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  • Eddie Hewitt

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace - part 2

Updated: Nov 11, 2020


The exhibition starts with the spectacular “Chandelier “ (2002) in in the Great Hall. If you haven’t bought the guide book, you might be forgiven for thinking that the chandelier has always been there. But look up and you see an intricately wrought black steel beam supporting this elaborate Chinese lantern. This is stunning and grand, but hardly Queen Anne.

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This sets a theme. Moving through the rooms, one is never quite sure what ‘belongs’ here, and what is only temporarily on display. Initially I fail to realise that the green porcelain boulders I trip up over in the first of the Churchill Rooms are Weiwei’s “Watermelons” (2006). My first question was ‘who put those there ?’ But my children will tell you I have a habit of acting the part of the Clusoe-esque waiter.

Moving on, we arrive at Winston Churchill’s Birth Room. Never was so much owed by so many to the midwife. Surprisingly simple in its furnishings, yet distinguished enough without need for artifice, this room hosts two charming pieces. “Hanging Man” (2009), another item surreptitiously placed, is a metal coat hanger twisted into the shape of a rather portly man’s head, set in a wooden frame. A whimsical, self-referential piece. Churchill, perhaps ? No. With the addition of a top knot, far more likely to be a crafty self-portrait by Weiwei. A work of genius, as is the pair of wooden “Handcuffs” (2012), left innocently on the bedspread. The bedspread of one of Britain’s most celebrated leaders. What exactly is Weiwei suggesting ? Ill-begotten activities in the night time ? The strong arm tactics of the law ? It’s an arresting conceit, with Weiwei having both hands in this act of mischief.

To the West Side of the Great Hall, we find some Andy Warhol style commodity fetishism in the form of inscribed matching vases : “Han Dynasty Vase with Coca-Cola Logo” and “with Caonima Logo” (2014). Coca-Cola we are all too familiar with. Caonima, on the other hand, is rather more shocking, and refers to a Chinese term of abuse. There is plenty to be outraged by, or perhaps amused by here, if you get it. At first overlooking the references to Western commercialisation, I was somewhat bemused to see two squashed porcelain vases with modern logos. Why were they in Blenheim Palace ? I suspended my disbelief and told myself that somebody must have thought they belonged there. Probably not the late 11th Duke of Marlborough, but possibly his wayward son the Marquess of Blandford. Passing these items off as some sort of post-consumerist, ironic joke, it was a few minutes before it clicked that Weiwei was up to his tricks again.

Now for the star exhibit : “He Xie” (2012).

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Google Translate is flummoxed here, offering ‘He Xie’ as its own translation. Let’s see. We are presented in the Red Drawing Room with hundreds of porcelain crabs spilling out across the antique carpet, apparently having emerged from the wonderful purple marble fireplace. They are scrambling over each other, presumably en route to water. “Why are some of them red and some of them black ?” A crude question posed by a fellow visitor to her friend. The answer was equally banal : “because some of them are alive and some have been cooked, dear”. This didn’t sound quite right to me. I know that lobsters are black or grey before being tossed into a pan of boiling water, but does this apply to crabs, too ?

Time for some more politics in art. Not all crabs, just as not all people, are the same. Some are pure communist red, some are political dissenters, objectors to the one party state. Greyish black in this case. Why are there so many of them ? And again, why are they clambering over each other ? Perhaps Weiwei is telling us that there are so many, too many people in China, all on top of each other, in too cramped a space. So much for 3,200 crabs. A drop in the ocean compared with Weiwei’s 100,000,000 porcelain sunflower seeds !

Let’s try a translation again. “He Xie” translates on Wikipedia with a first option of “Social Harmonious Society”. This one grabs me with both pincers and won’t let go. The second one is “river crab”. This makes perfect sense too. So, social commentary comes to the fore. Or perhaps this is ‘just’ art after all. Certainly the effect is stunningly beautiful. The tones, the material, the execution, all combine to present a wonderful natural spectacle. A skilfully fashioned, striking tableau. And all in front of some fine rich tapestries.

The review continues in part 3

© Eddie Hewitt, 2014

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