The artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未), confined to his house and studio in Beijing, his passport confiscated by the state, has been roaming the corridors and state rooms of Blenheim Palace, one of the grandest houses in southern England, through a 3D computer model.
He has never set foot in the gigantic home of the Duke of Marlborough, but is preparing to install the largest exhibition to date of his work in the UK. When it opens on Oct. 1, more than 50 new and archive works will sit among the Van Dyck portraits of Churchill ancestors and tapestries of battles fought and won 300 years ago.
“In the beginning, we sent him photographs and detailed plans, but he’s an absolute perfectionist and every inch of where works are placed matters to him. So in the end we lasered all the rooms to make the model for him,” Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill said.
“We still hope he may be able to come himself, that would be the greatest blessing for this exhibition,” said Michael Frahm, director of Spencer-Churchill’s newly founded Blenheim Art Foundation, which, following the example of other grand country estates, has ambitious plans for major contemporary art exhibitions at the palace. Danish-born Frahm visited the artist several times in Beijing, bringing him a goody bag from the Blenheim gift shop as an extra inducement.
“We both think Ai Weiwei is one of the greatest artists working today, whose work is embraced by a wide variety of people on many different levels, but who also has something really important to say about freedom of speech and personal liberty,” said Spencer-Churchill, who is the eldest surviving son of the third of the present duke’s four marriages.
Many of the works make subtle reference to Ai’s situation. A towering cabinet will be emptied of spectacular Meissen porcelain — reputedly swapped by a Churchill ancestor for a pack of hunting dogs — to hold plates being hand-painted with the artist’s “freedom flowers.” Frahm witnessed how every morning Weiwei puts a flower into the basket of the bicycle in his yard, which he will continue until he is free again to ride it out through the gates.
A brilliantly colored mob of 2,300 porcelain river crabs, which will fill one of the grandest state rooms, relates to the party he threw for hundreds of guests, with the crabs the main delicacy at the feast, before the government destroyed his studio in Shanghai.
The palace, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1705, and later landscaped by Capability Brown, is a stupendous building covering seven acres, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. One of its most celebrated spaces is the staggering library, 55m long, which holds the largest pipe organ in any private house in Europe, a giant marble statue of Queen Anne, an array of ducal coronets and ermine-trimmed robes, and, soon, pieces including a hand-carved marble model of one of the security cameras that watch the artist’s every move.
A new carpet piece, Soft Ground, is being woven specially for the echoing double height great hall, Spencer-Churchill’s favorite room. “Blows me away every time,” he said cheerfully.
The golden heads of zodiac animals, a reference to a famous set that decorated a fountain in an imperial palace outside Beijing until they were looted by Anglo-French troops during the opium wars, will stand keeping watch in the enormous dining room, which is still used by the family on grand occasions. Since Ai first drew attention to them, many of the originals have been returned to China by wealthy collectors, including two which resurfaced at the auction of the collection of the late designer Yves Saint Laurent.