From his condemnation of the Beijing Olympics, to his infamous house arrest, to filling the Tate Modern terminal with porcelain sunflower seeds, it seems reductive to represent one man’s freedom with 140 characters and a hashtag. However, dedicated activist and controversial artist Ai Weiwei took to Twitter – bypassing the ‘Great Firewall of China’ – to not only share his political insights, but to voice his unique perception of freedom. By recognising the extensive power and influence of social media, he was able to harness the ability to reach millions across the globe and spread his message of integrity, honesty and compassion.
It is worth noting that I am not well versed in art criticism. I enjoy visiting galleries and I have a handful of favourite artists, but prior to my trip to Blenheim, my attitude was “I know what I like and I know what I don’t, but I can’t articulate why”. As a result, I can aim only to review the exhibition as an experience, but an experience that has irrevocably altered the way I feel about art.
After hearing about his exhibition at Blenheim Palace, I decided to take the day off from crying in the library to attend. Not only was I excited to see some of my favourite pieces of contemporary sculpture, but the choice of location was intriguing. Three-hundred years old and spanning over eleven thousand sprawling acres, the Blenheim Palace estate is a breath-taking national monument. Revered for its status as the birthplace of Winston Churchill and housing
around a thousand MI5 employees during World War II, the integration of Ai Weiwei’s work, which feature strong political themes throughout, made for a surreal exhibition experience.
I naïvely had vague expectations of seeing a few of my favourite pieces in a stark, empty room in some outbuilding-cum-gallery, separate from the grandeur of the palace which stood as an extravagant display of aristocracy and squandered inheritance (of which I had very little interest in). I was therefore astounded to find that the exhibition was to take place within the open rooms of the palace.
The first and arguably most glamorous piece – an enormous glass crystal chandelier, measuring seventeen feet long and named simply “Chandelier” – marked the entryway into the world that the artist had created. Through the maze of corridors and drawing rooms, his pieces were placed amongst the historical displays exhibiting the illustrious past of the palace. In Churchill’s birth room, a pair of wooden handcuffs lay on the chair next to the bed (Handcuffs, 2012). At the back of the hall, the usual plush red carpet had been replaced by a pale brown runner that mimicked a dusty dirt road. I didn’t know what it meant, but I liked it.
In the Long Library, I met a curator named Hiro Tenui, standing next to a statue of Queen Anne, surrounded by the famous images of Ai Wewei holding his middle finger up in front of various landmarks across the world. He asked me what I thought of the photographs. When I had seen the photographs on the internet, they were always the “right way up”, so that the finger pointed to the sky. For this exhibition, however, they had been rotated by ninety degrees. I told him this and he stuck his middle finger up at me, grinning. A nearby American couple gasped disapprovingly, but Hiro did not seem concerned. “This means hate, yes? But what about this?” He rotated his hand to mimic the photograph. “Does it still mean hate? You decide. That’s what Ai Weiwei’s work is about. His message is clear but he allows freedom for interpretation. Like the table in the other room [here, he is referring to Slanted Table]. It represents inequality, but what do you think about the table’s function? The Han dynasty vases – to many Chinese people, he has desecrated an important historical artefact by repainting them [and branding them with] “Coca-Cola”. He understands and respects the influence of the past, but he’s still questioning it. It’s the same with the crabs! [The piece] is called “Hie Xie”. That means harmony. What is the colour of China? Many of the crabs are this colour!” Hiro spoke with passion and enthusiasm, asking more questions than offering answers. I began to feel as though he were interviewing me. He seemed to revel in the opportunity to proudly present his middle finger, albeit sideways, and talked in length about unity: “There is unity in his art. There is one message – you decide. If you see hate, then it is hate.”
There is something about the work of Ai Weiwei that, to me, always seemed so loud. Not only does his work seem to represent that which is reactionary and critical but also that which is deeply personal. It’s a celebration of liberty and imagination, challenging the image of the state, of contemporary global politics and the reality of national security. It’s a celebration of concepts over aesthetics, of breaking from the past and into the future. It is a celebration of the individual, screaming not only “autonomy” but also “harmony”. It’s all these things, and probably a million others.