Anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of the unusual contrasts our universe is capable of creating would have to give a considerable amount of thought to the matter before pinpointing Bristol’s harbour as the place to see them. But – perhaps like finding yourself beneath the swirling nighttime majesty of the Northern Lights without having even intended to go searching for it – that is exactly what we found there.
For a Friday afternoon, when rush hour seems to start around lunchtime and only finish when it’s almost Saturday, the harbour was incredibly peaceful. If we’d had a dictionary with us and looked up ‘oasis’ there would surely have been a picture of where we were standing in place of a written definition.
Sure, it is an area of Bristol that has been kept mercifully free of cars; throw in the fact that very few of the bars and restaurants were fully open, that water has a natural habit of creating a relaxing vibe (more so when there are copious vessels gently bobbing at their moorings), and that we had the whole day to fritter away as we pleased in the sunshine and it is hardly surprising we felt a certain serenity.
Accounting for all that though, as we meandered along the harbour paths taking in such sights as Brunel’s SS Great Britain, there was still a certain indefinable quality to be detected beyond the quiet-yet-purposeful scene. It first peeked out from behind the curtain while we wandered the rather stately galleries of the Arnolfini arts centre observing its latest contemporary exhibition. Impressive though the skill in creating the various pieces on display clearly was, the overall effect was sadly lost on us.
By the time we reached the first floor and ‘Gallery 2’, any hopes of grasping the exhibition’s supposed underlying theme of ‘sloth’ had been dispensed with and, tellingly, we resorted to gazing out of the windows at the harbour front stretched out below us. Surrounded by an art installation that had doubtless been analysed to within an inch of its fabric-based life (starting with the exhibition guide), it was tempting to make philosophical comparisons between the heritage and purpose of a harbour front and the perceived value and reasoning behind contemporary art installations.
However, it is a fundamental truth that everybody sees different value in different things, so feel free to draw your own conclusions. We knew where our preferences lay (and it wasn’t with the “kaleidoscopic menagerie for the fatigued”, whatever that means), so we went back outside to enjoy the sun.
Being one of the nicest of days, if a little chilly, the harbour’s next surprise was a waterside gym with room height glazing offering panoramic views over the water (or, for those of us outside, panoramic views of the people slogging away on treadmills). Preferring the view of the harbour to an uninspiring exhibition seemed perfectly natural, but it was questionable as to exactly why anyone would choose to remain in a sweaty, stifling gym when they could have been enjoying the same view but with fresh air. Maybe that was a slightly old-fashioned perspective to adopt, and so the better question might have been: hard-to-understand art or intensive physical workout?
For those of us who preferred not to remain indoors, however, the universe made perfectly clear that it had unfinished business. As we stood admiring the sheer variety of boats intrinsic to the harbour’s being, a group of people walked past. They seemed to be a similar age to us, perhaps a little older, and the guy at the head of the group elected to say, “Chi-ching” while pointing an imaginary camera in our direction and miming pressing the shutter button. We might have thought no more about it, but for the fact that as soon as he had ‘photographed us’ he turned to the guy next to him and chuckled, “I didn’t really take their picture!”
No doubt the picture-taker thought he was being quite clever. What he probably didn’t realise was that a building a few hundred metres away on the other side of the water would probably be happy to do an exhibition of his virtual photography, assuming his portfolio of work was extensive enough. Part of me really wants to curate that exhibition, just so I can feel right at home in the quirky world of Bristol’s harbour. After all, once you start to experience such oddities, the universe begins to feel reassuringly familiar…