The Promise 06.11.14

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The Promise

Born2007 by Jeremiah Day – former checkpoint and used-car lot in Bornholmer Strasse, Berlin

An exhibition on the role of art in reimagining the city is at its strongest when it sticks to home turf, says Hannah Gregory

It's a little-known detail that Bauhaus associate Marcel Breuer worked in Bristol in the 1930s, on a furniture line with local manufacturer PE Gane.

Breuer built the Gane Pavilion for the Royal Show there in 1936, like a mini Barcelona Pavilion with its glass panels and freestanding exterior walls – only made with Cotswold stone. Breuer's Bristol years are represented in The Promise exhibition at Arnolfini by examples of his Isokon furniture, and hint at Bristol's diversions into modernism more widely. Its abundant brutalist multi-storey car parks, as well as the often unconsummated proposals and plans, are perhaps reflective of the dashed hopes for modernism in the rest of Britain.

The Promise documents such unbuilt histories, along with some of the city's actual post-war housing developments, through old-style architectural models, sketches and printed matter from the Bristol Architects' Forum, and other sources. We are presented with the rationalisation of road systems to alleviate traffic congestion (still a problem), elevated walkways above the city centre, proposed by the Smithsons among others, and garden suburbs suggested by suffragists.

Jeremiah Day presents a newly commissioned piece based on the history of the M32 and the impact it had on the lives of Bristol residents

The Promise pairs this historical testimony and paper-trail what-ifs with present possibilities for reimagining the city through art. Art, it is proposed, holds an activating "promise" for architecture, space and its inhabitation, through its playful, political or pretty presence in the city. Exhibits possessing at least one of these attributes include: Judith Hopf's film of an absurdist egg wandering around a béton brut block; Jeremiah Day's lithograph prints pinned to an underpass of the M32; Kate Newby's fleeting installations in disused spots, such as a red rope tied around a building's top floor. Some of these pieces have been commissioned as off-site works, called to engage with specific sites. The others, pre-existing and included in the main galleries, dance around ideas of the place of art in relation to public space, but feel a little like physical fillers, at times arbitrarily tacked on.

Artist Kate Newby discusses her installations that she has created in unexpected locations across Bristol

While the tracing of Bristol's past and possible narratives feels appropriate and hopeful, it is when The Promise tries to ask bigger urban questions that its aims become convoluted. An engagement with its home town is the project's real purpose, outlined in the subtitle: "A dialogue between the city and its people."

The most effective element of the show is a room of atlases, or overlaid maps, created by various local groups. Themes of Immigrant Communities, the Bristol Pound, Geological Formation, Car Cruising, Urban Seagulls and Street Parties are traced one on top of another in a cartographic series. The visual effect is messy, but this is really the point, the maps successfully communicating how, when citizens themselves are given the drawing board, the city is revealed as a densely worked mass of related and divergent concerns, emotions, paths.

The superimposed atlases are more convincing than a clean data visualisation ever could be. Here, The Promise steps far beyond the nostalgia of a modernism that wasn't, to represent the imagined realities of the city, colourful and independent, as it is.



Hannah Gregory


The Promise
Arnolfini, Bristol
Until 9 November 2014

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Maps communicating how, when citizens are given the drawing board, the city is revealed as a densely worked mass of related and divergent concerns

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