Five go boating on the Union Canal

Shimabuku makes art about duration: Duncan McLaren goes the distance
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The Independent Online

For "As It Is", a season of art events in and around the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham this summer, the Japanese artist Shimabuku has made a journey up the Grand Union Canal from the Chisenhale Gallery in London to the Midlands. The 70-foot long narrow boat began Cucumber Journey with its wood roof bedecked with a colourful display of fresh vegetables. Over the two weeks of the scheduled trip, these were pickled and eaten. Slow travel and slow food for these fast times: a conceptual art project.

For "As It Is", a season of art events in and around the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham this summer, the Japanese artist Shimabuku has made a journey up the Grand Union Canal from the Chisenhale Gallery in London to the Midlands. The 70-foot long narrow boat began Cucumber Journey with its wood roof bedecked with a colourful display of fresh vegetables. Over the two weeks of the scheduled trip, these were pickled and eaten. Slow travel and slow food for these fast times: a conceptual art project.

Writers were encouraged to join the party, and I arranged to get on board at Hemel Hempstead. The 9.03am from Euston got me there in about half an hour, compared with the three days that the boat had taken, but I was nevertheless concerned about being 10 minutes late, and my knowing that such a feeling was hardly in the spirit of the project somehow didn't help. I needn't have worried, though: when I arrived, those aboard were just sitting down to a full English breakfast, including baked beans, a food not eaten in Japan.

Setting off together, it soon became clear that this wasn't to be a contemplative glide up the canal. In order to get anywhere, common sense and teamwork were needed and the four people on board were kept busy. Sue and Geoff were providing the boat-handling expertise for this stage of the trip; Shimabuku and the photographer Rika Noguchi were engaged in a steep learning curve. It was obvious that I should help out where I could, but there was still opportunity to snatch conversations.

Shimabuku wasn't sure what he'd be exhibiting in "As It Is". Some of Noguchi's photographs of the canal trip, and some pickles, perhaps, but it really depended on what happened over the fortnight, how he ended up understanding the journey. For a previous project, Shima had learnt to sail a boat, and in the process had gained a new perspective: for a sea sailor, all land - however flat - is unclimbable hill. Before I could ask him to expand on this, the boat approached another lock. I leapt on to the bank, so did Rika, and soon the boat rose vertically, moved uphill. Shima and Rika would be stronger and fitter by the time they got to Birmingham, and perhaps this would somehow be incorporated into "As It Is."

It took us five hours to do the five miles and 10 locks to Berkhamsted. Obviously lunch had to be substantial, but jars of pickles were also produced. The cucumber had pickled successfully in just three days, and tasted like chip shop gherkin. But the red pepper didn't go down so well. Shima asked if the vinegar he'd used was too acidic, or whether it was simply a matter of being patient.

The next day, limbs aching, I recalled that a previous Shimabuku journey was a walk across Japan carrying an octopus, which sadly died on him. I couldn't help wondering if Shima had completed that earlier journey alone, gently pickling and respectfully consuming his travelling companion's brains and tentacles en route.

'As It Is': Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, (0121 248 0708), Wednesday to 10 September

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