Something That Floats, Something That Sinks might not be the best title for an exhibition at an art gallery that is also launching a ‘Slow Boat’ adventure at the same time, especially if there are any art lovers of a nervous disposition who are easily confused.

Thankfully, the two things are different entities.

The canal barge scheme is Ikon’s on-going programme designed to encourage people aged from 15 to 19 to take their time thinking about art.

For them, sinking is not an option.

Back on terra firma, Shimabuku has already done plenty of thinking about sinking – hence his takeover of the Ikon Gallery with all things Japanese.

The link between Shimabuku “sinking and floating” and British teenagers “thinking” is gallery director Jonathan Watkins.

On the one hand, he wants visitors to euphorically float away from the Ikon having seen the best of world art.

On the other, he is trying to create a new collective of artists from the West Midlands who can learn how to stay afloat for long enough to become established themselves and then take off.

Just imagine Jonathan’s excitement if, in 25 years’ time, one of his Slow Boat people could have done enough work to fill an art gallery in Japan’s own “second city”, Yokohama...

In the meantime, Shimabuku could be their inspiration.

Now 44, he was born in 1969 in Kobe, Japan’s fifth largest city by population (in that sense equivalent to Newcastle in England).

When you pause to think about it for a moment, his Ikon takeover from half a world away is nothing short of amazing.

His collection is a mixture of installation, video, drawings and sculptural pieces.

You can see how some vegetables float or sink and move around in a swirling tub at different speeds.

There’s a video of the time he took an octopus from the sea to Tokyo via bullet train, only to travel back and return it to the sea.

And a picture of himself dressed up as Santa Claus in the middle of the summer.

Shimabuku’s Fish and Chips (2006) sees a submerged potato in the River Mersey meeting live fish, whilst Cucumber Journey (2000) revisits the time he spent two weeks pickling vegetables while travelling from London to Birmingham by canal boat.

In a city where he’s been displayed since the turn of the Millennium, one of the things he’s created this time is an indoor net so that visitors can practice their golf swing.

Not what you’d anticipate to see in an art gallery.

“You have to be open to something you don’t expect,” says Shimabuku.

And yet, when I want to know more about himself, there’s a bashful hesitation.

“Why do you want to know that?” he chuckles when I ask him if he’s got any children.

Puzzled by my (unexpected!) question, almost as if he wants to preserve his mystique, he volunteers that he has a daughter aged, two.

And his parents?

“My mother’s a calligrapher and father a businessman,” says Shimabuku.

“Ordinary people. And that’s how it should be.”

That grounded nature is certainly what appeals to Jonathan.

When we talk, later, he tells me that Shimabuku is unlikely to become an artist as commercial successful as Damien Hirst.

But, when he adds: “Critically speaking, Shimabuku is one of the top 10 artists in Japan,” you know that’s what counts.

So the big question is this.

How can the youngsters on Ikon’s Slow Boat end up globetrotting like Shimabuku – next stop Switzerland, by the way – who must have dreamed in his teenage years that he could make a living from being an artist?

“You have to wait a long time,” says Shimabuku.

“Like a fisherman.

“But you have to be “there”.

“That’s the thing.

“And you have to have a rod.

“That’s the other thing.

“If you never have a rod, you never catch the fish.

“Fishing teaches me something, too.”

Shimabuku recognises that the island countries and peoples of England and Japan have many similarities.

“We share a sense of pride and humour,” he says.

“And we both have the same system.”

When I was in Wolverhampton recently with artist Gerry Judah, he told me he thought the new Library of Birmingham was “bad form with decoration all over it. Very ugly”.

I wonder what Shimabuku’s verdict will be.

Shimabuku photographs one of his own installations
Shimabuku photographs one of his own installations
 

“I think it’s ugly,” he says, quite independently.

“Architecture is like a tattoo. It stays forever.

“You have to remember this.

“When something has to stay for more than 50 years, people must like it.

“My show disappears in two months, so that’s good.

“It’s a personal thing (as to whether you like it), but it disappears.

“Architecture stays. That’s completely different.

“Selfridges isn’t my favourite, but it’s a landmark.

“But you don’t have to have another one like that.

“I don’t object to making something new.

“But you want to make something nice.

“People can be obsessed to making something new, even if it’s ugly.

“When I was a teenager I wanted to be an artist, not an architect.

“I love making people happy, maybe that’s the thing.

“I love to see people smiling and, if I do that, I feel happy.”

Aside from taking his exhibition off to Switzerland, Shimabuku’s next project relates to the Noto Peninsula, which projects north into the Sea of Japan from the coast of Ishikawa prefecture in central Honshu, Japan’s main island of four.

“It’s a remote place, and a special project,” he says.

“But I also feel at home in Birmingham.”

As I prepare to leave the Ikon Gallery, I bump into Jonathan outside.

The main reason Shimabuku is inside is because the pair met in Japan in 1997.

Jonathan loved the work. And he liked the man.

Serendipity had struck and a friendship was born, to the extent that Shimabuku has even stayed at the gallery director’s house.

Ikon’s official programmes explains that Shimabuku’s work is characterised by ‘an intense fascination with the natural world and the countless manifestations of human culture within it’.

Jonathan also notes similarities between our two cultures, qualifying our national pride with the fact that we Brits are ‘a bit more rough and ready’ than the Japanese.

“Shimabuku is an incredibly original and very fresh voice,” he says.

“So we’ve stuck with him.

“When he did the kite flying down on the HS2 site about five years ago, it looked incredibly photogenic against the sky.

“He has become as much a friend as an artist with whom I am happy to work with and this exhibition reviews everything, even when he came to Britain and shaved his eyebrow off on the Tube.

“He captures the imagination of our public because he’s very accessible.

“You don’t need to be an expert to ‘get it’.

“He proves that anything can be ‘art’, so this is a very liberating exhibition that anybody can join in.

“It’s not the preserve of an elite few.

“This is art that is very sharing, as well as extremely good.”

* Shimabuku: Something that Floats / Something That Sinks. Ikon Gallery till September 15. The Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Street, Birmingham B1 2HS. Tel 0121 248 0708. Web www.ikon-gallery.org.uk

Innovative three-year project for teenagers

Slow Boat is an innovative three-year project (2011–2013) exploring an in-depth, sustained way of working with 15 to 19-year-olds.

The project involves members of the Birmingham-based Ikon Youth Programme (IYP) who produce, present and promote their own work and that of other artists onboard a converted 72ft canal boat.

This summer’s guest, Thai-Indian artist Navin Rawanchaikul, has devised Navinland – a borderless community to celebrate personal identity, nationality and an understanding of place and home.

Slow Boat will sail east from Birmingham to Nottingham, Loughborough, Leicester and Coventry and Ikon is looking for new members of Navinland.

Join Navinland at www.ikonslowboat.com or follow progress on Twitter @ikonslowboat