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  • Eddie Hewitt

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace - part 1

Introduction

Imagine being an international conceptual artist. One who has made a series of impacts globally, gifted in multiple artistic disciplines, and virtually guaranteed to bring the crowds in. You might expect to be able to walk into the grandest of artistic venues and to put together an authoritative collection of your ‘greatest works’ from three decades of creative endeavours. But what if your art is politically motivated, revolution-inspiring even ? Or at least perceived to be so by your government ?

Weiwei is welcome to visit Britain, the United States, and almost everywhere else in the world. But getting on the aeroplane is the problem. Since 2011, after being held for 81 days without charge, Ai Weiwei has been under ‘country arrest’, his passport having been confiscated. Fortunately, Weiwei has many friends, including the Blenheim Art Foundation. Built for the Duke of Marlborough in recognition of his victories in Europe in the reign of Queen Anne, Blenheim is home to a vast array of tapestries, portraits, and attractive architectural devices. The Palace is virtually an exhibition in itself and so provides an appropriate setting for the Weiwei collection.

Bringing together such a diverse range of artistic genres in such auspicious surrounding is an act of genius. A superb unification : western grandeur and aristocratic largesse, mixed with oriental brilliance and exoticism. British history with Churchill to the fore, in juxtaposition with Weiwei’s social commentary and the politics of human rights. For those who like their art to say something, a keen social conscience is at play here. But the ‘message’ is not necessarily the aspect that makes the biggest impact. The exhibition works in so many ways.

With “Bubble” (2008), for example, I struggle a little to identify definitive social and political comments. The bubbles that form Bubble have beautiful form and convey intense artistic vision. They delight and challenge the senses. The message, if there is a message, is not immediately discernible. I marvel at this exhibit, and don’t feel I have to justify why.

Other features within the collection are more challenging, and make statements and demands. Some of the pieces, the photographs, most notably, are rather crude and perhaps shocking. Somewhere in between, there are exhibits which draw the viewer into a more subtle understanding. Weiwei is keen to engage in “building a friendship with the audience”. This can only be one of his intentions. He surely must want to provoke all sorts of reactions, in a multi-faceted conversation covering social, cultural, political and historical themes. And if none of these themes are suggested, there is plenty of art to enjoy on a purely aesthetic level.

So, let the tour inside the Palace commence…

...for a detailed review of the exhibits proceed to part 2

© Eddie Hewitt, 2014

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