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Beauty and Purpose, Disarmed

Shimabuku, "Something that Floats, Something that Sinks" (2008) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)
Shimabuku, “Something that Floats, Something that Sinks” (2008) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — A box of thin elastic bands, resting on a circular plinth, pose a challenge. Can you, the wall text asks, pass the length of your body through one of these rubbery rings? The answer in my case was sadly no, but taking part is what counts. “Going to a show is not enough sometimes,” says Shimabuku. “I think it’s nice to use the body a bit.”

The Japanese artist has a way of thinking small and making art from the incidental. Think how novelist Haruki Murakami can transfix the reader with a mere description of a sandwich and beer, and you get an idea of what’s in store right now at Ikon. The Birmingham Gallery is demonstrating that Shimabuku is just as interested in telling stories. And very often those are stories about food. In fact, an observation made in the kitchen rather than studio gives this, his first retrospective, its title: Something that Floats/Something that Sinks.

The eponymous piece of work finds the visitor gazing at pairs of fruits in basins. In each case one has sunk; one has not. Small motors circulate the water and lead the edible subjects to spin at varying depths. As a spectacle of the everyday, the results are compelling. No doubt a scientist could account for the quirky phenomenon. But this artist is more concerned with the mystery arising from this neat installation.

Shimabuku, “Shimabuku’s Fish & Chips” (2006)

“I hope my exhibition is a chance for people to change their life in a good way,” he says with a mix of naivety and good faith. This is not a promise you see very much of in our jaded times. Nor is the Japanese artist shy of using the word beautiful in relation to his work. Shimabuku says food is “beautiful” in the same way temporary exhibitions are “beautiful.” But his sense of purpose is so whole-hearted he pulls this off, beautifully. Those spinning, dancing tomatos and limes are just what he says they are.

You become aware of the simplicity on offer here, the moment you step into the gallery. For a video piece called Flying Me the artist pitches up on a sunny beach. And once here he does no more than fly a human-shaped kite in his likeness, legs fluttering as he passes the sun. The result is momentary beauty, even though here too is a lack of sophistication which some may find troubling.

Personally, I found Shimabuku’s work quite disarming. What’s not to like about an artist who sets up a swimming contest for dogs, an art exhibition for monkeys and an encounter between a selection of sea fish and a potato? The latter is presented as another film installation, complete with a comic neon Fish and Chips sign. It is both funny and touching. And a less credulous artist would never have managed to coax such winning performances out of his non-human cast.

Shimabuku, “Tour of Europe with One Eyebrow Shaved” (1991)

The interest in food reveals Shimabuku’s rare ability to see what is right in front of his nose. “For me it comes from a very natural place, from what we are doing, from what I’m doing three times a day,” laughs the artist. “So you know, I spend a lot of time eating food, so of course it inspires me all the time.”

“Food is quite interesting,” he continues. “You don’t have to know what it is.” To put it another way, you can enjoy the taste, look, feel of a dish, “even without knowing what it is.” This is another aspect of the appeal: “People spend a lot of time to make [food]. Eating makes it disappear. But it stays with people. It still has a memory. That’s what I like.”

Exhibitions are another compelling disappearing act. “They’re here for a moment,” says Shimabuku. “In this case, I can make a mistake because it will disappear. An architect can’t make mistakes.” He says this with evident relief at not designing buildings, though you do wonder about the restaurant this playful talent might design.

"Flying Me" (2006)
Shimabuku, “Flying Me” (2006)

The artist’s relationship with Ikon goes back to a commission in the year 2000. This took the form of Cucumber journey, a 14-day residency on a canal boat, in which the artist pickled vegetables in a one off durational performance. That became yet another work on the cusp of artlessness.

Elsewhere, Shimabuku is filmed pursuing a flock of pigeons around a square. One hand covers his eyes, but the other comes nowhere close to catching one. It looks more like herding tiny sheep. Just another simple idea, it is also one of the funniest, most quixotic pieces in the show. The artist talks about using jokes as a strategy.

When it comes to delivering more serious messages: “It always works if there is some humour in it. If I’m too serious, people can’t receive it. I like people smiling, then they can receive it very naturally.” His persuasiveness is summed up by one of the final pieces, How do you accept something you don’t understand? In this film German students sing a Japanese song, learned without any understanding of the language.

"Cucumber Journey" (2000)
Shimabuku, “Cucumber Journey” (2000)

Shimabuku tells me how he won them over: “The first thing I did was cook for them. I said, ‘Don’t ask what it is, just eat it.’ Then they started to understand, they were like, ‘Hey, I don’t know what it is but it’s tasty’.” Teaching them foreign lyrics were easier after that.

Apart from this song, very little gets lost in translation. Shimabuku lives in Berlin and studied in San Francisco. He points out that in Japan: “We grew up with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. You would listen to punk rock … so if you’re familiar with these things I think people will understand.”

In fact, he suggests “I think English people understand me sometimes more than Japanese people.” It could be true. There are pieces here (“Cucumber journey” and “Swansea Jack Memorial Dog Swimming Contest”) that remind one of Jeremy Deller. They couldn’t be more British if they tried. What he lacks is the national sense of reserve and skepticism. Leave yours behind if you’re planning to enjoy this show.

Something that Floats/Something that Sinks is on view at Ikon Gallery (1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham) through September 15.

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