With Manchester City Art Gallery closed until 2001 while Michael Hopkins' extension is being built, some welcome attention is being given to the city's long-neglected collection of historic houses, writes Julian Holder. These include James Wyatt's Heaton Hall and sixteenth-century Wythenshawe Hall. The latter, set amid one of the largest council estates in Europe, is trying to win a new public with an exhibition entitled 'Estate'.
Commissioned by the City Art Gallery, the artists' group 'blink' (Jo Hall, Marc Provins, and A J Wilkinson) indulges in some irreverent micky- taking while referring intelligently to the history of the hall. The show has already ruffled the feathers of the more conservative country house visitor, for 'blink' find the dispossessed of Wythenshawe's history - the inhabitants of the nearby Barry Parker council houses - and give them a voice within the hallowed walls.
The most visually arresting pieces are life-size light-box installations by Marc Provins, which fill two main doorways (see left). Their colour and materials bring an 'age of plastics' brashness and amusement-arcade spontaneity to the Tudor panelled rooms.
As with so many such buildings, the rooms the public are allowed into at Wythenshawe are but a small part of the entire house (in this case just seven out of 40). A J Wilkinson's photographs take us 'behind the scenes' in a documentary manner while questioning the authenticity of the main, manicured rooms in which they are shown.
Finally Jo Hall creates semi-transparent 'rooms' within these main spaces to echo those of the surrounding council estate. The trophies of the Tatton family, residents for more than 400 years, are balanced by the belongings of a modern-day Wythenshawe family; and the transience of these slightly macabre Bedouin tents, amid the earnestly maintained magnificence of their hosts, unsettles and delights.
Rather than celebrate Wythenshawe Hall, these artists wear their politics on their sleeve and celebrate those excluded from the main act. Hopefully this provocative exhibition will be the first of many that Manchester commissions to redefine the country house experience.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian