The Blenheim Art Foundation presents Ai Weiwei in the first contemporary art exhibition in the rooms and gardens of the 18th century Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill – with more than 50 artworks by the celebrated Chinese artist and social activist. The exhibition; which is actually the launch of the Blenheim Art Foundation, has taken meticulous planning by Weiwei, who has been forced to curate the show from a distance due to the Chinese authorities preventing the artist from leaving his country.
Ai Weiwei is known for defying power; yet here we find the artist at the very seat of it. Finding Weiwei’s work mingling with the historic opulence of grand stately rooms; this is a far cry from the ‘white cube’ of contemporary art; yet the artist’s work juxtaposes quite beautifully with its surroundings – and often humorously at that.
Ai Weiwei’s ‘Slanted Table’ 1997, is one of the first objects in the viewers guided journey around the gilded palace rooms that make up the environment of this rather considered exhibition of the artist’s work – a shock to purists visiting the palace, as are many of the other juxtapositions by the artist. The show seamlessly combines the artist’s contemporary works with the antiquities that Churchill grew up surrounded by. The curators have integrated 50 works of art into the rooms and gardens of the Duke of Marlborough’s Oxfordshire palace, in what could be described as the creation of a contemporary art hunt; sometimes obvious – and surprisingly sometimes anything but.
The Chinese artist – who is still forbidden to leave China after his imprisonment in 2011 – seems a fitting choice to be the first contemporary artist to be exhibited at Blenheim Palace; and take on the potentially intimidating location; but then considering the artist’s continual brushes with the official socio-political strata of his own country; the juxtaposition seems apposite indeed.
There is also Weiwei’s extensive series ‘Study of Perspective’, dating back to the 90s – theses are blown up snapshots of the artist sticking his middle finger up at symbols of influence around the globe, from Big Ben to St Paul’s, Tate Modern, and a super-yacht – one almost hoped for an addition to the series of the palace itself.
Yet the artist does not so much infiltrate; as ‘blend’. It becomes the job of the viewer to search out Weiwei’s work among the palace’s impressive collection of antique furniture, paintings, and Chinese porcelain. At times this is indeed a bit of a challenge if you aren’t paying the right amount of attention – distracted by the faint sounds of the permanent Churchill exhibition, or temporarily blinded by the copiously plush surroundings – given the artist’s works include a giant chandelier of crystal glass hanging in all its glittering tack from the James Thornhill Baroque ceiling, which some may mistake as belonging to the palace. In fact none of the works in this exhibition are labelled in any way.
There is the artist’s five Han dynasty (202 BC to 220 AD) vases that he’s covered in car paint – with Capability Brown gardens and the tea shop just a stones throw away – or the Bowl of Pearls (2006), which consists of 250kg of freshwater pearls in a giant rice bowl. This jovial work sits in the centre of the Boulle Room opposite a gold-crested casket by Louis XIV’s cabinetmaker.
These juxtapositions are usually more playful than confrontational. Weiwei does not attack the authority of the building by ridiculing its history, as one might expect – in fact the exhibition is an altogether more benign intervention.
The closest the artist pushes this particular envelope is in placing his 2012 sculpture ‘Handcuffs’ – made of valuable huali wood – suggestively on Churchill’s bed. This decision alludes to Weiwei’s time in prison, the relationship between authority and captivity, and perhaps jokingly to the sexual proclivities of the powerful. One would think that this is also an admonishment of his own captors.
In the background hangs a portrait of Marcel Duchamp made from a coat-hanger; the affirmation that while strolling around the masterpiece of Baroque architecture, the viewer might come across a urinal… or Weiwei might have one of his assistants write ‘R. Mutt’ on the portrait of the 1st Duke of Marlborough hanging in the Green Writing Room.
As one would expect Ai Weiwei is not an artist that is intimidated by the grand surroundings of this Baroque Palace; or especially one to show it too much respect. Because in doing so the juxtaposition of what is essentially a large site specific installation from Weiwei would be a disingenuous affair.
But surprisingly what the exhibition amounts to is something that in truth; you rarely find in a British stately home, it is not a great assault on the authority of the British institution from a revered activist/artist, but instead it is simply a hell of a lot of fun.
Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace until 14 December
Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014 Photos Courtesy of Artlyst all rights reserved.