Would you pay $3500 for a ‘sculpture’ made from second-hand Lego blocks?

In what could be the ultimate example of “my six-year-old could do that” art, Melbourne architect Jan van Schaik is selling a series of 10-inch-high sculptures made from second-hand Lego blocks – for $3500 a pop.

Inspired by the ruins at the base of the Parthenon in Athens, van Schaik’s Lost Tablets is described by the artist as “a series of objects which express a tension between a universally recognisable children’s toy and the grammar of architectural semiotics”.

Architect-turned-sculptor Jan van Schaik with one of his Lost Tablets artworks, made from second-hand LEGO and selling for $3500 each. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

As with those broken slabs and columns of ancient marble, he writes, “these found Lego pieces bear the marks and discolouring left on them by their former owners before putting them up for sale on the second-hand market”. Faded colours, pen marks, dirt, glue, “and even teeth marks” are proudly worn as markers of their history.

But while the blocks themselves have stood the test of time, the classically inspired artworks are slightly less stoic.

“The Lost Tablets can be handled without white gloves,” van Schaik advises. “However the constituent building blocks are deliberately not glued together. Frequent handling may lead to temporary, yet easily rectifiable, destabilisation.” For the serious collector, “a bell jar cover for protecting a Lost Tablet from dust is available separately on request”.

All of this begs the simple question: is he serious, or is he completely off his block?

Front and back view of Ocean Wave (2021, Reconfigured Lego, 19 x 24.5 x 8.2cm), one of the sculptures in Jan van Schaik’s Lost Tablets series. The work is named after a 13-foot sailboat used by artist Bas Jan Ader in his attempt to cross the Atlantic in 1975. The boat was found, unmanned and partially submerged, with Ader presumed lost at sea.Credit:Colin Bennetts

“Well, both actually,” says van Schaik, a partner in the boutique Melbourne architectural firm MvS and a senior lecturer at RMIT. “This project really is about building tensions between stuff that’s fun and stuff that’s very serious.”

The seeds of the project were sown in September 2019 when van Schaik picked up a small bag of yellow bricks in an op shop in Colac. He’d had LEGO as a child, but hadn’t given it a moment’s thought for years; now, as he messed around with the blocks on his desk at work, he found the pieces coalescing into an odd but pleasing form, the prototype Lost Tablet.

He was about to pull it apart when he flipped it over and noted the wear and variation of the pieces on the ostensibly uniform flat side. “It had that quality of reconfigured ruins,” he says. “I liked that, so I thought I’d do more.”

To date, he’s made 75, of which he claims to have sold about one-third. He’s spent maybe $15,000 on second-hand blocks – “my first large batch came from a woman in Brighton who told her kids if they didn’t tidy up their Lego she’d sell it on eBay. They didn’t, and she did” – and he has a supplier in the US who sources blocks for him pre-sorted by colour.

There’s a vigorous trade in second-hand Lego, both in kit form (some rare boxed sets can fetch north of $1500) and in loose blocks. Typically, a single piece sells for about 40 cents, but a rare piece can cost $20.

“There’s a worldwide shortage of pink right now,” he says. “I’d like to think I’m at least a little responsible for that.”

Tension is at the heart of this project, says van Schaik: the tension between serious intellectual inquiry (he expects the Lego project will ultimately inform his architecture) and frivolity, between scale and detail, between solidity and impermanence. “These pieces are monumental but fragile,” he says. “There’s a sense they could return to their component parts if they were knocked over.”

Above all, there’s the tension inherent in that core question: is he serious, and is this really art?

“If people say WTF, I’m totally all right with that,” he says. “I really like that it has the quality where you see it in a gallery and go ‘I could make that’.

“But the thing is,” he adds slyly, “you didn’t”.

Lost Tablets is at Sarah Scout Presents, 12 Collins Street, Level 1, Suite 13, until May 22 (gallery hours midday to 5pm, Thurs-Sat). Details: sarahscoutpresents.com

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