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On seeing Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace

Detail from Study of Perspective
Boy was I glad to have spotted the £1 Ai Weiwei Exhibition guide on a table in the Blenheim Palace foyer. Without it there would have been no way to be certain which objects were contemporary Chinese art and which were just the odd accumulations of an English manor house.

Most of the crowds making their way around the palace’s ground-floor rooms were not so well equipped. There were no labels next to the works. At first, I was indignant about the lack of effort the palace had made, but eventually it hit me that Ai Weiwei himself must have insisted on displaying the works in this disorientating way.

He had planned the whole exhibition meticulously, after all – from Beijing, where he remains under surveillance by the state, which has forbidden him from travelling. On that backdrop, the lack of obvious attribution can be seen as a political statement, one that mirrors the artist’s absence.

It can also be seen as mischief, whimsy, subversion, almost even as a kind of theatre. That is, as storytelling of the highest order. You provide the story. What kind of duke would install a chandelier so vast that it nearly fills his enormous entry hall? What kind of family would scatter porcelain crabs in front of the fireplace in one of their formal reception rooms? Why is there a funny portrait formed from a clothes hanger above the bed in the dismal bedroom where Winston Churchill was born?

You couldn't do this kind of thing at the Gagosian or the Tate. As a writer, it made me think about the benefits of taking the written word out into the world, as well, in ways that might circumvent the ego-laden establishment of publishers and libraries and books.

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace is on until 14 December. A major Ai Weiwei exhibition is planned for the Royal Academy of Arts in London in late 2015. No doubt with its own subversive aspects. Photo: Detail from Study of Perspective 1995-2011, a series of photos of Ai Weiwei giving the finger to major landmarks across the world, from the White House to the Sydney Opera House.

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