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WOODSTOCK England (Reuters) - Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei could not be at Blenheim Palace for the opening of an exhibition of his work on Friday, but his message came through loud and clear. Earlier this week a massive show including Ai's depictions in Lego of 176 activists and dissidents, from Nelson Mandela to Edward Snowden, was unveiled at Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco.
Now the 300-year-old castle near Oxford, Winston Churchill's birthplace, has been given over to an exhibition with an equally political message, though perhaps a more varied and subtle one. "To have a show at Alcatraz at the same time as Blenheim -- I think there's a wonderful echo in that and it's something that's not lost on Weiwei," said Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill, founder of the Blenheim Art Foundation which mounted the exhibition. The palace, which in normal times attracts some 600,000 visitors a year to see its grounds and period rooms, has been transformed for the show, which will run until December 14.
In the lobby, the first thing visitors see is a nine-tiered chandelier weighing almost two tonnes, embodying the glitz and bling of modern China. Stretched out on the floor beyond is a 45-metre (40-yard) -long carpet imprinted with what the curating staff said were treadmarks intended to symbolize those left by the tanks that crushed pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. Elsewhere, blended into the traditional decor of the palace's 18th-century rooms, filled with period furniture and oil paintings, are five Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD) vases redecorated in metallic auto paint. Other notable pieces include "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold" from 2010 which has been installed in the palace's main dining room.
Another room contains a huge porcelain bowl filled with 250 kg of pearls, while in a room nearby 2,300 porcelain replicas of freshwater crabs are heaped on the floor. Antonia Jolles, one of the exhibition assistants who spent hours unwrapping the crabs shipped from China, said they represented the number of guests Ai had invited to a party he gave before the government destroyed his studio in Shanghai.
Ai has been forbidden to leave China since 2011 by the authorities. He had to work with the Blenheim Art Foundation team from a distance, using 3D plans, books, architectural drawings and models of the site and grounds, said Michael Frahm, the foundation's director. "What we wanted to do was to create a virtual world for Weiwei to try and get him to be at Blenheim somehow, and I think we've done a good job," Frahm said. Ai was relaying images of the exhibition by Instagram on the opening day, palace staff said. "The exhibition gives an extensive view into an artist who is able to work across several different medias and who is unfortunately not with us today because of the difficult situation he is under in China," Frahm said.
One of Ai's inspirations is Marcel Duchamp, one of the first of the "readymade" artists, who famously presented as art a urinal he called "Fountain". The Chinese artist's exhibition includes a profile of Duchamp fashioned out of a metal coathanger.
Spencer-Churchill, whose family still lives in a wing of the castle, said he did not believe in "art apartheid" and felt the exhibition proved contemporary works could be shown alongside period furniture and paintings without a clash. "It's very hard to do it well and it's a testimony to Weiwei and the quality of the artist he is that it seems to go into this house so seamlessly, and for such a big body of work," he said.
Editing by Andrew Roche