'Superman Soaring', bricks: 29,083; 38 x 122 x 224cm. All pictures taken at The Art of the Brick:DC Super Heroes © JaneHobson

The War Between Good and Evil

10th March 2017

Located in a tent behind the National Theatre on London’s South Bank is a new exhibition – The Art Of The Brick: DC Super Heroes – presenting Lego® like you’ve never seen it before. Jill Glenn went along, with a suspiciously closed mind…

“I wanted”, explains artist and sculptor Nathan Sawaya, “to do something about good and evil – and what could be better than working with heroes and villains… these are the iconic characters that I grew up with.”

His introduction at the press launch for The Art Of The Brick is brisk and cheerful. He sits next to The Joker, vividly realised in purple Lego® (I’m sure they never had this shade when I was a child) and obligingly poses for photographs; explains a little about the development of his latest exhibition, with due reverence for the world of the Super Hero – “I hadn’t read comics for years, and I’d forgotten how consistently fantastic these stories are, and how much I love these characters” – and stresses the importance of generating creativity in his audience… and then all-but-shoos us off to go and play.

There are more than 120 works of art here, created with over 2 million Lego bricks (not including the ones he lost down the back of the sofa). Lego is Sawaya’s “medium of choice”, partly because he just loves working with it, and partly because he believes that people connect with something that’s been made out of a child’s toy. “You know,” he says, “people see something made out of marble and they’re impressed by it, they’re inspired by it… that’s great – but they don’t have marble at home. But they may well have Lego. The role of every artist should be to inspire.”

The Superheroes theme naturally lends itself to the fulfilment of Sawaya’s goals. At least; it does in theory.

I start off hampered. I know nothing about these characters. I can’t tell Batman from Superman, and I wouldn’t know Wonderwoman if she sat down next to me on the bus. They may be iconic to Sawaya, and countless other people, but they’re not iconic to me. And initially I think this is going to be a problem. In the first room of the exhibition – The World of DC Comics – there’s a circle of 3ft high characters… and I recognise none of them. Not one. From Batgirl to Black Canary, from Cyborg to Starfire, I am at a loss. There’s skill, of course, in the making, which I can appreciate, but the one failing of a Lego model, I rapidly gather, is the inability to create expression: the faces, although shaped, are pretty blank, and I confess I find this almost scary. The models are supported by almost invisible wires, and they rock forward all too realistically as an attendant cleans their little cubicles. Even though I can walk behind the sculptures and see them from all their intricate angles, they make me uneasy. I don’t think I like them.

In the centre of the room are a couple of cleverly realised comic covers, brought to life with a flat background and a 3D foreground. They’re dramatically oversized. I can see that they’re quirky and unusual, but I’m still not sure I’d call it art.

Away to one side are eight clear tubes of Lego, around 4ft high and maybe 10 inches across. Seven of these are very well ordered, mainly by colour, but the eighth is artfully disorganised: its multi-coloured and multi-sized pieces make me think of the Lego box of my childhood, which, I’m suddenly reminded, gave me so much pleasure. No targeted kits in those days, of course: just bricks and imagination.

Perhaps it’s memory that softens my initial cynicism. In the next room, The Icons, I come face to face with a full-sized Wonder Woman (ah, so this is who she is…). She’s the first – I don’t know what to call her – item? object? artefact? – to stop me in my tracks here. Rendered almost entirely in dark blue, she has elegance and power, a dynamic sense of shape and line. Wow. Now I get it – and I can see that Sawaya has achieved what the accompanying information board says he was aiming for: ‘I wanted to capture the strength of Wonder Woman in a very dynamic pose. She’s a powerful, dignified character, and I wanted that power and dignity to come through here.’ It does. Nearby is Aquaman, another character I’ve not heard of, but whose horizontal form is clearly underwater (the clue’s in the name) against an impressive non-Lego moulded backdrop. Impressive, too, is the info plaque, where Sawaya explains the process. Aquaman took ‘about a week and a half’ to build. Sawaya fell in love with the colours, ‘especially the dark green, which looks like something you might find in the ocean itself’. And then he reveals the sort of detail that most sculptors, most artists, don’t share quite so readily. ‘The legs, in particular, were strangely difficult to construct. I needed to rebuild them a few times, partly because the earthy green Lego bricks only come in limited sizes.’

This strikes me as really interesting, given Sawaya’s desire to inspire. How encouraging, especially for children and teenagers, to see that an internationally acclaimed artist is willing and able to admit to difficulties; how fabulous for them to learn that it’s possible to keep trying when things are difficult, to keep trying and to succeed.

Now I’m really on a roll. Sure, I still don’t know who half these ‘people’ are – but I am loving them for their clever impressions of humanity (or superhumanity). The shape of the thigh, the swell of the calf, the turn of the ankle… all these things tell me that Sawaya knows how to convey form. In a note alongside The Flash, created as a running figure in dark red, Sawaya explains that he grew up on Oregon, ‘where running is a semi-holy activity.’ His family all run; he used to run himself. ‘I think The Flash and I must be related somehow…I was once fast like him.’ I find this quite fascinating: not only does it illuminate why Sawaya knows so precisely how to create movement (he’s been watching marathoners all his life), but it also tells me a lot about how seriously he relates to his subject and how directly he wants to connect to his audience. His comments and bright, jolly attitude appeal on many levels. Sawaya, I perceive, is a very interesting and thoughtful character.

Throughout the exhibition there are quotations (from writers as diverse as Homer, Joseph Campbell and JK Rowling) and comments from Sawaya himself, written up on slightly cheesy little speech bubbles on the wall: phrases like ‘What does it take to make a Super Hero? Super Heroes are built one brick at a time. Each brick is an important step in constructing a true Super Hero.” – and ‘Empowerment comes from playfulness’. By the time you get to the end, you’re riding high on a tide of positivity. And really, why not? Yes, the relentless enthusiasm that underscores the show verges on the exhausting, but the whole thing is fun and exciting.

The 16,007 bricks of Superman Streak, for example, in the section called Fortress of Solitude stop you in your tracks, even without the accompanying words from Sawaya: ‘Superman is flying. For me, flying equals freedom. I used my freedom to leave my career as an attorney and follow my passion to become an artist. Because sometimes you need to fly. Especially if you’re a lawyer.’

And just when you think it might be getting maybe a touch repetitive, Sawaya pulls out more stops. Or more bricks. From DC Dark onwards the whole thing gets… well… darker. Think Cyborgs. Think The Darkest Knight. Think Gotham City, and the Batcave (complete with Batmobile). This is impressive stuff.

There are lots of oohs and aahs from my fellow journalists, but we are, largely, restraining ourselves. The opportunities for selfies are endless, though. And while there are many requests not to touch the models, if the attendants can prevent children – and adults – from stretching out their curious fingers, it will be a miracle worthy of the Super Heroes themselves.

I came in to this show thinking ‘Why?’… and I go out thinking ‘Because. Just because.’

‘The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes’ is housed in a purpose-built tent on Upper Ground, directly behind the National Theatre and the BFI, on London’s South Bank. The exhibition continues until 3 September. See www.aotbdc.co.uk for details, directions, tickets and timings.

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