The Virgin Mary takes a much-deserved gong. Photo: Getty
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Bad theatre, BoJo and Bingate: Mark Lawson’s culture awards 2014

Handing out the gongs.

The Cultural Controversy Prize
(sponsored by Twitter)

A strong case was made for the forcing off air of a radio broadcaster by the overreaction of witless BBC management. But the story of David Lowe – expelled from Radio Devon after accidentally playing a 1932 record that included the N-word – eventually shared third place with Jeremy Clarkson, who mumbled the same taboo. Runner-up was “Bingate”, which involved days of speculation about whether one contestant on The Great British Bake Off had deliberately defrosted the baked Alaska of another. But whereas many heads of great cultural institutions have lost their marbles without knowing it, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum knew what he was doing when, while continuing to deny the Greek claim to the Elgins, he lent one to Vladimir Putin.

Send Them Back Prize
(sponsored by Ukip)

Calls for a UK trade embargo of American Equity were prompted by three appalling theatrical imports to London. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs wasted the talent of Kathleen Turner in an execrable squib about the attribution of Jackson Pollocks that forced critics to stoop for a low rhyme with the artist’s surname. Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar had lessons in creative writing as both its subject and its urgent requirement. And, in a revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) played a supposedly demonic Hollywood producer on such a low-voiced single note that his co-star Lindsay Lohan could act him off the stage just by turning up, which, despite bitchy predictions of unreliability, she did.

No Publicity Required Award
(presented by Thomas Pynchon)

Although methods of publicity and advertising became ever more sophisticated, two of the biggest British events of 2014 would still have succeeded if their marketing had consisted of a single scribbled Post-it note stuck to a tree. This prize goes to Monty Python – the first release of tickets for the “One Down, Five to Go” reunion selling out in 43.5 seconds – with Kate Bush getting the silver for taking 15 minutes to shift every seat for her 22-night comeback.

Disguised Leadership Bid Prize
(presented by Rt Hon Theresa May)

In a pre-election period, “campaign autobiographies” are commonplace. But this year was notable for political authors who spent their entire publicity tour denying that they were making a bid for power. Voted into joint third place were Alan Johnson – forced to deny that his second memoir, Please, Mister Postman, was attempting to deliver a farewell letter to Ed Miliband – and Hillary Clinton, whose Hard Choices infuriatingly but ingeniously spent 635 pages failing to rule in or rule out another White House run. Second was Russell Brand with Revolution, a curious attempt to incite an uprising with no coherent aims. But, for sheer chutzpah, the panel acclaimed Boris Johnson, whose The Churchill Factor explored the public appeal of burly, controversial hedonists with a lucrative sideline in writing.

Unlikely Dramatic Appearances Award
(sponsored by Godot)

For remaining a go-to protagonist after more than 2,000 years, the panel found it inconceivable to look beyond the Virgin Mary. She was portrayed on stage by Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary and, in his one-man play The Man Jesus, by Simon Callow, who also impersonated Mary Magdalene – a character (mixed up with at least three other biblical Marys) in John Adams’s oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary at ENO.

The Prize for Popularising Art
(presented by that man who won the Turner)

Strong competition came from J M W Turner himself – who had a revelatory show of late work at Tate Britain and was played by Timothy Spall in a Mike Leigh movie – and the critic John Ruskin, a character in both Leigh’s film and Emma Thompson’s Effie Gray. Runner-up was Grayson Perry, for guest-editing a leading left-wing magazine and creating in his tremendous Channel 4 series Who Are You? a portrait pot of Chris Huhne that featured a line of penises. But the year’s most visible artist, an impressive feat as he was confined under house arrest in China, was Ai Weiwei, who created thrilling interventions within the buildings and landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Blenheim Palace.

The Hidden Portrait Award
(presented by Wally from Where’s Wally?)

A crowded fictional genre was literary satire, with the lit sat sometimes also containing a lit spat. Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word, Edward St Aubyn’s Lost for Words, Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and Mal Peet’s The Murdstone Trilogy all contained scurrilous portraits of writers who felt oddly familiar. But only transatlantic yacht crews have sailed closer to the wind than Kureishi, whose fictional authorial monster, Mamoon Azam, shared with Sir V S Naipaul physical appearance, anti-post-colonial attitudes, sneers at his peers, a goatee beard and a Nobel Prize in literature. The judges gave extra marks for reports that Naipaul had attended the book launch.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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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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