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COLUMN ONE

An Artist's Volatile Toy Story

A defiant Pole used Lego blocks to depict a Nazi death camp to show the gap between the ideal world marketed to children and reality. Works spark fight over free speech, Poland's sensitivity about its past.

May 19, 1997|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COPENHAGEN — Polish artist Zbigniew Libera is passing up the opportunity of a lifetime for the sake of some Lego toys packed away in the storeroom of an art gallery here.

"I couldn't sleep the entire night after making up my mind," he said. "But I had to refuse. For me, the whole thing is very clear."

Libera was invited to participate in next month's Venice Biennale exposition in Italy, one of the world's premier arts events and a dream come true for any struggling artist. Countless collectors and about 2,500 journalists converged on the show in 1995.

But the invitation came with a Faustian hitch: The Legos must stay behind. Libera's newest, most contentious artwork depicts with childlike innocence the horrors of a concentration camp--all through the simple construction of plastic building blocks donated by the Denmark-based Lego Group, which was unaware of Libera's subject.

The curator of the Polish pavilion in Venice, sculptor Jan Stanislaw Wojciechowski, said the works are "explosive material" that treat too frivolously one of the darkest moments in European civilization. Ticking off his many objections, he said taking on the Holocaust with one of the world's most beloved playthings is out of line and perhaps even anti-Semitic.

"I was really afraid that a commotion surrounding this work would overshadow everything else in our exhibit," Wojciechowski said in his Warsaw office. "For Poles, it is a great symbol that the Germans placed concentration camps on our soil and, in this way, negatively marked Polish history. The concentration camp is also a great symbol for Jews around the world."

Libera, who spent a year in prison under communism for sketching unauthorized political cartoons, insists that the Lego creations are essential to his current collection. His recent artworks employ ordinary objects to mock mass culture's obsession with everything from large sex organs to trendy narcotic highs.

"This is censorship all over again," said the lanky, fair-haired artist. "I created this work to inspire discussion, not to suppress it."

The dispute is an intensely personal one for Libera, but it mirrors a larger struggle in Poland to reconcile old and new--for Poles to come to terms with the dark legacies of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism and also adapt responsibly to democracy and the free market.

The unhappy showdown has split the Polish art community and has raised emotional questions about art, history, business and freedom of expression in a country still tormented by its past and not yet secure about its present or future.

"The situation with Libera does not allow one to remain indifferent or unengaged," said Wojciech Krukowski, director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. "His decision is one of personal moral responsibility, but it also influences the broader public."

Libera created his piece by assembling Lego blocks into replicas of death camp facilities, photographing them and then using the photos to adorn authentic-looking Lego cardboard packages, complete with the disassembled pieces, the company logo and multi-language safety warnings. The images include crematories, gallows and doctors administering electric shocks to prisoners. In one scene, random Lego limbs are piled outside an Auschwitz-style barracks. In another, skeleton figures--taken from the popular Lego pirate series--haul bodies to be incinerated.

The display is so unsettling in its playful simplicity that the Lego Group, which sponsors Lego art contests and donates thousands of plastic pieces to artists around the world, tried to persuade Libera to withdraw it from public view. Only when lawyers became involved did the company give up.

"It is a theme that is so sensitive to so many people in so many countries," said Peter Ambeck-Madsen, Lego's director of public relations at the company headquarters in Billund, Denmark. "If we had known before what he was going to do, we never would have given him the bricks. But we talked about it and decided [that] to make a big thing about it now would only draw more attention."

Libera, 38, backed by his newfound patrons at the fashionable Galleri Faurschou here in the Danish capital, has stood his ground. The Lego collection, he said, is neither anti-Semitic nor irreverent, but a provocation about child rearing, social norms and the cultural cacophony that the free market has brought to formerly Communist Eastern Europe.

He acknowledges that Lego officials were left in the dark about his intentions, but he said company representatives in Poland rebuffed his early efforts to let them review sketches of his ideas. In a bid to avoid any possible legal entanglements, Libera said, he has sold the seven-piece concentration camp set--plus two copies of the works--to the Galleri Faurschou and an agent in Chicago for about $7,500 each.

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