· culture ·

On Saturday, we visited an exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham of Japanese woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige. Being a printmaker himself, Mr. Bsag is very interested in any kind of prints, and I love Japanese art of all kinds. It was a great exhibition, with some really stunning pieces of work in it.

Most of the prints were the kinds of compositions that you tend to associate with Japanese art: the paper is usually oriented in 'portrait' format, and often very tall and thin, with a view from above of a distant landscape. Many contain fields or forests in the foreground, a body of water of some kind in the middle distance, and mountains in the background. They are precise and beautifully composed, often with diagonal lines leading your eyes back and forth across the paper from the bottom to the top.

However, some of the pieces were very unusual in composition, and I loved them for their boldness. Hiroshige often placed a very large object right in the foreground of the picture, letting our eye travel past it to see the background. So, for example, there is one print in which a wooden pillar forms the left edge of the image, with a large paper lantern in the top right, and we can see a street beyond. Another print of a plum tree has the trunk and blossom of the tree almost filling the very near foreground, and you can just glimpse people walking past in the background. Van Gogh was evidently also an admirer of this print, and produced a version of it in oils.

A few prints show scenes of the interiors of houses, or holiday gatherings beside the sea, and in them Hiroshige places people in the frame so that they are literally cut off by the edge of the painting. It gives the prints an intriguing feeling, as if you are missing some of the story, and makes you keen to find out what is going on. They feel strikingly modern.

I've never been to the Ikon before (despite living in Birmingham for 3 years now!), but I liked it a lot. It has an old façade (Edwardian or Victorian, I think), but a very open, modern interior. There's a glass lift inside a glass window on the outside of the building, so that you can look at the outside as you ride in the lift. There's also an audio installation in the lift by Martin Creed. 'Work #409' is a piece "For lift and choir of bass, tenor, alto and soprano voices", performed by Ex Cathedra. As the lift ascends, they sing an ascending scale, with a descending scale for the lift descent. We don't normally travel in lifts for just a couple of floors, but it was so much fun listening to the choir providing a soundtrack to our short journey that we went up and down a few times. If you try it yourselves, I recommend descending from floor 2 to the ground floor for the best sonic experience!

I was less keen on another piece which is on the glass wall next to the lift. I forgot to note who it was by, but it's called 'Imaginary Landscape' and is comprised of vinyl lettering on the window, with lines referencing objects or colours which do not exist. So there are lines pointing to invisible Herons (and their Latin name), or a particular shade of yellow. Like many conceptual pieces, I found that it was vaguely amusing for a couple of minutes, but once you'd got the joke, there wasn't much more to say about it.

However, it did make me think that art is the only field in which you could get away with that kind of thing. I was fantasising about submitting a manuscript to a journal with the headings printed for each section ('Methods and materials', 'Results' and so on), but no text beneath the headings, and an empty figure with an arrow referencing "Highly significant result which will change the course of biology". At the bottom would be the line:


^1^ This is LOLCat language, in case you are wondering.