Recently, my friend and I spent a weekend in Brussels. We ventured across to the Belgian capital with no particular ideas in mind, more so because we had not seen each other in a while, and had much to discuss. After stumbling across surprisingly cheap transport offers, we decided that a short adventure to the continent would provide an amusingly alternative backdrop to our weekend, and so were pleasantly surprised to discover more than just waffles, bustling bureaucrats, and a world-renowned selection of beers…
Ironically, one of the most interesting experiences we encountered was not a wholly Belgian affair – it was in fact an exhibition displaying the works of a New-York based artist named Nathan Sawaya, and had just opened that every weekend. Housed in the classic, graceful structure known as the Bourse – formerly home to the Brussels Stock Exchange – one might anticipate something a little extravagant, perhaps even solemn - yet on entry, these preconceptions were delightfully batted aside. Taking no more than an hour to meander through, The Art of the Brick is a playful, provocative selection of works, ranging from original sculptures to replica interpretations. Constructive and conceptual skill aside, the most entertaining aspect of this exhibition is in fact centred not on the pieces themselves – although they are still of high artistic merit in their design – but the material with which Sawaya has decided to realise his ideas. Claiming to be the first mainstream, international artist to do so, he creates each and every work not from clay, or marble, or stone or wood or sand, but from everyday, store-bought Lego bricks – and what a collection they do create.
Originally trained as a lawyer, Sawaya now recalls that although his profession lay with legal issues, his passion was always in his art. Initially experimenting with more traditional materials such as clay, it wasn’t until about ten years ago that he decided to employ Lego bricks as the primary medium for his creations. After receiving a substantial amount of attention whilst still practising law, it wasn’t long before he decided to give up the trade altogether in favour of following his lifelong desire – to create raw, expressive art.
Now an internationally known and recognised artist, Sawaya continues to build and construct pieces that draw influence from all areas of life. Some of the most impressive designs that I was drawn to ranged from stunningly accurate replicas of classic pieces such as Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’ and Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’, to inventive, intriguing creations such as his 20-feet-long, 80,000 brick, T-Rex skeleton, and arguably his most famous piece, ‘Yellow’, which features the torso of a man apparently tearing open his chest, as dozens of loose bricks topple out from the cavity.
For me, the appeal of the exhibition lay in this combination of replica and original art – yet technically, even the ‘replicas’ are a work of art in their own right. Sawaya seems to successfully capture many complex and ambiguous emotions, and transform them into bold, expressive statements. Although at times the pieces can lack in a little in subtlety, and the quotes selected to adorn the walls or accompany pieces sometimes sound as if they’ve been poached from a self-help manual, overall the balance between originality and accessibility seems to sit in a pleasingly comfortable position. Combined with the feelings of nostalgia that are stirred up through the use of a childhood toy such as Lego, and the level of precision that Sawaya manages to reach with such a medium, the exhibition was an undeniably fun and fascinating way to spend a crisp winter’s morning perusing through the city in search of something to spark a discussion.
The art of the brick is just that – another individuals’ intriguing interpretation of the world surrounding him, realised by the most ordinary of materials with extraordinary results. Sawaya claims that the appeal in using Lego for him is that nearly everyone can recall experimenting with it at some point in their lives – and if he can build such creations, there’s little to stop anyone else having a go. Once those first two bricks snap into place…
The Art of the Brick is showing at Brussels Stock Exchange until April 21st 2014. Other locations, future shows, and any further information can be found on Sawaya’s website www.brickartist.com.