’Souzou’ (pronounced ‘so-so’) is a word that has no direct translation in English but a dual meaning in Japanese. Depending on the way it is written, it can mean either creation or imagination. Both allude to a force by which new ideas are born and take shape in the world.
Outsider Art is usually a Western term. Coined by British academic Roger Cardinal in 1972, Outsider Art follows French artist Jean Dubuffet’s theory of Art Brut, which he put forward in 1945, meaning a ‘raw art‘, art that was ‘uncooked’ or uncontaminated by culture. Outsider Art has since become an internationally recognised term, commonly used to describe work made by artists who have received little or no tuition but produce work for the sake of creation alone, without an audience in mind; and who are perceived to inhabit the margins of mainstream society. The myth is also that it is the work of an obsessive mind.
Wellcome Collection’s spring exhibition, Souzou | Outsider Art from Japan, brings together more than 300 works for the first major display of Japanese Outsider Art in the UK. The 46 artists (who range in age from 17 to 74) represented in the show are residents and attendees of social welfare institutions across the main island of Honshu, and they present diverse bodies of work including ceramics, textiles, paintings, sculpture and drawings. The artists in this exhibition have been diagnosed with a variety of different behavioural and developmental disorders and mental illnesses and are residents or day attendees of specialist care institutions.
Organised in association with Het Dolhuys, the Museum of Psychiatry in Haarlem (the Netherlands) and the Social Welfare Organisation Aiseikai (Tokyo), the exhibition reflects the growing popularity of and acclaim for Outsider Art while questioning assumptions about the category itself. Refreshingly, the show is object-led, with a wonderful and inspiring selection of works offering singular and affecting explorations of culture, memory and creativity.
The exhibition records both intimately personal and expansive approaches to creating art and the processes of making, through six overlapping sections. Each is explained in a short written introduction on display, thus ‘Language’ explores the creative release of visual expression for artists for whom verbal or written communication is challenging or impossible. Here, works range from Takanori Herai’s diary of hieroglyphics to Toshiko Yamanishi’s kaleidoscopic love letters to her mother, which express depth of emotion through movement and colour rather than words. Ryoko Koda’s intricate cityscapes are composed of a single symbol, resembling a fictional character from the Japanese alphabet, while Hiroyuki Komatsu’s work recalls word-for-word the dialogue of his favourite TV programmes. ‘Making’ looks at engagement with material, the repeated use of particular and unusual media, and the meditative and therapeutic aspects of creativity. Koichi Fujino’s immersive ink paintings cover every inch of the paper, Yumiko Kawai’s textile landscapes are built up through repeated freehand circular stitching and Shota Katsube’s repurposing of glittering wire ties which in Japan are normally used to tie garbage sacks with creates a vast army of tiny action figures bravely poised for potential combat: all these pieces are marked by the occupation and passing of time.
Works in ‘Representation’ and ‘Relationships’ reflect the things and people surrounding the artists, often taking surprising and curious forms. The eerie pastel still lifes of Takashi Shuji and abstract assemblages of Takanari Nitta hold an ethereal, otherworldly quality but are inspired by everyday objects, while Satoshi Nishikawa’s surreal sculptures of fruit are made entirely from dense aggregates of small ceramic rabbits. Takako Shibata’s expansive and repeated portraits freeze her absent mother in time, while Sakiko Kono’s dolls – representing friends and carers in the facility where she resides – grow in size and stature according to the levels of her affection. Dreams and desire figure strongly with idealised self-projections in the work of Yoko Kubota and Masao Obata, Nobuji Higa’s highly stylised and sexualised nudes and Marie Suzuki’s darkly dystopian drawings exploring female sexuality and gender through a proliferation of amazing and intricate patterns. Here self-expression is framed through physical and emotional environments, but interpreted in richly imaginative and sometimes fantastical forms.
The absorption, reflection and acute observation evident in ‘Culture’ contests the myth of Outsider Art as being solely reflective of the interior mind. Daisuke Kibushi’s immaculately rendered postwar movie posters, copied from memory, Keisuke Ishino’s origami figurines and Ryosuke Otsuji’s ceramic Okinawan lions all attest to a sharp awareness of the cultural contexts and traditions of Japanese society. The final section, ‘Possibility’, features works that seek to comprehend and reorder the surrounding world. Koichiro Miya explores notions of ability, disability and super-ability with statistic-strewn works, Shingo Ikeda’s beautiful notebook infographics calculate the endless possibilities of subway journeys he might make, and Norimitsu Kokubo’s densely sketched cartographies imagine real places through information gleaned online, reframing the world through a keen and creative curiosity. These artists are clearly influenced by the outside, despite the abiding myth about Outsider Art being that it all comes from the inner mind. There’s also a clear love of making and of the materials. This exhibition examines ideas about the therapeutic qualities of creating and creativity. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt a tad wistful watching the short films on some of the selected artists at work, how wonderful it must be to have the freedom to be creative without having that constant drone of what you ‘should’ be doing in the back of your head.
The Wellcome Collection is understandably excited to be staging the first substantial exhibition of Japanese Outsider Art in the UK and hope it will move, surprise and inspire visitors.
Souzou | Outsider Art from Japan
Until 30th June 2013
183 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE.
Words by Anna Bang
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