Shimabuku: Something that Floats/Something that Sinks
Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
24 July - 15 September 2013
Review by Cathy Wade
The Ikon Gallery’s first major survey of Shimabuku’s work shows the eclectic array of responses and acts the artist utilises to recast how we respond to the world around us. From a fleeting view of Santa Claus as seen from a railway line, an exhibition for monkeys, to creating a new language with a fish or issuing an invitation to pass your body through an elastic band, Shimabuku’s work bypasses logic to intently investigate situations and objects through conviviality and encounter. In ‘Tour of Europe with One Eyebrow Shaved’ (1991) the action of shaving off one eyebrow on the London Underground forms a catalyst for a tour through eleven European countries in which the incongruous vision formed by a the traveller’s appearance becomes not only a sight for response but also a subject for initiating conversation and friendship.
Part of the potency of Shimabuku’s work is the humour that underlines his approach to the body as a vehicle for performance. In the performance/video ‘Flying Me’ (2006) the artist’s full body portrait is manufactured as a kite to fly by the beach. This does not prove a balletic encounter with the air; with insubstantial paper thin legs rippling in the breeze, wonky and improbable, the work opens up the gap between expectation and collapse, the singular narrative of desired ease replaced with a palimpsest of effort and attempt. In ‘Swansea Jack Memorial Dog Swimming Competition’ (2003) the dogs and their walkers that populate Swansea beach communally reinterpret the heroic achievements of a lifesaving dog of local legend through a swimming competition. Under a grey overcast sky dogs throw themselves with mercurial unpredictability outwards to the ocean to retrieve objects thrown by their owners, responding to a barrage of encouragement in a cheerfully chaotic encounter. ‘Shimabuku’s Fish and Chips’ (2006) explores the poetics of colliding words in a whited-out room. A potato floats as if suspended; animated by the current it rolls unhurried into the depths. An oscillating alien explorer, fishes fleetingly swim around it and then disappear. This elliptical connection between objects is further explored in the second floor gallery with ‘Something that Floats/Something that Sinks’ (2008) with the fruits and vegetables circling each other (one above one below); a situation created by invisible dynamics of density and weight.
The final work in the Tower Room; ‘Then, I decided to give a Tour of Tokyo to the Octopus from Akashi’ (2000), returns to the boundaries between water and land, with an octopus caught by fishermen chosen and then claimed in a performance by Shimabuku as the recipient of the gift of a guided tour around Tokyo. Travelling by bullet-train and taxi the video captures the inexplicable nature of this partnership. Snippets of conversation from the artist offer the mollusc a commentary on what it can view from its waterlogged temporary housing. A visit to a fishmarket offers a brief and furious exchange with a Tokyo octopus destined for the dishes discussed by the artist and city dwellers encountering the travelling companions on their journey. When returned to the ocean the octopus springs from Shimabuku’s hands. Questions resonate on what could be successfully communicated between the sea creature and artist, what the weight of a gift is and how it is understood. As with the artist, the viewer’s empathy is stretched to fill in the silent spaces, anthropomorphising the octopus and imagining a journey in which it sinks to the ocean floor brimming with tales of exotic smells, improbable colours, unknowable languages, adventure and return.
The exhibition stretches out beyond the confines of the gallery into the city. In the cafe you can consume ‘Ice Cream with Salt/Ice Cream with Pepper’ (2010), disrupting the regular comfort of vanilla ice cream with ingredients that tilt it into new sensations. Offsite in a project devised with the Big Issue you can receive a free copy of ‘Shimabuku in the UK’ on purchase of a magazine from its vendors; it is here the full narrative of the exhibition reaches its conclusion. The viewer is asked to engage directly with the world and to begin their own conversations through the vehicle of the artist’s work. The invisible events of the everyday are bought into different focus, the vendor becomes the holder of the privileged information that you seek out, not an obstacle to be navigated around at speed with eyes fixed at a point in the near distance. Shimabuku’s work requests that we see the latent potential of what surrounds us, reworking the natural world and its objects and myths to the point at which the weight of questions collapses a known narrative into the poetic and unfamiliar.