Outrage all round

Cuts, encouraging excellence and Anne Frank the musical

This week the Arts have been dominated by an increasingly boisterous response to those financial cuts first outlined in April last year. Messrs Spacey and McKellen led fellow actors and directors in the heckling as Arts Council chief executive, Peter Hewitt, was confronted at the Young Vic. Patrons of smaller theatres such as the Bush, which is threatened with cuts of £180,000 on the grounds of only having 81 seats, have been demonstrating their incredulity with equal vim – Victoria Wood and Julie Walters have been diligently stomping all week.

And yet, wading through all the vitriol came Sir Brian McMaster (on a horse?), earnestly brandishing his long-awaited assessment of how to encourage excellence in the arts and interrupting Spacey’s calls for ‘Revolution!’ with his own cry of ‘Renaissance! Renaissance!’. Already heralded as the Road Map for British arts, his was/is a bold manifesto based on the concept that arts groups should be assessed by their peers in the pursuit of excellence. Quite how he’ll create this culture of distinction when nobody actually trusts funding bodies to adequately dispense the spoils remains to be seen but theatres, galleries and opera houses alike will/must take heart from many of his innovative proposals.

The same cannot be said for those small independent publishers who, in the wake of their own drastic reductions, do not have an angry mob of articulate prima-donnas on hand to act as a media-friendly mouthpiece. Both Dedalus and Arcadia, two of the worst hit literary outlets, set up petitions this week in a bid to rouse support.

FRANK-LY OUTRAGED...

Unlikely as it sounds, in February, Anne Frank the Musical, set in the teenager’s attic hideout in Amsterdam during Nazi occupation, will be performed at Madrid’s Calderon Theatre. Despite obtaining the backing of the Anne Frank Foundation, which guards the rights to the diary, to say the international response has been mixed is a little understated. Whilst its musical director, Rafael Alvero, has argued it is a means ‘to understanding the story better’, others have been less forthcoming, branding the production ‘outstandingly emetic’ and crying foul exploitation, claiming the ‘Holocaust is not for sale’. If only Mel Brooks was still in the game.

Unsettling theatre is also to be found closer to home. Opening at the Arcola Theatre in east London, NS contributor Craig Murray has run his hand over The British Ambassador's Belly Dancer, an autobiographical piece by his partner Nadira Alieva, the former Uzbek drugs mule, teacher and lap-dancer.

Whilst neither of these propositions may immediately entice, surely even they are not as distasteful as this week’s much mooted McCann Movie.

ELSEWHERE...

The arts got terribly political. Cannes appointed the feverishly green Sean Penn as their president for this years festival, the power of the picket line derailed the Golden Globes and Putin and the Royal Academy managed to reach a détente: the cancelled From Russia exhibition is back on after all looked lost in the wake of diplomatic frostiness.

In France, the overwhelming success of the rather concupiscent Eros au Secret exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale, may appear to reinforce the stereotype of a lustful nation. But Britain's own sex-themed exhibition, Seduced, at the Barbican is still gathering superlatives into its final weeks. So too is Nicholas Hytner’s Much Ado About Nothing at the National. Any doubts raised at the idea of the vintage Zoe Wanamaker and Russell Beale playing roles intended for a pair of oversexed teenagers, are seemingly proved wrong. Just ask NS theatre critic Andrew Billen, who reviewed the production in this week’s issue.

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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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