Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace

An exhibition at Blenheim Palace featuring work by the Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei marks one of his most extensive displays in the United Kingdom to date and launches the exciting new programme of the Blenheim Art Foundation, initiated by Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill. The palace, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1705 and later landscaped by Capability Brown, was originally a gift from the grateful nation to the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, for his victories during the War of the Spanish Succession, which culminated in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. First opened to the public in 1950, Blenheim Palace, the birth-place of Winston Churchill, attracts approximately 600,000 visitors a year to see its grounds and English Baroque period rooms.

For the first time, Blenheim Palace has invited a contemporary artist to display artworks and they have been placed both inside and in the grounds. A dissident, Weiwei has chosen to install his work in a way that is explicitly interventionist. Forbidden by the authorities from leaving China since 2011, he has worked remotely from Beijing using a laser model of the Palace to invent ways of interspersing fifty artworks through this impressive World Heritage Site. His work articulates carefully pointed critiques of the current social and political order in China and, in the context of the Palace, it produces visual dissonance which calls into question the traditions of value, knowledge and power of cultural institutions. One way Weiwei achieves this articulation is by exaggerating particular features of the Palace. An effective example of this technique is the nine-tiered chandelier in the foyer, which is the first art object that viewers encounter as they enter the Palace. The installation of the chandelier functions in a similar way to his giant porcelain bowl filled with 250 kg of pearls, placed on the floor beneath the Palace’s 24-karat gold-lined ceilings. These works toy with the mythological construction of aristocratic and authoritative national identity, destabilising this narrative by introducing deliberately provocative detail. 

In highlighting the extreme affluence of this grand palace, which is both a cultural destination for the general public and an elitist family home for aristocratic owners, Weiwei’s works make several socio-political statements. He provokes the viewer to consider the value of heritage; the right to wealth; the relationship between wealth and culture and, by extension, – the right to culture represented in the conflation of heritage and culture embodied by Blenheim Palace itself. Significantly, there are no exhibition labels and therefore works such as the opulent chandelier are seamlessly integrated into the Palace. This may well baffle the uninformed visitor for despite their clear political undercurrent, Weiwei’s works perform a subliminal infiltration that could easily be missed. Such democratization raises intriguing issues of authorship, ownership and representations of truth that Weiwei plays with and subverts.

In the context of the Palace, Weiwei’s seminal artwork, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold(2010) – Bronze zodiac head statues which once bedecked the famed fountain-clock at Emperor Yuanming Yuan’s imperial retreat, reinterpreted on an enlarged scale – work on many levels. The fountain is the artist’s way of reappropriating the heads and focusing on their history as loot of Anglo-French troops; an endeavour which has surely encouraged their gradual return by wealthy collectors. Indeed, two have surfaced recently in the collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent. This work also continues Weiwei’s discourse on notions of the fake and the copy in relation to the original. Although five heads are missing, the artist envisions the other heads to complete the set, explaining: ‘it’s a new understanding of the total project. It’s not as if some are cast from the original. It is a new interpretation.’ 

In the Red Drawing room, another key work, He Xie (2010), presents 2,300 elegant porcelain crabs. The title means ‘river crab’ and with this display Weiwei is referencing the symbolism of the river crab which in China to has come to represent online slang for censorship and restriction of individual freedom. Other works that have a more subtle presence include the Marble Surveillance Camera (2010), a hand-carved model of one of the security cameras that observe the artist’s every move in China. The hand-carved marble is powerful in its symbolism, but blends discretely with the Palace’s other sculptures as it is installed in the Library with the well-known marble statue of Queen Anne. Undoubtedly pointing to his own life under close observation, he places the visitor under similarly insidious surveillance with this insurrectionary gesture. The Han Dynasty Vase painted with the Coca-Cola Logo (2014) serves as a self-defeating sort of camouflage and is paired with another bearing the painted logo for Caonima, an integral part of Ai Weiwei’s personal mythology. In detaching the ‘Coca-Cola’ vase from the visual culture to which it belongs, Weiwei reduces it to its basic form, an individual image vulnerable to manipulation by commercial forces. The duality of confounding and conflating are clearly presented here; image versus text; unique handcraft versus mass production; meaningful versus meaninglessness, and this compromises the integrity of the original. In this artwork as well as others, such as Map of China (2009), formed from wood reclaimed from temples also dating to the Qing Dynasty, Weiwei imagines a continuity between histories long past and global urbanisation today. Again, with the act of ‘reclaiming’ Weiwei is pointing to the problematic nature of authorship, context, communication, and reception, as well as, perhaps more urgently, of claims to the truth of representation and culture. 

Weiwei’s most daring gestures include photographs of his middle finger in front of famous monuments, framed and mounted to block the Palace’s prized book collection. Rather than simply reinforce the closed authoritarianism of China, he challenges the open liberalism of the British government and public. It seems many visitors were dismayed to find this level of brazen intervention so close to what they considered to be their ‘history’, as evidenced by several gasps. By performing censorship and cultural plunder in real time, Weiwei invokes non-didactic dialogue surrounding pertinent issues. The artist achieves this in various ways such as placing folded handcuffs atop Winston Churchill’s childhood bed, alluding to his time in prison, and a portrait of Marcel Duchamp made from a metal coat hanger placed above it, beside a portrait of Churchill’s mother.

In the style of Duchamp and other masters of irony and iconoclasm, Weiwei’s earnest play with the absurd aspects of concepts and systems of culture poses questions of power through dysfunction. His inquisitive timbre dramatically draws attention to spaces otherwise assumed politically neutral. Indeed when discussing Weiwei’s project, Lord Edmund Spencer-Churchill commented: ‘I think the Churchill connection was very important to him’.

Weiwei’s artworks, rich with the violent tensions of human feeling, personal history and identity, carry the poetics of free-association, lending his images a certain universal familiarity. The critical content of his messages, however, ought not to be dismissed.

Main image: Blenheim Palace with Ai Weiwei, Bubbles, 2008, in foreground

Ai Weiwei Art Exhibition at Blenheim Palace, Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire.
1 October – 14 December 2014 
Now extended for a further season: 14 February – 30 April 2015

Aurora Corio