I’ve put off the writing of this for the best part of a week. Just to make sure that the ire I felt was rashly conceived, but it wasn’t. Last Saturday I visited the Arnolfini in Bristol for the first time since its reopening following a two year closure and revamp; I think the words that adequately sum up the opening exhibition are ‘lacklustre’ and ‘sad’.
The new space isn’t too bad though the apparent reduction of the bar/cafe seating is a little disappointing considering that the space previously, particularly at weekends, was a packed and buzzing meeting venue for all those that didn’t mind being seen in a gallery. It becomes particularly irksome when you bear in mind that the entrance foyer area is a comparative waste of space that seems also to have eaten into the bookshop. I might be wrong; perhaps it’s a cunning architectural sleight of hand and in actual fact the shop and bar have expanded but in a trans-dimensional ‘Tardis-like’ fashion they only seem smaller. I knew I hadn’t given sufficient benefit of time to this – I’m getting sarcastic already.
Generally the exhibition space, which admittedly is the venue’s prime function, has improved. There’s more of it, it’s better laid out (and accessible – which was one of the main reasons for the change so I’ve been told) and better lit and presented.
There – I’m not totally negative – back to the opening show.
From friends who have some previous involvement at the Arnolfini I am on the understanding that prior to the closure the exhibition schedule was set around about eighteen months in advance. The closure itself was about two years in length. There was every right to expect a show that would knock the socks off an expectant Arnolfini starved audience after this lengthy wait – but I’m afraid to say that we were left wanting. Judging from the comments I heard inside the galleries, the bar and outside, I wasn’t the only one that felt cheated.
Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by a previous wealth of riches. The obvious choice of a pre-closure exhibition that I reckon the Arnolfini will always find hard to top was the show ‘Presentness is Grace’, with the conceptual genius being led from the front by the incredible talents of ÝNikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen and Hideyuki Sawayanagi. This was the show that deserved the attention of a supposed grand re-opening, not this ‘This storm is what we call progress’ effort. Apparently – according to the material supporting it ‘The exhibition asks how, why and what we remember… these works explore our complex relationship to the past as well as our responsibility to the present.’ No it didn’t and no they don’t. The work was perhaps worthy of supporting stronger work but not of maintaining its own head above the waterline.
And as if to support accusations of the exhibition’s ‘conceptual’ insecurity it is titled from a Walter Benjamin quote concerning a Paul Klee painting and it also makes great play of including a Turner oil – as if to include by guilt of association the contemporary work into the canonical status of Britain’s most famous painter.
The Arnolfini is known for showing primarily conceptual performance, screen or installation based work over ‘traditional’ art media (unless of course you’re Beatle Paul McCartney and you need a venue to hang your cod, retro, pseudo New York School paintings – but that’s another bitter, twisted subject). If I want to see good painting I’ll pop up the road to the Bristol City Gallery and catch Karle Weshke’s Leda and the Swan.
However, if I want to catch top notch contemporary weird shit I’ll go to the Arnolfini. Unfortunately this wasn’t it. An apparently slung together table top construction that defied any aesthetic interpretation; I therefore assumed it must have been challenging in the sense of the new way it wanted me to see some part of my world. Nope – not unless I resorted to reading the associated wall notes, in which case I would suggest getting rid of the work and leaving the wall notes. A video, tedious in its monotony, painful in its shaky-helicopter-cam pinkness and unoriginal in its guilty liberal, politically correct subject matter (documentary style apparently). I would suggest that its supposed intent would best be rendered by an authoritatively written, competently shot documentary – probably. These were probably the day’s worst, though not only, offenders of reinforcing the public’s incomprehension of contemporary art. The whole event was another exercise in pseudo-intellectual, politically correct, cod-philosophising of the highest degree.
‘This storm is what we call progress?’ No it’s not – if it is a storm it’s more Typhoo than typhoon, and as for progress… It’s just another piss-poor, deliberately obscure show that hangs on the now ragged coat-tails of a seventy year old allegedly anti-art, anti-establishment ideal. And for the opening show of the major local venue, with a supposed two to three years preparation time it was a bloody farce.
“finding the courage to be a fuck-up”