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Trip Report Ai Weiwei at Blenheim

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Blenheim Palace - world famous throughout West Oxfordshire as the repository for more tasteless old bling objects than even Liberace could have dreamt of owning - has moved into temporary exhibitions of high-profile modern art.

The current Duke's second son, Edward Spencer-Churchill, has set up the "Blenheim Art Foundation", which says it "aims to give the greatest number of people access to the most innovative contemporary artists working today."

This is pretty rich: Blenheim gets just a million visitors a year - and charges them £22.50 ($37) while Tate Modern lets its 7 million annual visitors in for free. More likely, Spencer-Churchill wants to boost Blenheim visitor numbers during its off season by chucking in free displays of headline-grabbing modern artists.

His first exhibition, of Ai Weiwei. started on Oct 1, and goes on to Dec 14 (though from Nov 14, it's open only Weds to Sundays). It consists of 50 artworks scattered through the palace's normal visitor route - many so integrated into the place, they need considerable attention to realise they're not just part of the normal family ornaments and crockery on routine display. None are labelled: there's a £1 surcharge for a photographic catalogue pointing them out.

Unlike the palace's straightforward trinkets, paintings and statuary (many of which reflect high craftsmanship, though rarely much else) Ai Weiwei's objects are out to make a point.

Not, to be honest, a particularly interesting point. Ai Weiwei is under (sort of) house arrest in Beijing for being a dissident - but political heroism, dexterity and managerial skill don't add up to much real insight into the human condition. His works do turn a routine procession through a bog-standard 18th century country house, on steroids, into a more convincing reason than usual for keeping your eyes open - and often do make you realise how well-executed many of Blenheim's relatively bleh normal aretefacts are.

The idea of the exhibition was dreamt up while the artist was under arrest, and the exhibition was to a large extent designed and curated by Ai Weiwei himself. Famous artists' "house arrests" in modern China let them be given a full 3D tour of Europe's largest private palace, live via broadband, then let them juggle with objects, placement and computer simulations to end up with a better sense of how the exhibition looks than a paying customer. This is not the solitary confinement on the edge of the Taklamakan desert with a little light torture and an hour a day with Chairman Mao's works that await most Chinese dissidents.

Spencer-Churchill is non-committal about future plans for more art exhibitions at Blenheim: I expect he's waiting to evaluate the ROI of his first: he's a venture capitalist - using other people's money, of course - in his day job. Judging by the number of visitors yesterday obviously more interested in Ai Weiwei than the place's wall-to-wall Churchilliana, modern art may well be a real traffic generator.

And this first show is a real change from the normal dull hangings in glorified warehouses or soul-less full-time art galleries which is how we see most modern art. However trite many of Ai Weiwei's works are, they and the palace's grace notes and artefacts bring each other out - and tucked into a room with lots of stuff from a couple of centuries earlier is precisely how many serious art buyers do actually display modern sculpture at home.

A civilised society, in my view, would still bulldoze Vanbrugh's object lesson in why playwrights should stick to writing dirty jokes - at which Vanbrugh really did excel. But, given that we're stuck with the blight on our local landscape, this modern art lark does make going round the dump much less of a chore than usual.

Well worth a detour of - oh, at least 15 miles.

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