Contemporary, surprising, sensational... Sarah Mayhew Craddock takes a tour of influential Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s show at Blenheim

There are some people that need no or little introduction… Ghandi, Madonna, Beckham, Churchill and Ai Weiwei.

On the off-chance that you managed to miss news of Ai Weiwei’s arrest in 2011; and if the global protest that ignited when this internationally- renowned Chinese artist was held for 81 days without charge escaped your attentions, if you aren’t aware that Ai’s passport has been confiscated and that he is currently detained in China where he lives and works in restricted conditions, then you might not appreciate quite how big a deal the exhibition that has just opened at Blenheim Palace is. Let me tell you, THIS IS A SERIOUSLY BIG DEAL.

You see, Ai Weiwei is one of the most influential cultural figures of the 21st century. Born in Beijing in 1957, where he still lives and works, Ai is a prolific artist and social activist, he has been a vocal critic of democracy and human rights in China… and China can get a bit touchy about its vocal critics at times.

To say that it came as a bit of a surprise to hear that a major retrospective, the most extensive UK exhibition to date by Ai Weiwei, was about to land at Blenheim Palace is an understatement. Of all of the possible venues for a contemporary artist to exhibit in, he chose Blenheim.

However, as I passed the international coaches filing into the car park, as I fell in line waiting for a ticket, as I strolled around the grounds of Blenheim hearing a multitude of languages and politely dodged out of the way of tourists clambering for a bit of Churchill in their shot, I remembered what Britain is to the world. The international masses flock for monarchy, for our history, to get the (heritage) T-shirt, and I reckon Ai Weiwei is all too aware of this.

Showcasing the work of an artist known for his decisive breaking of tradition, Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace comprises more than 50 artworks produced over the last 30 years. Coordinated via correspondence using 3D plans and models of the site and grounds, Ai invites visitors to consider, amid its grandiose surrounds that date back to 1704, what it is that we call ‘contemporary’.

Echoing this at the opening of the exhibition, Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill remarked that contemporary art is more interesting in a setting such as Blenheim Palace than it is in a modern white cube space. “I think the white box presentation of contemporary art is almost a kind of art apartheid,” he said Exciting then that this exhibition, taking place in the birthplace of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill in 1874, also marks the birth of the Blenheim Art Foundation in 2014.

Director Michael Frahm said: “This exhibition presents an extensive view of the artist’s diverse practice spanning more than three decades from the early 1980s in New York to modern day Beijing, where he is today confined to the borders of China. Ai Weiwei’s way of approaching the world challenges the status quo and he continues to raise critical questions on social, cultural and political issues. It has been a true pleasure working with Ai Weiwei, turning our vision into reality, and it is a great privilege for us to launch Blenheim Art Foundation with one of the most important living artists.”

Oxford Mail:

As I skipped nonchalantly through the Palace past magnificent historical artefacts in search of the next Ai, I felt as though I was on a spirited scavenger hunt that gained momentum with every tie-back that I tore past. And as I did so, blinkered to the context of my surroundings, I noticed that I was passing cultural tourists motivated by other ends who were equally blind to Ai’s interventions. It was a curious experience, and I loved it, and at times the boundaries of Chinoiserie past and present were slightly blurred, which made me love the experience even more.

Out into the chapel where Cube is displayed, around into the new (white cube) gallery space given over to photography dating to Ai’s time spent in New York in the 1980s, back out and beyond to see Bubble on the South Park, and around into the Secret Garden where Rock, Oil Spills, and Waterdrop await.

From this early photography, to celebrated seminal works (Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold and He Xie – 2,300 intricately painted, small porcelain crabs crawling over one another out of the fireplace in the Red Drawing Room), and new site-specific pieces conceived in China especially for the Palace (Soft Ground – a 45m long carpet, Small Plate with Flowers and Sunflower Seeds Stool), this exhibition is an extraordinary feat on many different levels. It possesses an infectious energy, pace and rhythm like nothing I’ve experienced before. An energy that invites the viewer to stride purposefully in another man’s environment, an energy that hands over ownership to the common man.

It’s playful, yet there’s a poignancy to this exhibition in which east meets west in a fun, liberating spectacle of history gone mad.

What is left to say other than…this show is sensational!

PS Watch out for the weight of Marble Surveillance Camera (a perturbing reminder of Ai’s current situation).

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace continues until December 14
Palace, Park & Gardens tickets: adults £22.50, concessions £18, child £12.30, family £59 visit /ai-weiwei-at-blenheim-palace.html

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