I love Lego. I love DC. Let’s do this.
Exhibitions are amazing. Some exhibitions feel like cabinets of curiosities: seemingly random collections of objects that maybe fit together loosely perhaps, cascading haphazardly along the path for audiences to discover and rediscover as the mood takes them. Others are planned to the sharpest detail; everything in its place; a very clear narrative about what’s included; a keen awareness of what’s excluded.
Exhibitions tell a metastory. An individual piece of art, or object might tell a particular story. As part of an exhibition, its story is told alongside dozens of others, contributing to an interpretation of those other objects while simultaneously being reinterpreted by those objects.
The DC Lego exhibition sometimes feels like it is keenly aware of what it’s doing and what it’s trying to achieve. At other times, it feels chaotic and choppy. At its best, it provides a keen insight into what makes a comic book character. At other times, it feels lazy and sophomoric.
The opening of the exhibition is a spiel about why the exhibition came to exist. Nathan Sawaya is an artist who works predominantly in Lego. He loves DC comics. He wanted to bring the two together.
He talks about the childlike thrill of the fan who gets to see behind the scenes and be part of the creative process, but he also talks about the underlying narrative of comic book stories: goodies versus baddies, the hero’s journey, and intuitions about justice. All of these elements slosh around the exhibition, and Sawaya seems uncomfortable — or incapable of — expressing a particular view on the fundamental questions behind his works.
This becomes increasingly important throughout the exhibition. Sawaya isn’t creating a new work or building a new world to pose questions. He is taking a ready-build world and ready-built characters, and presenting them to an audience who is already familiar with them. That changes the discussion. Or, rather, it should change the discussion. Where some art exhibitions are ‘Look at this weird concept I created from scratch’, this conversation should be ‘Look at these weird concepts I created using ingredients that you’ve known for decades.’
The opening room is like a gallery of statuettes. A range of DC characters from across the comics stand motionless, expressionless, on shelves. On one level, this room acts like a primer in what’s to come: here are the characters that we’re going to play with to ask big questions and give controversial answers. But the characters are poorly chosen for this task. Many of the characters shown here won’t be shown again — and some from the rest of the exhibition are missing in this prelude. On another level, the room shows the poverty of the characters available to DC. Few are recognisable to a person who doesn’t have a pretty solid background in reading the comics. Katana, Zatanna, Plastic Man, Vixen, &c., these are characters that aren’t household names and, even though they appear in various animated features, they’re still not headline characters. It clearly wasn’t the intent, but this room brought into question whether DC had done enough to make its properties mainstream, besides Batman and Superman.
The other message from this room was how it was very obviously a male space. In the comics, DC has had a rocky time trying to add depth to its female characters. Kate Kane was the best thing that had happened to Batwoman in decades, and then they went and cancelled it. Starfire had created a space for young girls to have role models who were confused and awkward but okay, until they redesigned the character into a bikini. And domestic violence sufferer, Harley Quinn, went from being a broken, difficult character to a manic pixie girlfriend. The opening room really didn’t hide that the distinguishing feature of all the female characters were the breasts. Batgirl is Batman with boobs, and nothing more.
There are times when this element is redeemed, but not often. The token female in the rest of the exhibition is Wonder Woman, but she’s the only recurring female character. When she’s there, a lot is done to move discussion about gender in comics, but it never gets terribly far and is mostly trashed by the final room which associates her with a quote from Ayn Rand. Harley Quinn, on the other hand, is done very well. In the notes, Sawaya outright states that there are far too many jokes about Harley, so he tries to do the opposite.
This piece highlights a problem with the comic book hero: how do we identify them? Without being told that the Red Girl With Unusual Brand On Her Belly is Harley Quinn, how do we know that it is her? Previously, we have known due to various symbols associated with her: white face and jester costume. Here, Sawaya has stripped those elements from her, leaving us only with pose (which isn’t obviously her), pigtails, and mammary glands.
This problem isn’t suffered by the key characters of the exhibition, and a number of the pieces draw this out expertly. One room strips the characters of colour, giving us only their poses. Batman and Superman are instantly recognisable. Aquaman is… best left unsaid, really. Another room presents six glass cylinders and gives us formless blocks of colour. Again, Batman and Superman are instantly recognisable. The others are able to be deduced.
The characters are, in a very real sense, their iconic symbols. On to these symbols, we attach various attributes. Superman is transcendentally just. Batman is problematically just. Flash… runs pretty quickly. Aquaman swims a lot. And Wonder Woman is definitely female.
I really loved this exhibition. I loved thinking about the ideas, but I really wish he would move beyond asking questions and start providing some answers. Why do we think that heroes and villains are two sides of the same coin, or whatever? What does the world look like without superheroes in it? Whose vision of justice is being advanced through comic books? Whose vision of power is being privileged?
Put another way, there is a sculpture based on the first Action Comics:
What’s going on in this picture? On one reading, Superman is holding up a car, preventing it from injuring the man who is wearing green pants. A wheel has fallen off the car, potentially a reflexion upon the way American manufacturing has let down the average taxpayer but probably a symbol of the chaos and panic that arises when things are not in their proper place. Wheels belong on cars, not bouncing around nearby.
We read this in this way because we already know who Superman is (even before we have met Superman). He is a hero and this is a picture of some heroic act or other.
But the picture literally makes no sense. Why is Superman facing the same way as the car? You ordinarily face the direction of your energy. Here, Superman is thrusting the car towards the terrified man. If you look carefully, the lone wheel clearly comes from the other side of the car, suggesting that a few seconds have passed since the car was closer to the audience’s perspective than the wheel. The man is not beneath the car, but clearly more distant from the audience than superman and the car. And given this, he must also be about a foot taller than Superman.
Audiences fill in the gaps. The artist encourages a particular meaning, but the audience provides the details with a lifetime of ideological prejudices. The Superman image works because it reinforces particular perspectives and links in with a long history of the same perspective being privileged. When others run away screaming, the hero is there to save you from rogue technology.
The audience brings a lot to the DC Lego Exhibition. I wish more of the exhibition actively challenged their intuitions and prejudices.