In 1917 Marcel Duchamp caused controversy by placing a urinal within the white walls of the art world, a centaury later Ai Weiwei removes his creations, a combination of ready-mades and specifically made sculptures, out of these white walls and into the luxurious setting of Blenheim palace to spark a debate that undeniably puts art back into the service of the mind.
The curator, Michael Frahm, has described the exhibitions aims as ‘trying to give an insight into how contemporary art can look in a 300-year old building.’ But with Ai’s pieces being so politically charged, it is not so easy to read the contrast between setting and work as simply aesthetic, and the tribute to Duchamp hanging above Winston Churchill’s birth bed makes it near impossible.
Ai is most famous for his provocative destruction of historical Chinese artifacts so to see the largest UK exhibition of his work in a world heritage site that functions solely on the preservation of historical artifacts is dizzying to say the least. On entering the ‘green drawing room’, visitors of Blenheim are greeted by several Han Dynasty Vases that date back to 202 BC. Unlike the perfectly preserved artifacts native to Blenheim, these vases have been defaced, smoothed into a slick metallic gleam by auto paints. Within the white walls of a gallery space this act of destruction instantly transforms the vases from historical Chinese artifacts to an anonymous tribute to industrialization, highlighting the negative experiences that Ai has faced with the Chinese government, but the uncomfortable contrast that occurs when placing them in a historical time capsule achieves much more than this.
Not all of Ai’s pieces are so easily distinguishable from Blenheim’s extensive collection though, the grand Chandelier which opens the show spectacularly seems right at home within the confines of the 300 year old architecture, as do the beautiful floral plates in the China Ante room which are said to be inspired by the flowers that Ai puts in the basket of his bike everyday to mourn the freedom he had before his long standing house arrest in 2011.
In the finale of the exhibition, held in the Long library, Ai’s series ‘Study of perspective’ is impossible to miss. Whether the viewers focus is on the borderline explicit content, or the fact that landscape prints have been presented at a head turning 90 degree angle (an inevitable miscalculation caused by curating an entire exhibition from another country), these images are unavoidably confronting. This is where the exhibition really comes to a climax, the pictures hassle the viewers, whether they have come to see Ai’s work or not, with a semiotic view of authority, so much so that they obstruct access to the books that the library holds.
On leaving this exhibition my strongest impression was one of discomfort. Ai’s use of destruction throughout his work is heightened at Blenheim in a way that a white walled gallery could not achieve. Frahm’s curiosity as to what contemporary art would look like in a 300 year old building has not been successful because of its aesthetics, but because of the revolutionary discovery of what happens when you take art out of normality and into an interior that harshly contradicts the work, just as Duchamp did back in 1917. The conflict between preservation and destruction is on going here, it is mentally jarring to experience Ai’s work, which destructs and belittles the culture of his country in the context of Blenheim, which preserves and glorifies material objects that once belonged to the inherent elite.