Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Art of the Brick: DC Comics

It's happening in Sydney right now: pay 22 dollars and the Flash will grab you by the waist, run back in time and bring you back to your childhood. Or, well, maybe not the Flash, and no grabbing, but surely one artist in particular knows how to take the pages from those long-yellowed comic books and turn them into sculptures made of Lego. Lawyer by day, Lego artist by night. Nathan Sawaya managed to use thousands of bricks to sculpt an incredibly colourful and marvellous exhibition: The Art of The Brick: DC Comics.

Most children growing up knew about the blue bird with the red cape, or its darker opposite. Superman and Batman, with their unoriginal names, have made it through with their super stories to become original in each child's memory. Children spend their years looking up to people, due to their height, but probably also due to their curiosity. The art of storytelling is an ancient one and keeps growing, from 2D to 3D, from paper to plastic. Artists, whether they are writers or painters, all seek to communicate a story even when they claim that an artwork is about nothing. The journey to that nothingness is a story, and so, this world is full of stories, but not only for those who are young at heart.

"A story can make us cry and laugh, break out hearts or make us angry enough to change the world." ~ Grant Morrison 
This is a quote I stole from one out of many text balloons which were painted on the walls at the exhibition, both humorously and wisely fencing off different sections of the exhibition. Of course, we can't let the light meet darkness, can we? But I've always noted that the light does not exist without darkness, and Nathan seems to grasp this concept very well as he visualises the coexistence of superheroes and villains with tiny injection-moulded bricks.

'Yellow' reminded me of Superman, how he always takes off his office suit with that pose to reveal a big emblem clinging tightly to his muscular chest. However, 'Yellow' is much deeper than that, as it resembles the artist's transition to opening up to the world.

Upon entering the exhibition, 'Yellow' (the right-hand image) was the first sculpture to be encountered, spilling bricks right from the torso: delicious. Of course the exhibition staff had warned us beforehand: it's tempting, but don't touch any of the sculptures. Oh, if only I could've just poked one of those plastic intestines, just to see if it would break the magic: these perfectly, randomly placed bricks that had rushed out of this yellow man's body. But before I could commit that crime I was ushered into a room with a screen that would contain the very creator of the yellow man I was about to touch out of curiosity.

The video explained the inspiration behind the exhibition. A passionate voice told us about the stories that each superhero holds, and prompted us to think about how none of these stories would come into existence if superheroes did not have an equally super-powered villain. Indeed, what would Superman do if he didn't have to take care of a thousand human lives each day? Would he be asked to fly up a tree and save a scared cat? I don't think that would make such a flashy story.

But all philosophy aside, Nathan also seemed to have a humorous side attached to him, as the video ended with 'Yellow' being animated into creation just as in the beginning, except that some thunderclouds and flickering at the end suddenly revealed a painted face and the maniacal cackling of the Joker. Upon exiting the make-shift cinema area, we were encountered with the lunatic version of 'Yellow'. This proved to me that, for once, I might be interested in reading all the side-notes that accompany sculptures in a museum.

Superheroes in their most exceptional moments: while saving lives or taming evil. Even though it seems to me that Superman is trying to jam the car into that rock, haha.

Superman and Wonderwoman, funnily held upright with two transparent wires as if they are puppets.

The first section of the exhibition contained a gallery of superpowers. Of course, superman  or the Justice league couldn't afford not being a part of this. I found myself enjoying the ambience even though they were horrible for my smartphone camera. The walls were plastered with comic book chapters and each superhero (or pair of superheroes) had their own cubicle with a spotlight aiming on them. It's like walking through a gallery of fame. Most of these sculptures would've probably reached my knee, and there were at least 20 of them. So whilst tiptoeing and kneeling, I'd read about them all.

Most of them were unfamiliar to me, as I only jumped on the superhero wagon no longer than a few years ago, when the cinemas eagerly started telling us about another Marvel movie coming out over and over again. I know, I know, shame on me talking about Marvel while writing about a DC Comics exhibition. Who's side am I on anyway? Quite honestly, I am more familiar with Marvel's characters, but then again, once you enter the exhibition you will leave all of these silly, side-taking grudges outside. Even with minimal knowledge, you will come to enjoy these colourful sculptures, if not just for Nathan's sense of humour or time investment. All the side-notes will state how many bricks were used for the particular sculpture, but if you're lucky some will also tell you how many Tacos it took the artist to create that plastic work of art standing in front of you.

Behold: Aquaman's rubber ducky. As an explanation, Nathan wrote that he wanted to put Aquaman in an environment which was both enjoyable for the superhero and Nathan himself, as he spends many an hour in a bathtub.

Of course, that's not why you came here, right? Well, here it is, the Justice League, each sculpture probably taller than yourself.

The above works of art must've taken many, many Tacos to be created. Just take a look at Superman's cape or Wonder Woman's Lasso. What's more, all of these stances must've fought against gravity during creation. These sculptures are mostly monochromatic, which effectively highlights each of these superhero's charisma. Yet, a superhero would not be complete without his or her own logo, and so these are crisply captured in brick with another colour. Each of these superheroes are considerably placed on their own pedestal. Even though already outstanding om their own, the background art further sophisticates their character.

Throughout the exhibition, Nathan seems to balance well between art and engineering. The fact that nothing has toppled over as I passed by already proves his success. The bricks must not only stay standing, they must also keep floating as was already apparent in Superman's cape. If that impressed you, then how about this Invisible Jet below? Surely, it's less mathematics to keep this one floating, but imagine how it must be like to watch this floating artwork from different angles and still making out the jet-shape out of it? Nathan has made the invisible visible, but the transparency of this work keeps reminding us how it is indeed almost invisible. The artist himself has struggled while dropping these invisible bricks on the floor. Aye.

Wonder Woman's 'Invisible Jet'.

Even though the exhibition is about superheroes and super villains, the thought that any of us could be considered superheroes does not escape us, as the notes seem to lead us into a story of self-exploration. Of course, children will braid forward on their stories, and adults will revisit their inner-child, but both are steered by their ability to dream. Nathan didn't become this renowned artist within a day. He's been a lawyer when he just started building with Lego as a means of stress-relief at night. It's hard to follow our passions, especially in a world where survival equals having money. Yet, we do not have to be booming superstars or life-savers to be considered a hero. Nathan implicitly points this out as he shares stories about his mother as well. A connection to being human is made at several points of the exhibition.

'Amazon Warrior'. Bricks: 12559 - 160 x 58 x 51 cm
"There have always been strong women in life, starting with my mother. She had two kids, but she was also the manager at the local weekly newspaper. Besides making sure we got to school, and to our sports activities, and Cub Scouts. etc. she also had to make sure an issue of the paper went out every week. [...] But running the paper wasn't all that she did. She also found time to make sure we had breakfast every morning, packed lunched for school, and help run the household. And she did it all without an invisible jet. I wonder how she did it?" ~ Nathan Sawaya
The word 'Empowerment' hung above these plastic columns of liquefied (brick-ified?) superheroes. I wonder what it means, just mere fun or a slight indication that we could build (and be) our own superheroes?

'Pushing'. Bricks: 8,478 - 33 x 137 x 142 cm
"Superman's cape is probably the most recognizable symbol in comic book history. Pushing is an exploration of how we all create obstacles for ourselves. Even the all-powerful Superman has obstacles. We all create out own obstacles in life, thinking we can't do this, or don't have the courage to do that. Pushing is a physical manifestation of that very prosaic, very human struggle for Superman." ~ Nathan Sawaya

The stories which are shared vary from being personal, inspiring, funny, philosophical, or all of them at once. Without them, I probably wouldn't have spent 2 hours in the exhibition, as I'd speed through it taking pictures of the things I liked. The words that came with 'Pushing' illustrated a beautiful analogy that kept me thinking about how I've always held myself back from doing things just because I wouldn't be 'good enough'.

Even with this blog, while spending at least 5-6 hours writing each post and having barely a hand full of readers, it is sometimes demotivating to think about those good-for-nothing few hours. I've been thinking about expanding this blog when I go back home, making it more professional, but then I thought: why should I, not like I've ever succeeded at gaining popularity on the internet. But if I didn't write all of this down then all of my pictures would go to waste: tucked away in some hard drive until one day I cannot find it anymore. If I don't add words to my pictures I will just forget about them, and a mountain will just be a mountain, a mountain without stories.

Superman keeps flying up and down...

The Flash leaves scarlet streaks behind as he runs back and forth ...

But they also stand still and focus on on what they have become.

And so, I must tread on with my stories. The superheroes do it all the time, just much faster and to much greater lengths. Sometimes it is important to stand still as well, and sometimes I wonder if Superman ever pauses when he emerges from the clouds, just to enjoy the sky. During the exhibition, I once caught myself taking pictures of a note before even reading it. I almost felt as if I had just spent 20 minutes photographing a hamburger while being hungry as hell. When I was at the end of the exhibition, I put away my phone and walked back again just to make sure I didn't lose myself while staring at the screen.

One of my favourite places to go was definitely Arkham City. The suspense-killing music was there, the lightning and the dark atmosphere. These teeny tiny bits of decoration just add much more character to the sculptures. Artworks never stand on their own, even the way a painting is perceived can be changed if it is put somewhere else. Dada's toilet work is a celebrated artwork in the museum, but barely distinguishable from other objects if it were to be put on the dumping ground. Batman is the dark knight and so his surroundings must play along.

Welcome to the Batcave.

New and old villains appear, serving as the other half of Batman. Would Batman still be who he is without the Joker?

Out of all villains, the Joker is probably my favourite because he does not need superpowers, he just has an insanely brilliant (albeit disturbing) mind. Harley Quinn fell in love with this mind while she was appointed as the  Joker's psychiatrist. I've always had an interest in mental illnesses, and it just amazes me how these criminals manage to outwit their enemies with their unconventional streams of thought. As of late I have been hooked on the crime thrillers by Gillian Flynn as well. There is something mind-boggling about insane intelligence. Of course I can only say this because its a fictional world we are speaking of, and Batman will have his way because he's the hero. Credit must be given to him because he is a very disciplined, avant garde soul (with lots of money), who taught himself to fight for justice (and earned lots of money).

But this is not meant to glamorise the dark, merely to acknowledge its existence and potential. I have always been someone who's interested in contrast, and therefore this exhibition interested me so much. Nathan seems to agree that one side does not exists without the other, it is something some people forget all the time. We could not reach the top without having people below us to step on, yet we look down on them. We couldn't be happy if we didn't know sadness. We all try so hard to block the dark and negative out of our lives, shushing it away as if it's a taboo, while forgetting it's what made us what we are today. If I could ask the Flash to bring me back in time, I wouldn't want that anymore, despite craving it so much as a teenager. I enjoy revisiting a childhood I didn't have, I enjoy letting my mind wander and building my story brick by brick.

Of course, no Lego Exhibition without our own playground.

Many children before me have unleashed their imagination here. Brick by brick.

The story of The Art of the Brick ended with a sculpture of a kid, wearing a colourful cape. Nathan calls it the soul of the exhibition. Why? "Because what you are looking at is the child that lives in all of us." Nathan urges us to think about who were as a kid, and who we wanted to be. What dramatic dreams did you have as a kid, and how many of them did you throw away?

I've wasted so much time contemplating why I had wasted so much time as a teenager, without doing a thing. I guess being here in Sydney has put me on a new track as I've never been to so many places in such a short time. I am not just talking about places that are only reached by airplane, but also those tiny events no one would know about if they didn't look for them. My head has been filled with art and poetry to the brim and I am still not done writing about all of it. Sometimes, it's tiring to do it. Sometimes, it takes a month before I start doing it, but in the end I am mostly glad that I did do it. I am definitely aware that it's the island speaking: a foreign country with so much to explore and so much more spare time. All I can hope for is that this thirst for exploration and storytelling will keep nudging me as I fly back to where I came from.

'Hero Within'. Bricks: 6,670 - 135 x 147 x 51 cm.

I am not a Hero Within, and I will never be. But I do remember where I come from, which places I would and wouldn't revisit. As a child, I wanted to be a fashion designer or an architect. Now, I am not quite sure, as I'm clumsily tiptoeing on a tightrope that's spanned between being an industrial designer that's meaningful for the mental health industry and a public speaker/writer that travels around the world. I dream big, but my nightmares are bigger.

For now, I'm just a little girl. Quite ironically, the PowerHouse Museum (the place where the Art of the Brick takes place), also housed an exhibition about some fashion designer. At the end there were two rows of tables full of paper and colouring pencils, prompting children to make their dream outfit reality. I sat there for at least an hour, and the security must have wondered why a grown girls spends so much time on that table that's too low for her. Well, mindfulness colouring is a thing nowadays, isn't it? Maybe it can make me less insane.

Sometimes we just have to remember where we came from. Red and black has always been my favourite colour combination, but so was blue and green, which reminded me of the mermaid I wanted to be as a kid.

For those who are interested, the Art of the Brick exhibition is in Sydney until May 1st, 2016.
Book your tickets on the MAAS Museum Website.
Instagrammers, be sure to follow @NathanSawaya for more brick art.


  1. Most of them were unfamiliar to me, as I only jumped on the superhero wagon no longer than a few years ago --> I have obviously failed you as a first cousin, second removed / auntie. How could I not have lectured you about this in the past.. how have you survived in society.

    Marvel movies are alright - what you really want to watch though is Nolan's Batman trilogy (if you haven't already, for which, shame on you!) and Snyder's Watchmen. Netflix has some decent superhero shows as well these days, like Daredevil and the new series Jessica Jones. Both Marvel.

    About the audience, it'll come. This is going to be your sharpening tool. You'll practice here and you'll go on writing greater things in the future I'm sure!

    And as for Nathan Sawaya, he has long been an inspiration of mine, being a lawyer turned creative and all. I hope he'll give you the inspiration and motivation you need to find your way in life (because corporate life isn't everything, at all).

    Lastly, I remember reading about poetry slams here. We do have them in the Netherlands. A friend of mine is actually one of the co-founders of Cinnamon (!) Wednesdays in Amsterdam - check it out when you're back!

    Alright, pretty sure my underground wifi is going to disconnect soon. I'm reaching a tunn

    1. Ah, my favourite auntie! ;) I've been so hooked on Agents of Shield and The Flash that I am afraid I will finish whatever is available of those series you mentioned within a week again! Come to think of it, new episodes are out today! But shame on me, I haven't watched anything you mentioned.

      Aye, thanks for your encouragement, it means a lot to me especially because I know you're one of those people that made it. Your blog is insane! I really enjoyed going through the exhibition especially because of Nathan Sawaya's personality, I think. All of his side-notes either made me think or smile, he truly is an inspiration.

      Oh really? Last time I checked I've only seen Dutch poetry slams around once in a blue moon, I should definitely try and check again.