Visitors can expect to experience something different this autumn at Blenheim Palace. Tradition meets modernity as the 18th century baroque architecture of Blenheim, the birthplace of wartime British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, is host to an exhibition of the artwork of Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.
This exciting exhibition is especially relevant to Princeton University Press for two reasons: not only is Blenheim Palace a stone’s throw from Princeton University Press’s European office in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, but Princeton University Press published Ai Weiwei’s ‘Little Black Book’, Weiwei-isms, last year.
Weiwei-isms is a collection of quotes demonstrating Ai Weiwei’s thoughts on key aspects of his art, politics and life, carefully selected by Larry Warsh from articles, tweets and interviews.
“Everything is art. Everything is politics.” — Weiwei-isms
Like Weiwei-isms, the exhibition at Blenheim Palace clearly demonstrates Ai Weiwei’s commitment to art as a powerful political statement, as a means of reacting against injustice, and inspiring others to do the same.
“I want people to see their own power.” — Weiwei-isms
This certainly becomes clear as you enter the exhibition. You are given a leaflet which serves as a guide to Ai’s artwork, dispersed throughout the rooms of the palace. Despite this, none of the artwork is signposted and it becomes the visitor’s responsibility to seek it out and take meaning and inspiration from what they see.
The collection brings together pieces created by the artist over the past 30 years. It is especially impressive given that it was curated remotely, Ai Weiwei having been under house arrest since 2011. The old and new are often brought together, with artefacts from the past being reimagined in novel ways. Take, for example, the Han Dynasty vases transformed beyond recognition by car paint or by being ‘rebranded’ with the Coca Cola logo.
His ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ (2010), previously displayed at a year-long exhibition at Princeton University, is also at Blenheim. This work is an ironic interpretation of the bronze zodiac head statues that were looted from the Emperor’s summer palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing in 1860.
Other highlights include ‘He Xie’ (2012), a work comprised of 2,300 porcelain crabs on the floor of the Red Drawing Room (‘He Xie’, meaning ‘river crabs’, puns on the Chinese phrase for ‘harmony’).
While some pieces are the first thing you see when you walk into a room, other pieces are integrated more subtly into the sumptuous interiors of Blenheim Palace. The Wave Plate (2014) is seamlessly integrated into the lavish table decoration as the centrepiece in the Salon, and a pair of handcuffs made of Huali wood (2012) – a reminder of Ai Weiwei’s current situation – placed suggestively on the bed in Churchill’s birth room might escape your attention due to the large number of visitors moving from room to room, all engrossed in the same treasure hunt as you.
All in all, the collaboration between Blenheim Palace and Ai Weiwei really does merit a visit. Ai Weiwei’s work is all the more interesting and thought-provoking for being situated in the context of Blenheim Palace and its grounds.
The exhibition at Blenheim Palace highlights the ‘clash’ of the old and new, which is indeed something that is key to much of Ai Weiwei’s work.
“If a nation cannot face its past, it has no future.” — Weiwei-isms
In years to come, the Ai Weiwei exhibition at Blenheim Palace is sure to become part of the artist’s legacy and a poignant reminder of his struggle for justice and truth.
“The art always wins. Anything can happen to me, but the art will stay.” — Weiwei-isms
The exhibition runs until 14th December.