Exhibition review: Art of The Brick, Melbourne Showgrounds

Over a million LEGO pieces have been used in this exhibition, which returns to Melbourne with new sculptures.
Image is a yellow man made out of LEGO bricks pulling open his own chest so that more bricks fall out.

It sounds like a fairy tale: a suit leaves his high-powered job to travel the world and play with tiny bricks. But that’s exactly what happened. American Nathan Sawaya, once an attorney in New York, needed an outlet to assuage his deadline-driven life, so turned to a childhood toy. These miniature building blocks became his creative raison d’être, the medium that inspired his large-scale sculptures and allowed him to quit the strictures of corporate slavery for a life of whimsy and imagination.

Art of The Brick first launched in Melbourne in 2011; the exhibition is now returning here as part of a world tour, with almost every sculpture making its Australian debut. Over one million LEGO bricks have been deployed, with the exhibition showcasing over 100 stand-alone pieces in a 360-degree environment.

After a brief video of Sawaya explaining his background and how he accidentally became an international artist, visitors are ushered into a room with several multicoloured iterations of a bust model of a man ripping his torso apart to expose a hole in his chest cavity, with hundreds of LEGO innards spilling out. These sculptures rest on a plinth.

In the middle of the room is a large-scale version of the same figure: Yellow is an effective metaphor for allowing the passion within you to burst out, to not be restrained by convention or fear. Sawaya explains it by way of saying it’s his way of ‘opening up to the world’ – the cathartic, metamorphosis journey he’s had transitioning from law to art.

Other rooms showcase a selection of 250 kinetic skulls, and life-sized figures in various still or active poses. The lighting is kept dim, all the better to highlight the brightness of these laboriously built sculptures, the Rainbow People. You admire not just Sawaya’s engineering sophistication, but also the sheer number of small pieces he would have had to assemble. In fact, just to bamboozle you further, small signs adjacent to these sculptures list both the measurements of the piece and the number of LEGO used. The brick count of his best-known piece, Yellow is 74,596.

Formula One fans may be curious to check out Sawaya’s version of Lando Norris’ 2024 Helmet Design that took over 80 hours to recreate, and there are other intriguing offerings, like the nine-metre long Big Swimmer.

But particularly for the kids on the night, the most engaging exhibits lie within an immersive gallery called Perniciem (Latin for ruin, disaster and death). Sawaya collaborated with Australian photographer Dean West to feature sculptures of endangered species in their natural environments.

There are beanbags scattered about in this room, so you can rest before taking a close look at various creatures, including the military macaw (brick count: 2268), the Rothschild giraffe (brick count: 31,421, the Sumatran orangutan (brick count: 6663) and the Malayan tiger (brick count 20,530).

Within West’s photographs, which are displayed against the wall, Sawaya has placed his hand-made animals in their normal habitat. So precise and exacting is the verisimilitude that you’d have to look several times to check that these animals were actually made from plastic bricks, not blood and bone.

Read: Exhibition review: Nina Sanadze, The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia

Sawaya holds the impressive title of being the only person who is both a LEGO Master Model Builder and a LEGO Certified Professional. In Art of The Brick, he certainly manages to captivate an all-ages audience with the range and technical prowess of his craft. If his obsessive artwork draws more attention to the plight of animals at risk of extinction? All the better.

Does the world need more lawyers? Absolutely not. Does it need those who can wrangle small bricks creatively? Definitely.

Art of The Brick is now being exhibited at the Melbourne Showgrounds until the end of August 2024.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy