A RESIDENCY at Gibside, the National Trust property on the outskirts of Gateshead, was the inspiration for an exhibition running at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art until Sunday.
Tris Vonna-Michell, who was brought up in Southend but now lives in Stockholm, is one of three artists who were chosen to take part in The Residents, an artist-in-residence project developed by the National Trust and leading contemporary art institutions.
Tris spent time living in the splendid banqueting hall on the Georgian estate of Gibside, learning about its history and soaking up the atmosphere before developing an installation to be displayed in one of the borough’s newer attractions.
What you see at Baltic is a slide show with photographs of Gibside – minute details as well as broader landscapes – interspersed in seemingly random fashion with photographs of parts of India.
These are what Baltic describe as “multi-layered, non-linear narratives”. The images are displayed on period backdrops mimicking the patterned paper you’ll find on the inside covers of old books – the kind displayed in the libraries of well-to-do homes.
We are told these reference the famous books of an 18th Century English architect, Humphrey Repton, which contain his ideas for improving the grounds of potential wealthy clients.
The Indian images could be seen to represent the countries of the British Empire which generated much of the phenomenal wealth of such clients.
There’s a soundtrack, too, most noticeably featuring a breathless monologue by the artist, supposedly masquerading as an estate agent selling the virtues of Gibside to a potential bygone buyer.
The work is called Ulterior Vistas and it may utterly absorb you or it may leave you cold with its extremely subtle links and references.
The best thing it can do - and three cheers for that – is to send you off to Gibside, either to visit for the first time or to see the place afresh.
There is none of Tris’s work to be seen at the National Trust property which struck me as odd. But the glory of Gibside swept away misgivings.
I was privileged to be part of a group escorted around the estate by property manager Mick Wilkes, who talks with as much passion as Tris’s fictional estate agent but with much more clarity.
He explained how Gibside is a rare example of a Georgian estate, accurately reflecting the tastes of rich men – in this case coal baron George Bowes – in the years before Capability Brown and his ilk introduced a very different kind of landscape.
The super-rich Bowes created an estate to reflect his wealth and ego but there was no attempt to hide the practical aspects of country living. Livestock was allowed to roam freely, brushing up against the splendour of the Palladian chapel.
Today you can get your feet muddy walking from the chapel to the towering Liberty monument at the far end of the impressive avenue.
But there’s nothing to suggest George Bowes got his feet muddy for the estate was designed to give carriages laden with his well-heeled guests perfect views as they approached the hall for what we must assume was a sumptuous meal.
The hall is now a ruin which was used for target practice by soldiers during the war.
Mick, who gave Tris the same tour, said the artist was particularly taken with the Gibside wildlife, notably the newts which thrive in the lake below the banqueting hall.
Like the bats which also frequent the estate, they benefit from the kind of protection that was never accorded to the human staff at Gibside or across the British colonies.
Today Gibside is many things to many people. Tris’s exhibition runs only until Sunday, but the National Trust estate is open throughout the winter.