Reaching the Third State Room, we encounter a magnificent blue “Bowl of Pearls” (2006). Simple, way out of scale, but beautiful. Hungrily, I allow myself to develop a food theme, imagining a huge bowl of rice to accompany crabmeat. But what is Weiwei really trying to serve up here ? Where were the pearls formed along the artistic journey ? And is there any politics in this giant blue bowl ? I could hazard a guess about the scarcity of food supplies for the poor, in contrast to riches for the opulent. The grotesque inequity of jewels, splendour and abundance for the upper echelons of society, with only scraps for the ordinary man. But I might be stretching this a little. We are essentially looking at craftsmanship. The skill of creating miniature pieces of art, coming together to form a larger artistic gem. This bowl of pearls looks quite perfect.
Next, the very grand Long Library, with several exhibits to delight and to tease. Taking centre stage is “Divina Proportione” (2006), a work of geometric genius. Weiwei presents us with a brilliantly simple yet captivating arrangement of hexagons and pentagons. The shapes fit perfectly together, in divine proportion. My mathematically minded genius of a son tells me the technical name for this structure is ‘buckminsterfullerene’. This is a beautiful, perfectly designed, and captivating structure that seems to hold magical powers. Art and craft to be both trusted and revered. Bathed in the October sunlight, surrounded by antiquated columns, palisades and books, this exhibit is quite magnificent.
I am not alone in my appreciation. My photograph of this piece has been retweeted numerous times across the globe.
The library wall is lined with a series of forty photographs entitled “Study of Perspective” (1995-2011). The pictures provide us with an international commentary with mixed messages comprising both political dissent and rudeness. Weiwei gives us a view of the rear lawn of the Whitehouse, with a raised middle finger in the foreground, for perspective. In another Weiwei gives the finger to Tiananmen Square, and in a third, rather curiously to the Eiffel Tower. The finger does give us some sense of scale, but it is also an assault on global and individual sensitivities.
At the far end of the library is an object that really does convey a political message. The “Surveillance Camera” (2010) is carved in fine white marble, but it has some ugly associations. People do not like to be spied on. This piece seems to fit in with Weiwei’s belief in art as a representation of cultural, historical or political importance. Surprisingly, perhaps, the carving fits into the library at Blenheim so well, though very little looks out of place at Blenheim. And here, Weiwei’s art is gazing upon us almost as much as we are gazing upon this splendid marble device.
Outside, flanking the courtyard approaching the Main Entrance, stands the impressive “Pillar” (2007). Two pillars, in fact, in contrasting blues. Simple, porcelain, glossy shapes in authoritative navy and beguiling pantone blue. Easily missable ? Perhaps. But with nothing else blue on the façade of the Palace, they stand out. They also fit in beautifully. Weiwei really does have a way with optical effects. These may not be pillars of the establishment, but they are both striking and harmonious.
Inside the Chapel, we find “Cube” (2009). Two cubes making an exhibit which for once does seem to be out of place. Not in-keeping with the choir stalls, the marble plaques and the carvings. But they are perfect, 1m3 constructions. Cubes made from what looks like scaffolding decorated with an ornate blue and white porcelain veneer. Not quite functional, not quite antique. But splendid.
And so finally we have “Bubble” (2008). There is more than one, so let’s talk about bubbles. Blue bubbles, or rather blue boulders, on the lawn of the South Park. These boulders stand out. I would defy anyone to trip over them, even in the late afternoon shadows. 36 gems are cleverly arranged in a precise and formal layout which appears to alter as you walk around the exhibit. From a distance, a simple triangular formation; a giant representation of blue snooker balls on a green baize. They are not spheres, though but somewhat squashed. From different vantage points, the bubbles seem to go off in different directions, making unexpected geometric patterns. This is both teasing and fascinating. I finally allow myself to touch an exhibit. They feel smooth and cool. They are reflective, and provide wonderful photo-opportunities to those looking for selfies with a twist.
There is a lot to admire in this collection of works. Crabs, pearls, bubbles, photographs and so much more. Challenging, inspiring, and thought provoking. Ai Weiwei is one of the truly great artists. We may not see him in person for some time, but this exhibition at Blenheim has offered us a fine selection of his creative output, along with considerable encouragement to look at the world and its social and political constructs differently.
The “Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace” exhibition runs from 1st October to 14th December 2014. Blenheim Art Foundation @BlenheimArt
© Eddie Hewitt, 2014