AI WEIWEI HAS chosen, at the request of the Blenheim Art Foundation, to host a major exhibition of mainly new work in the capacious, stern rooms and in the sprawling well-manicured gardens of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Marlborough.
The palace sags under the weight of four centuries of dark portraits, cabinets of pristine porcelain and gleamingly well-burnished, ornately brocaded furniture, precisely positioned in a labyrinth of chambers, rooms and corridors all carefully curated to remind the curious of the majesty and stature of the once extensive British Empire.
It is within this setting that twenty pieces of Ai Weiwei’s work have been subtly, unobtrusively placed, as if almost to suggest that they somehow fit in to this mausoleum of the mighty. What a credit to the Blenheim Foundation’s to have had the guts (and sense of humour) to have commissioned Ai Weiwei for its inaugural show. For Blenheim has quite deliberately and cheekily offered the artist (who has been under house arrest since 2011) a venue to mock both his captors and, for that matter, the pomp and ceremony of this gilded relic of a gloried past (The Churchills and China intersected briefly in the nineteenth century during the Opium Wars).
Though he’s not been able to leave China, using 3D imaging of the rooms, Ai Weiwei (who prides himself on his collaborative approach to art) clearly collaborated intensely with Blenheim and was quite precise and scrupulous in positioning each of his pieces. And they all fit in, often to great comic effect – which is part of the joy of the show. For the show seems to exist on two levels: the pieces themselves, each one offering a caustic commentary on the zeitgeist of our present commercialized, state-scrutinized life; and the context in which the pieces are displayed: each piece disarmingly matching the décor and colour palette of the rooms they’re in, like camouflage as if to disguise or disarm viewers to better deliver so many unexpected stabs of radical thinking in the fossilized environment.
The first exhibit upon entering the large and majestic entry salon is a massive hanging chandelier. It’s a display of sumptuous opulence that calls attention to the extravagant, over-the-top ornateness of the surroundings. It’s as though this first piece is both a warning and an invitation of what is to follow. I suspect most of the visitors were unaware that this was one of his pieces (most were unaware that there was even an exhibition there). The chandelier is conceptually on par with a pair of beautifully carved marble chairs (placed to match a pair of ancient stuffed ones) in one of the state-rooms. But the chairs are no more chairs and the chandelier no more a chandelier than Warhol’s Brillo Box was an actual Brillo box.
Arthur C Danto, the American philosopher notes that where art separates itself from ‘mere objects’ is in its “aboutness”. Weiwei’s chair is, wittily, about the seat of power. In his (our?) people’s government, the icons of power accurately reflect how far removed the powerful are from the ordinary people they hold power over. His marble chair –rigid, heavy, expensive – is less a chair, more an emperor’s throne, and possibly a comment on the aristocratic nature of both the Chinese government and, perhaps, governments as a whole.
Some of the works are more brutally critical. A pair of Han Dynasty vases (again, perfectly matching the reverential antiques in the room) are over-painted with commercial logos (Coca-Cola and Caonima…a sly reference to a jolly – and banned – video of Ai Weiwei dancing Gangam style). The comment is both a reference to the commercialization and desecration of Chinese culture, and is in itself a desecration, as if to challenge the kind of veneration offered by Blenheim’s impressed tourists.
His thoughtful use of Chinese cultural signifiers is taken up a few rooms later where twelve large, gold Chinese Zodiac heads line a gilded salon whose table (when we visited) was set for the annual Christmas dinner. (Who dines there? Real people?). These heads refer to the looting of Zodiac heads from Yuanmingyuan and have come to stand for icons of patriotic pride – something well beyond their original function. Ai Weiwei’s heads are symbols of symbols and perhaps suggest the arrogance of manufactured sentiment. More than that, these heads are his, ironic, version of the busts of the rich and famous that have been every empire’s stock in trade since Rome.
Several pieces refer, mockingly both – as content – to his status as prisoner, and – as art object – to the threat posed by art. On Churchill’s bed (where else?), we find a pair of lovingly carved wooden handcuffs, and in the long library, nestled on a cabinet is a marble surveillance camera. We imagine the surveillance and the restraints, by objects that are useless for either but which by simply being imagined and repurposed through art lift away the surveillance and restraints. It’s probably why dictatorships (and most democracies) can’t stand artists. They often represent the failure of state control to actually exercize control over the truth.
His antipathy to the state and the trappings of state power is a point he makes loudly in his sideways photos of famous state buildings across the world. These are a series of large, banal photos, turned sideways (a new way of looking at things?) with the artist’s finger obscuring (certainly pulling attention away) from the state building featured. It’s basically the artist giving the finger to state authority, wherever that authority is situated.
On a broader scale, Ai Weiwei’s next major exhibition will be held in the edifice of Alcatraz prison. Now isn’t that a delightful piece of symbolism?
I wonder if the Alcatraz hosts are as sensitive as the Blenheim Foundation obviously was, that his focus is as much on them and the prisoner ethos of the US, as on China.