Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Ideas

Institute of Contemporary Arts: Debate on ‘The Trouble with Counter Culture’, July 24th 6:45 pm

Using history as its guide, the debate will assess the place of counter-culture in society today; does it exist, and if so, in what form? Using empirical evidence from previous cultural movements such as the Beats and Punks, the conversation will explore the relationship between subcultures and counter-cultural movements. Invited speakers include Dan Hancox, a Guardian writer who specialises in youth culture, music and politics, and Simon Warner, whose latest book looks at the links between the US Beat writers and subsequent rock artists from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith and Kurt Cobain.

Film

Haifaa Al Mansour’s ‘Wadjda’, in cinemas nationwide

Not only is Wadjda the first film ever to have been entirely filmed within Saudi Arabia, it is also a product of the country’s first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. Wadjda is the story of a vivacious young girl whose only desire is to ride her bike around her town with the boy who lives next door. However, the religious restrictions and societal pressures placed on women living in Saudi Arabia makes navigating this most simple of pleasures, a particularly complex task. Critics have said that while much of Wadjda is “very funny”, the picture also allows viewers to “get an acute sense of the little everyday frustrations and burdens that Saudi women have to shoulder”. Writing for the New Statesman, Steve Yates called Wadjdapowerful” and said that despite its “clear political intent…Wadjda is a very human film.”

Art

Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, E2: ‘Stranger – An Exhibition of Self-portraits’, 5th July – 31st August

The Stranger exhibition sheds light on the significance of self-portraiture and is testament to the artistic and aesthetic breadth of the field, given the huge variety of interpretations seen in each artist’s different approach to self-representation. Each work displays the intimate and disparate relationships the artists have with themselves and the canvas. In works that have been completed over the past year, Tom Phillips’ Doppelganger depicts a long figure accompanied by his other self, whereas Ishbel Myerscough panits her body as obscured by her young daughter, representing their unity. The freedom the topic bestows upon the artists makes for an incredibly diverse and inventive collection.

Exhibition

Somerset House: Miles Aldridge’s ‘I Only Want You To Love Me’, 10th July – 29th September

Although Aldridge is first and foremost a fashion photographer, his work has both political and social undertones, often portraying women intensely bored with their glamorous but monotonous domestic lives. Within his photographs, Aldridge saturates colour to the point of fluorescence, which contrasts heavily with the grey-blonde locks and porcelain faces of his models. This striking contrast and the models’ vacant expressions are used to portray the idea that living in stereotypical domestic bliss and committing oneself to brazen, high-fashion consumerism are not sufficient tools for achieving happiness. Every photograph in I Only Want You To Love Me is heavily constructed, precisely posed and entirely premeditated helping to further the feeling of boredom present in the women’s lives. The exhibition contains large prints of Aldridge’s photography from throughout his career as well as previously unpublished material. It also features some of the story-boards, artwork, Polaroid photos, and magazine cuttings he has used to develop his ideas. With critics calling I Only Want You to Love Me an “exhilarating adventure” and “eerily glamorous”, it is not to be missed.

Dance

The Lowry Theatre, Manchester, M50: An evening with the National Youth Dance Company and talent from the Lowry’s CAT programme, Sunday 21st July 2013 at 19:30, Tickets from £6.00.

Under a new initiative funded by the Arts Council England and the Department for Education, a cast of 30 dancers aged 16-19 perform work specially commissioned by NYDC’s Guest Artistic Director, Jasmin Vardimon, winner of the 2013 International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence in Dance. The evening promises to reflect the youthful, vibrant spirit of the dancers involved combined with Vardimon’s renowned and unique style of physical theatre.

The Trouble with Counter Culture at the ICA: Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols screams into a microphone.
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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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