Andrew Nugée, London. Parts of the job are inevitably dull, but the rewards can be simply wonderful. In the latter category, step up Nathan Sawaya. I recently interviewed the artist behind unique and powerful works created from Lego. Since he left his job as a New York corporate lawyer in 2004 to become an artist, Nathan’s exhibitions have broken attendance records all over the world. He called it living the dream, and says ‘The worst day as an artist is better than the best day as a lawyer’.
But this was the first personal tour he’s consented to build for one of his exhibitions, and we grasped the opportunity with both hands, creating versions in Dutch and French as well, and for adults and families. Nathan was at home in California when I needed to interview him. I would have liked the diversion, but instead, we set up a call and organised a local sound engineer to record his answers professionally, which meant that trip to LA will have to wait.
The result is an interview that will give visitors a unique personal experience of the exhibition with Nathan. He is a pleasure to talk to, and lively, animated and different. And he obviously loves what he does, a point the guide is really able to get across.
I got to ask him things that I’m sure everyone who looks at his amazing work will be wondering. If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition in New York or Brussels (with Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Rome, etc on the way), then you’ll be able to hear what he told me in full. But for now, I’ve put together five surprises as a taster:
bricks are glued together!
I guess they’d have to be. Would not be great karma if the crate arrived at the gallery and there was … just a pile of bricks in the bottom. Even so, as he explained: “It can be a frustrating process where I have to step back, look at how the proportions are coming together and then if it doesn’t look right I actually chisel apart the Lego bricks.”
2. He built a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex for children
This took a whole summer, he said. And he admitted he got mightily fed up with the T Rex at times. But he had a higher objective in mind: “After I’d done my first solo exhibition, I was shocked at the number of families and kids who came to this very contemporary art museum who had never been to an art museum before, and I thought you know what, I want to give back to those kids, all those kids who came to see this, I want to do something for them. So what do kids love? Well, they love dinosaurs.”
3. The pieces are hollow
I just hadn’t given this any thought. As Nathan explained, his father was an engineer so thinking about how to create structures is in his genes. The pieces sometimes need internal support, but he builds the support out of … Lego of course. “A lot of folks ask about the internal structure of the sculptures and are they hollow. Actually, almost all the sculptures are hollow, they don’t need to be solid. In fact if they were solid they’d be so heavy it would be impossible to move them.”
4. He admires Duchamp
You can see why, perhaps. “ ‘Duchamp’s Fountain’ is an important part of this exhibition. Of course when the original was debuted in the early 1900s, it caused an uproar because it was not considered true art and I’ve had to face that in my own art over the years; people saying that art out of Lego wasn’t true art. So I really wanted to include it in this exhibition, it was important to me.”
5. He plans
his designs on specially created paper
The great magic of the Lego sculptures is that he uses only square bricks, in uncompromisingly sharp rectangular shapes. But the sculptures that result are organic, they flow and they convey emotion. This transformation starts on brick paper. Brick paper? How cool is that? “I do sketch out things on what’s called brick paper. Brick paper is just like the graph paper we all had in math class, but instead of squares it has the rectangles that are the shape of Lego bricks, so I can sketch out on that brick paper and really have an idea of how the sculpture’s going to come together.”
We wish Nathan and his brick art a huge success, and look forward to following the exhibition across Europe and back in the years to come.