGO is awesome — creative, visual-plus-math-y, gender-neutral, full of infinite design possibility. (It’s not LEGOs, incidentally. Only LEGO. Singular and plural all at once. The name comes from the Danish “leg godt,” play well.) But right now LEGO seems to be at a crossroads, much like Jeremiah’s own New York. For decades LEGO was all about your basic blocks. Now the company is spinning off into a dervish of movie-tie-ins, kits, blocks that are not infinitely flexible but rather designed for specific purposes. Plus oy, the gendered LEGO that nearly made me cry when my girls took it out of the box at Grandma’s — tiny ladies, make this wee domestic tableau with flowers and pink and purple bricks! Boys, you get all forms of transportation, the sky, technology and THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE! Girls, you get a house.
Where was I? Off on a Jeremiad, apparently. Oh, right: So if your market share is shrinking, is this what you gotta do? Screw history, and the open-ended play that’s always been your toy’s signature? The WSJ covered this McKinsey-consultants-dictated change in LEGO’s philosophy really well. I don’t have answers — maybe change is inevitable if you want to live. And in the cyclical way of most things, you’re perpetually moving forward and backward, like the tide. You have the Bowery becoming a glittering canyon of ungapatchka rich people attractions, while you also have an increasing number of empty storefronts on Avenue A. You have the Disneyfied Times Square (a phrase we say so often it’s like a Zen koan now) but you also have more artists being able to afford to live in our economic-downturn-reeling NYC. There’s no stasis. Sometimes change is good, sometimes it’s bad, and often it’s both at once. And I’m gonna guess that eventually trendy LEGO will fall out of favor as the kids all embrace the next big thing (I hear Mattel is working on furry robot marmosets with human lungs) and the little nerd kids continue to play with the old-school LEGO, in the old-school way. And the cycle will begin again.
Anyway! The LEGO street art! LOVE IT! On his site, Vormann thanks (but misspells the name of) this guy, Henk Holsheimer, an auto and LEGO designer — which has to mean that LEGO supports the use of its bricks for public art as well as for producing Millennium Falcon kits that sell for $499.99 each. I like the way Vormann’s work makes us reevaluate plastic, a material that we associate with all things bad — yet in this project, plastic makes us ponder communal action, permanence, the inevitable lack thereof.