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My second visit to Bristol was on a decidedly damp Saturday afternoon, so we were looking for places to spend some time inside. Having walked down the steep slope of Park Street and not being in any hurry to go back up, I suggested that the Arnolfini arts centre might not be too much further to walk. Situated on Bristol's Harbourside, it is easily reached by walking along the quayside from The Centre. From the south you can get there by crossing the swing bridge on Prince Street. Admission is free, so it is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in the arts.
The Arnolfini has no permanent collection of artworks, so exhibitions change from time to time. There is currently (August 2008) a display described as an 'interactive shopping experience' entitled 'Far West'. Although not exactly my cup of tea, there was a degree of variety and an opportunity for visitors to participate in certain sections of the show - a particularly good idea during the school holidays. On the ground floor, for example, visitors can create paper fruits from templates; these can then be purchased or exchanged for a real piece of fruit. The paper fruits are exhibited in a stall similar to the way they would be in a market. In the same gallery, a number of unfinished paintings by artist Lui Ding are on sale at a price of £100 each; the idea is to complete the painting at home in whatever way you wish. Most of them featured trees or parts of a landscape. I'm afraid we didn't buy one, but it's a fascinating concept.
One of the busiest and apparently most popular areas of the exhibition was Yoko Ono's 'Mend Piece - for Merry England' on the first floor. Donations of unwanted or broken crockery are handed in by visitors, who are then invited to create a new item or miniature work of art from the fragments that are available. A gift is offered in exchange, although I'm afraid I don't know what this would be. The creations made by visitors are put on display and are worth taking a close look at: there are the purely abstract pieces amidst attempts at creating fish, faces, bodies, all sorts. In the same gallery, we admired Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe's 'Skin of Light', a neon depiction of AnnLee, a character originally created by Japanese Manga illustrators.
The Arnolfini spans three floors and has a series of small but well-lit galleries whose walls are normally painted white. (Some of them are currently covered in a garish blue wallpaper featuring over-sized bunches of flowers as part of the 'Far West' display.) The ground floor also houses a shop offering a good selection of art books (including exhibition catalogues), greetings cards and postcards, as well as a selection of artists' prints and limited editions. The shop is open until 6pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, until 8pm Thursday to Sunday. There is a cafe bar which we did not visit; on fine days you can sit outside and have lunch (salad and pasta) or a drink and something light to eat, but it wasn't the weather for that on the occasion I was there. Fairtrade tea, coffee and hot chocolate are served along with organic produce. The cafe is open from 10am until 11pm Tuesday to Saturday, and until 10.30pm on Sundays.
On the top floor of the Arnolfini you will find a reading room with back catalogues and a wide selection of art magazines as well as books. We even noticed a copy of the 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' DVD which you could watch on a computer, so if it's pouring down and your children are on holiday, you could kill a little time here.
On Saturday 16th August 2008, the Saturday following my visit, the periodic 'Mash Up', a family-friendly event with workshops, activities and storytelling was due to take place. I'm not sure how often this 'Mash Up' occurs, but details can be found on Arnolfini's website.
Exhibition tours take place every Saturday at 2pm, and are led by an artist. Booking is not necessary; you just turn up at the information desk.
Events at Arnolfini are by no means confined to the visual arts. There is a theatre/cinema on the premises, and details of film showings and theatrical performances can be found at Arnolfini's website. The Bristol Poetry Festival is an annual event taking place in September with readings by contemporary poets such as Simon Armitage, and a poetry slam between Liverpool and Bristol. This type of event, however, is not always free; check the Arnolfini website for ticket prices.
The upper floors of the Arnolfini can be reached by either stairs or a lift, and there seemed to be quite a few people wheeling buggies around on the top floor. Toilets are available on the top floor as well as adjacent to the cafe on the ground floor, where there are also baby-changing facilities.
Considered as one of Europe's leading centres for the contemporary arts, the Arnolfini is worthy of a visit by anyone interested in visual art, film, poetry, or dance. It is, however, closed on Mondays, except for Bank Holidays. You can sign up at Arnolfini's website for their newsletter to be sent to you by either email or post; since events and displays are only temporary, this will enable you to plan a visit to suit your particular interests.
16 Narrow Quay
Tel. 0117 9172300/01
Also on Ciao under my username denella.
Centre for contemporary arts also includes cinema showing alternative and arthouse films.