The world's most controversial Lego model

My friend and MAKE colleague John Baichtal co-wrote an upcoming book called The Cult of Lego. I liked it so much that I wrote the foreword to it. As you might guess, John knows a great deal of Lego lore, and I have invited him to share some of it with the readers of Boing Boing. Here's his first post. -- Mark

Polish artist Zbigniew Libera's Konzentrationslager is a work of art he created in 1996 with the unwitting help of the Lego Group, who were happy to help out with a few buckets of bricks until they realized that Libera's project consisted of fake Lego packaging detailing an Auschwitz-style death camp.

From the Cult of Lego:

From the beginning, Konzentrationslager caused a huge sensation, with viewers split on whether it was an important work or a travesty. Depicting genocide with a toy made people uncomfortable. Some Holocaust activists saw the work as trivializing the experiences of survivors, while others disagreed. The Jewish Museum in New York City displayed the sets for several months in 2002 as part of an exhibit on Nazi imagery in modern art.

Even LEGO joined in the criticism, complaining that Libera hadn't told the company what he was intending when it donated the bricks and that this contribution didn't constitute sponsorship as implied by the packaging’s labeling. LEGO tried to get Libera to stop displaying the work, backing down from its pressure only after the artist hired a lawyer.

Libera, one of Poland's preeminent artists, was asked to attend the Venice Biennale in 1997 -- on the condition that he leave Konzentrationslager at home. The artist had been imprisoned in the early '80s for publishing an underground comic mocking Poland's Soviet rulers, and that kind of put him off of censorship, so he chose not to attend.

Images Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw


  1. The shift key is a privilege, not a right. (or: Capslock is cruise control for cool.)

    Man’s got a right to express himself artistically but he really shouldn’t have taken the freebies if he was going to throw it in LEGO’s face like that.  Artistic message aside, it’s just kind of a dick move, and I’m sure it made LEGO far more cautious about giving out free blocks to artists.

    That said, I’m pretty sure no parties involved intended it to be “pretty funny.”

    1. Totally agree.  He took their generosity and kicked them in the nads with it, especially by labelling them as “sponsors”.  Totally a dick move.

      1. It’s possible to use capslock to artistic effect.  If that’s what Blogit3d was doing, I’m afraid I just don’t see it. 

        Not everything is an artistic statement.  Some things are just obnoxious.

  2. Its definitely a shock jock move.  “hehe look what I did”.  Its not like he was rubbing Mengele Tractors in their family history, any German IG (industrial group), or even Hugo Boss. 

     Im pretty sure lego had nothing to do with the Third Reich.

    (until the latest Indiana Jones movie came out)

  3. As a Lego fan, I’m offended by the atrocities pictured.  As the photographs show, the artist has taken several unnecessary liberties with the bricks: drilling holes, cutting the bricks, gluing them together, etc.  There are thousands of bricks available, if you can’t figure out how to build it without destroying bricks, don’t build it out of Lego!


  4. The only thing that annoys me is that he didn’t create within the LEGO standards/universe – cutting, drilling holes and gluing the pieces.  It takes away from it’s impact as an art piece IMO.

  5. This is really really lazy. It’s an idiotic, adolescent idea. There is no statement. It’s hardly Serrano’s Piss Christ. As CSBD said, LEGO aren’t connected to the holocaust, so this is just twattish behaviour.
    …and Skyler Nelson’s right. Not only is he intellectually lazy, he didn’t even build it properly!

    1. You may want to consider, like the artist did, how yesterdays genocide becomes today’s entertainment.  The lego cowboy and indian sets my son plays with have an actual historical subtext, now mostly forgotten, of genocide and occupation. If you dismiss that as old news, that would seem to be part of the point.

    1. The Lego Concentration Camp is part of a larger project called  “Correcting Device” which shows the gap between the world as (usually)  depicted by toys and the world as it is.

      Just like the gap between a book for three year olds and adult literature. Or the gap between the times tables and algebraic topology. One needs to learn how to walk before one can start trying to run. There is no propagandistic conspiracy to falsely sanitise the world, as Mr Libera seems to want to convey.

      Personally, I have no problem with the idea of building a concentration camp out of Lego (provided the opinions of Holocaust survivors and their families are respectfully consulted and given primacy – if most say the project should not be done, it should not be done yet for no art is worth forcing abused innocents to suffer further). What I do find distasteful is the apparent decision to exploit the Holocaust for mere shock value in the critique of the alleged hypocrisy of toy marketing strategies.

      Frankly, shock of any kind makes for pretty cheap and shallow art – shock and disgust are the most trivial emotions to elicit.

      1. “There is no propagandistic conspiracy to falsely sanitise the world, as Mr Libera seems to want to convey.”  Columbus Day? Discoverer of America or genocidal conqueror? That seems already decided by our parades. History is written by the winners, not the vanquished. That toy might take pride of place among a child’s toys in a world ruled by the Third Reich.

    2. Which is an already well understood and well recognized phenomenon owing to parent’s wish to protect children from some of the uglier aspects of the world and the simple fact that sometimes it is hard to explain or describe things to children. What is far more interesting is the gap as between the world as it is and how it is depicted by adults to each other in conversations, in media and in art.

  6. Is it supposed to be a dig at Lego, or just shock toy/horror juxtaposition? It’s not like when Nike had a feature where you could have a slogan embroidered on your sneakers, then banned people from having “sweatshop” done.

    Either way, it’s a big contrast to my wedding cake toppers (

  7. Libera’s art is in the reaction of the viewer. I don’t think anyone can truthfully say that he did this project out of shock value or to offend people. This is a serious work with a serious message, as Steve Taylor explains above.

    1. I read Steve Taylor’s link, but it didn’t explain why Libera wanted to implicitly accuse Lego of Nazism, anti-Semitism, evil, or whatever he’s trying to say with his “sponsored by” message. That message still doesn’t make sense to me. I Googled “lego nazism” “lego nazi collaborators” and “lego anti-semitism” and all I found was one Islamophobic website accusing Lego of anti-Semitism just for being Danish. It seems plausible that there could be some troubling history stemming from the Nazi occupation of Denmark, but if there were I’d think it would be relatively easy to find out about on the web.

      1. He was not condemning Lego for the atrocities, he was condemning a world where we present everything as perfect as possible.
        Barbie has no acne, no saddlebags, no gut.  While we put this unobtainable image into the minds of children of what to be like, we lament them growing up with eating disorders and can’t understand why.
        He used other childhood toys in the exhibit, and Lego is a childhood toy.

      2. My take on his work – especially in the larger context of the “Correcting Device” project is that it’s not about Nazis, Jews or WWII, but more about the existence of horrors and how we screen them out of our children’s universe – the same message would have been delivered if the artist had done something about the Khmer Rouge, the Columbine school killings, the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal…

        I’m not saying I think (or the artist thinks) that we necessarily *should* rub our children’s noses in the awfulness of the world, but… well, My daughter is now eight, and through her whole childhood I’ve been naggingly aware of the gap between the world we show our kids and the world there is (think of the idealised one family small farms in children’s books for instance).

        I also think the artist was a dickhead for lying to Lego about what he wanted the bricks for, but I do think he has something to say.

    2. How do you distinguish between something done for shock value and something done to provoke a reaction from the viewer?  Isn’t shock a reaction from the viewer?

  8. I, like a few others above, am far more offended by the fact that he used glue and drills to get his finished project.

    Dude is a cheater!

  9. Really? So I can troll OCD Lego fans by building awesome stuff with legos but using glue, drills and stuff to screw with the bricks? That is great to know. Added to the art project queue.

  10. Whether or not Lego specifically did, lots of corporations took part in the holocaust. The government made it profitable for them, and they did what  corporations do.

    If there was still a profit to made in killing people, I’m quite sure they’d do it again.

    As such, this is, to me at least, a poignant work of art.

  11. To any and all 6 year olds reading this: 
    18 lbs of kosher fructose to the first kid who provides me definitive proof of this model’s destruction, and subsequent reconstruction into something less gratuitous and more beautiful.

  12. I think this makes a powerful artistic statement indeed- that toys need not be only for children, nor only used for “safe” and “clean” purposes. Libera’s used a household name worldwide to remind us of a great horror that should never, ever be forgotten or put aside as “a German thing”. It even makes the subtle point that, just as Lego is nearly universal, so the potential of any nation to do something like this to its own people is also universal. It CAN happen here (or wherever you are). It DID happen in Germany, Russia, China, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and to a less organized extent in 19th Century America. Yes, this is a shock to the system. The complacent need shocking from time to time.

    1. Especialy one country comes to my mind which could learn alot from this statement. *cough* Abu Graib *cough* Guantanamo *cough*

  13. I interpret it as a caution against trivializing atrocities. No comment on whether it’s a point that needed to be made at this point in time, but it is a fair argument that as events fade from living memory, people tend to take them less seriously. Reminders can be useful.

    (that’s the fun part about art, there’s so many ways to see it)

    1.  It can be argued that, with this work, he is doing exactly what you say he is warning people against. (I am not saying one way or the other – I don’t see any proof yet, really).

  14. And the Playmobil TSA playset upset how many of you?

    @atimoshenko:disqus  yep no propagandic conspiracy at all…  like the weeks it took them to notice OWS, and then it was only to write mocking pieces about it.  The world is sanitized to protect peoples feelings often.

    ” Other pieces in the series included Barbie dolls with bulging stomachs and dolls with body hair.”

    We try to whitewash the world to keep children “safe”.  We try to not admit to the horrors man commits on each other.  This was not a toy designed and sold to children, this was commentary.  I think in the larger picture most of you would support someone pointing out how the mass market is removed from reality.  Because of the topic of this piece people want to read more into it.
    It was an attack on Lego, It was an attack on Germans, It was an attack on Business, It was an attack on Jews.  I think what your feeling is outrage because he stopped and made you think.  Your unhappy parsing those thoughts so he has to be the bad man.

    Lego was the medium used for the message, the message was about children and how we distort the world.  Your all caught up on the medium because dealing with the message is hard.

    1. No propagandistic conspiracy when it comes to toy design, not in the world at large.

      We do distort the world for children (including by inventing Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and whatnot, by starting to teach artificially simplified physics and maths, etc.), but not because we expect children to grow up without fundamentally re-evaluating these distortions, but because biology has us born without fully matured brains.

      The purpose of his piece was quite clear. My point in the earlier post was that the purpose of his piece was the result of insufficiently careful analysis on his part and the piece itself executed in somewhat poor taste, given its purpose.

  15. Guy might’ve been a dick to Lego, but the fact that he was enough of a gadfly to go to jail for it should give him a little bit of cred, no? 

    1. You’re right that people are thinking and talking about history.  Just look at the first reply.  That guy thinks this is “pretty funny.” 

      Is it better – safer – to forget our history, or to trivialize it?

      That aside, I like your username. :)

  16. @atimoshenko:disqus  I think you are taking the message way too literally, and have completely ignored other commentators who have pointed out further meanings. E.g, @boingboing-2cb003b410ba24d03b9fc7fee7e2ad8a:disqus  “I interpret it as a caution against trivializing atrocities.” In a world where “Jew” is still a common derogatory slang, video games regularly reenact the events of the second world war without any context (in-fact, often explicitly removing it) and an English prince even saw it fit to wear a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party, I think this is still an absolutely vital message.  The smiles on the faces of the skeletons are spine chilling.

    At no one in particular:
      I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that the Artist owed Lego some sort of patronage. It was a donation, to an artist. Notice how Lego gave up as soon as a layer got involved? This isn’t the renaissance, artists value comes from their freedom to express themselves freely, for Lego to expect him to obey their rules just shows them up as idiots or charlatans. Good for the artist for hoodwinking them. I can’t help wondering whether these opinions would also still be expressed were Lego to be replaced with BP or a big bank… I like Lego much more than I like BP, but you have to judge each by their deeds!

      I’m afraid that I also feel giving some sort of veto to survivors of the Holocaust is completely wrong. On a personal level, hurting these people would be the last thing I would ever want to do, BUT I would not judge another artist for creating works that do. Any work of art which deals with such awful events will always cause some harm to some number of people, and whilst my heart goes out to all of them, the worst thing we can do is to forget of what humans are capable. Consider even that many Germans find the memory of the Holocaust harmful, would you spare remembrance of the Holocaust to spare Germans harm? I don’t think they would. 

    1. Well said. I was trying to think of something to add to this thread, but you’ve covered things nicely.

    1. Ditto. I often wonder why despite all the noble “Never Again” statements, genocides are still happening around the world, we know of horrific torture/death camps in North Korea and yet we have no sense of urgency about it.

      I guess they mean never again in western Europe

    2. Satire is always a double-edged sword, because it’s not always understood to be satire.

      When South Park first came out, some people saw Cartman as a statement on blind, uninformed hatred and racism fostered in an individual too young to have reached those opinions on his own.  Some other people came to the conclusion that making fun of Jews is really really funny.

  17. While I find this kind of thing perfectly acceptable in general, apparently the artist is indeed a dick for laying the boot into Lego for no good reason.

    They were good enough to give him some free bricks, and he wasn’t good enough to a) use them properly (it has nothing to do with OCD), and b) refrain from pointlessly bashing them with the ‘sponsored by’ bit.

    Also, love the skeletal Lego dudes.

  18. The “Correcting Devices” as a theme seems to just be pointing out the obviouse. Ofcourse toys are free of the troubled and often terrible realities adults putt into the world. They are intented for kids, they don’t need or want to be subjected to those things. You learn those things when you are old enough to understand the world isn’t all rainbows and fairytales.

  19. I don’t think he is implicitly condemning Lego. I think that people might infer that from the phrase “sponsored by”, but I don’t think that was the intention.

    It clearly says that the artist’s work is “sponsored by…”. It doesn’t state (or to my mind imply) that concentration camps, the holocaust, or the nazis were “sponsored by…”
    I read his intention as being to ensure that he can still use the Lego logo (do you see what I did with the wonderful alliteration there?) whilst making it clear that this was a piece of work by the artist and not intended to be confused with an official Lego product. Adding “has been sponsored by” achieves that.

  20. At first, I thought commenters on this thread were *joking* when they condemned this artist for not building “the right way” with toy blocks, or when they took umbrage with someone daring to make a piece of art that wasn’t properly deferential of corporate branding issues. 

    Nerd-pride aside (I love LEGO toys too), I think some of this criticism is missing the point.

    1. I’ve got to ask, why exactly did you have Lego sponsor you?  Was it really hard to find a few hundred random bricks?  I’ve got that collecting dust in my basement…

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