As you approach Blenheim Palace, a cryptic proclamation stands out over the main entrance: “Within a Realm of Distance.” You won’t be surprised to hear that this is a piece of contemporary art.
Off-the-wall installations and uncompromising outdoor sculpture are becoming as much a part of the country-house experience as cream teas. Chatsworth, Houghton Hall, Waddesdon – they’re all at it. This show, however, feels an odd fit even by current standards.
Having got into this field last year with Ai Weiwei, the Blenheim Art Foundation (founded by Edward Spencer-Churchill, brother of the current Duke of Marlborough, Jamie) is hosting the veteran American conceptualist Lawrence Weiner. On the one hand, we have the birthplace of Winston Churchill, the bombastic high baroque building describing itself as “Britain’s greatest palace”; on the other, the 73-year-old Bronx-born artist’s gnomic text-interventions.
The lettering over the entrance doesn’t just announce the exhibition: it is part of the art. While the “realm” and “distance” of the title may refer to the house and landscape in a way that feels just about comprehensible, the work in the austere entrance hall is befuddling: the preposterously titled “Matter so shaken to its core to lead to a change in inherent form to the extent of bringing about a change in the destiny of the material”.
The matter referred to in the piece – which is simply its title emblazoned on a bare stone wall with the words “primary”, “secondary” and “tertiary” written beneath – may be this very stone. However, as the piece was “made” in 2002, that feels unlikely.
On the day I went, most visitors, giving it a glance as they made their way into this awe-inspiring space, didn’t seem too bothered either way.
The sense of wilful obtuseness yielding diminishing returns increases in the opulent state rooms, where one of the tapestries celebrating the martial victories of the house’s founder, John Churchill (1650-1722), has been replaced by a length of what looks like silver plastic sheeting bearing the words “Far Enough Away As To Come Readily To Hand.” If this piece of abstruseness makes you want to run, you’ll miss the splendours of John Vanburgh and Nicholas Hawksmoor’s interior. You can’t have the stridently monumental without the bafflingly post-modern.
As you enter the library, however, the two begin to integrate in a way that starts to make sense. The words on the ceiling, “More saltpetre than black powder, more aluminium than lead” refer to gunpowder, the substance that, effectively, built Blenheim.
The house, like all stately homes, is a temple to its founding dynasty. Everywhere statuary and tapestries trumpet the military achievements of John Churchill. A hagiographic, permanent display, meanwhile, celebrates his descendant, Winston.
The suspicion that Weiner may be providing a subversive counter-commentary to this grandiose dynastic message builds as you look up at the library cupola where the words “More Than Enough” feel like a comment on the surrounding magnificence.
Could it be that Weiner, whose work is all about defying easy interpretation, is providing a not so subtly coded message that might actually enhance a walk round Blenheim? It would be nice to think so, but I’m not sure.