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After Alcatraz, China's Ai Weiwei brings dissident message to Churchill castle

Reuters and AP, Sunday 28 Sep 2014
Ai Weiwei
Words from Edward Snowden are shown on a kite that is part of the installation With Wind during a preview of the art exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island Wednesday, 24 September, 2014, in San Francisco. (Photo: AP)
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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. Called "@ large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz," the installation opened Saturday 27 September at the former maximum-security prison.

Ai, whose past work has included a piece mourning children killed in shoddily built schools in China's 2008 earthquake, directed the installation of the Alcatraz exhibition while under house arrest in China for what supporters say are trumped-up tax charges.

The lead work, "Trace," uses 1.2 million toy Lego bricks to form the portraits of 176 political prisoners and political exiles, from Nelson Mandela to American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, as well as others largely unknown to the outside world.

In England, 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 14 December.

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 symbolise 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.

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