6 November 2014

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace

A minor milestone – this is the 400th post on this blog which began just over four years ago.

Posts here earlier this year have touched on baroque architecture, in particular one on South East Sicily. The more restrained exteriors of English baroque buildings have in the past provided the background to posts concerning Chatsworth and Greenwich Old Royal Naval College. But the most famous example of English baroque is Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace, constructed in the early 18th century by a grateful nation for the 1st Duke of Marlborough and now a World Heritage Site. My long-standing intention to visit Blenheim was turned into action by the opening of the Ai Weiwei exhibition which launches the Blenheim Art Foundation’s programme of leading international contemporary art.

Ai Weiwei is too well-known to need much description here. Born in 1957, his family were exiled from Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, returning in 1976. From 1981 to 1993 Ai lived in the US, mostly in New York. After returning to China he became the country’s leading contemporary artist and designer of international standing. His criticisms of the Chinese government led to his being put under considerable pressure in various forms and at present to his being forbidden to travel outside China. It is reported that President Xi Jinping recently advised artists, authors and actors:
Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.
so Ai’s work, much of it conveying a pointed political message, is probably not quite what he has in mind. 

There are about thirty works (or more, depending the way they are counted - some works are groups of related pieces) at Blenheim, mostly indoors and distributed among the Palace’s permanent displays ,but some are outside, for example Bubble (2008, above) in the South Park. The interior of Blenheim and its furnishings are mainly grand English aristocratic, but there is a unique focus on the first Duke’s military achievements in a European war over 300 years ago and Winston Churchill’s 70 years ago. Interpolating work by a highly political contemporary Chinese artist can be stimulating but carries the risk of appearing oddly inappropriate. The first piece the visitor encounters is Chandelier (2002, right) in the Great Hall, which, unsurprisingly works well, as does the set of marbles, Cao (2014, below) in the North Corridor alongside Blenheim’s own antique Chinese porcelain.

However, using the Churchill Rooms as settings for Ai’s work didn’t seem as appropriate at first – or is perhaps intended to be constructively inappropriate. Slanted Table (1977, below left) might be a metaphor for what Ai sees as a lop-sided Chinese system and leadership, pointedly placed in front of Churchill as wartime PM - though the latter probably had more power and less accountability to his party during wartime than President Xi does now. The wooden Handcuffs (2012, below right) are displayed on the bed in which

Churchill was born – is it meant to be about childbirth, the parental bonds which children have to break to achieve adulthood, who knows? Ai Weiwei is almost certainly trying to make us think about what we are seeing in its context. As the curators explain:
Ai Weiwei has not been able to leave China since 2011when his passport was confiscated by the Chinese authorities. The exhibition at Blenheim Palace has therefore been realised through a close collaboration between the artist and the Blenheim Art Foundation who have worked together with detailed drawings, architectural plans and models of the site and grounds. lntegrating artworks throughout the richly furnished palace rooms, as well as in the park and gardens, the exhibition will showcase the work of an artist known to raise critical questions on social, cultural and political issues and for his decisive breaking with tradition.
But how to interpret Han Dynasty Vase with Coca Cola Logo and Han Dynasty Vase with Caonima Logo (both 2014, below) in their particular context? The furniture and painting are 18th century, the visitors Artwork Guide gives the dates of the dynasty as 202BC – 220AD and the Coca Cola logo dates from circa 1890. As for Caomina - the Wikipedia entry is essential reading.

More vases from the same period are strangely harmonious in the Green Drawing Room - Han Dynasty Vases in Auto-Paints (2014, below left), perhaps not so much so He Xei (2012, below right) in the Red Drawing Room:

Careful examination of Grapes (2011, below) in the Green Writing Room reveals just how ingeniously this structure made from antique stools has been formed:

The stools date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as does the iron wood from demolished temples used for Map of China (2009 below) in one of the State Rooms; Hong Kong seems to have been positioned nearest the fireplace:

Blenheim’s magnificent Long Library (below top) is used to display prints of the 40 images which make up Study of Perspective (1995-2011, below middle), three wooden spheres Divina Proportione (2006, lower left; icosahedrons, even) and marbles of a helmet and Surveillance Camera (2010, lower right):

The above are only a few of the works on show inside and outside the Palace. In the gallery space which has been created in the Stables Courtyard, there are some fascinating photographs of Andy Warhol’s visit to China in 1982, which emphasise the remarkable material progress of China in the last 30 years, and of Ai Weiwei in New York (below with Alan Ginsburg) in the 1980s and early 90s.

In a year’s time at the Royal Academy in London there will be a major retrospective of this brave, tough and subtle artist’s work. No doubt the RA organisers will be learning about the challenges involved from the Blenheim Art Foundation team. Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace ends on 14 December. Any readers of this post on the US West Coast and unlikely to visit Blenheim soon may be able to make the trip to @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz which runs until 26 April next year (Refraction, 2014 below). It is difficult to imagine any other artist having exhibitions in a palace and a prison at the same time and so redolently.

Update 27 December 2014

This exhibition has been extended and will run again from 14 February to 30 April 2015.

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