Inside the outside: Souzou - Outsider Art from Japan

Charlotte Simmonds visits the Wellcome's new show, whose artists have all been diagnosed with cognitive and developmental illnesses.

“Souzou,” curator Shamita Sharmacharja tells me, is a word “without a direct translation”. In English we might call it creation or imagination.   In Japanese, a language with four written alphabets, the word has two spellings and a dual meaning, alluding to “a force by which new ideas are born and take shape”.

I’ve met Sharmacharja at the Welcome Collection to see her new show, Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, a collection of forty-six Japanese artists living or working within social welfare facilities across twelve prefectures. Approaches to art therapy in Japan are “completely different” to those in the West, she says; since a redirection in the 1950s they have lacked strict endpoints or an emphasis on “getting better”. Several exhibiting artists have attended these agenda-free programmes for decades.

Outsider Art, as a genre, was notably explored by French artist Jean Dubuffet through the school he famously coined, “art brut”. The term has come to define any “raw” or “uncontaminated” art created outside the cloisters of art tuition and with little or no audience in mind. Dubuffet was particularly fascinated with art produced by patient in psychiatric institutions. Though Outsider Art now serves as a catch-all phrase for anyone external to the “Art World”, the works on show here remain true to Art Brut in that they have been made exclusively by people diagnosed with cognitive and developmental illnesses.

An exhibition of this nature inherently faces a non-conventional set of hurdles: how to present the works both forcefully and sensitively? How to create cohesion between wildly different objects? How much biographical detail to divulge about each artist? To what degree should meaning be written into art made for wellness, relaxation, or the joy of pure creation?

Sharmacharja successfully surmounts them all. The show is subdivided into six overlapping sections, kept intentionally broad, that explore themes such as “language”, “culture” and “relationships”. She reminds me that Outsider Art is fraught with commonly held misbeliefs, like that it springs inherently from an unpolluted interior mind and is intrinsically separate from a wider cultural context. This is repeatedly disproved by artists like Daisuke Kibushi, who meticulously recreates post-war film posters from memory, or Keisuke Ishino’s paper dolls based on the anime cartoons that populate Japanese television.

The notion of the mentally ill as poor communicators is also heartily, profoundly smashed by projects like Takanori Herai’s Diary, abstracted hieroglyphs that record his daily life, and recall the works of Ellsworth Kelly and other expressionists, artists we can presume he knows nothing of. It’s our own views of “successful” communication that are called into question by these highly personal pieces. When did we begin to give such precedence to words?

As a collection of artworks, the sheer diversity of mediums and the obvious pleasure taken in their creation is striking. Freed from the mainstream hierarchy of high and low materials, many Outsider Artists are as happy to draw on cardboard as canvas, and turn cast-offs into extraordinary tools. Thread, clay, cloth, crayons, notebook paper, pens, paint, pyjamas, pillow stuffing, charcoal and celotape all appear in various guises. Shota Katsube’s mass of miniature action figures, styled entirely out of the metallic twist-ties normally used to close plastic bags, are mesmerising not only for their skill but their reimagining of the mundane.

It’s thoughts like these that make this show brilliant, throwing into questions the paradoxes of our own perception. What is a “mundane object”? A phrase, a label, an agreed upon category we’ve chosen to adhere to. To see a concept so inadvertently and successfully toyed with highlights our own weird brand of lunacy. The able-minded may live on the inside of a world these artists live outside, but who really is the other here? Blurring the line between the "sane" and the "mad" is a righteous cause.

If anything, go to see Norimitsu Kokubo’s fictional cityscapes: imagined maps of composite metropolises built from memory, fantasy, sounds, stories, and images gleaned from newspapers and the web. Kokubo, just seventeen, works in a tiny apartment where he can unfurl only a small portion of his ten-metre paper scroll at a time. The result, chaotic and cluttered and beautiful and strange, simply has to be seen.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is on at the Wellcome Collection, London until 30 June.

***

(Shota KATSUBE, Untitled. Credit: Collection of the artist. Photograph (c) Satoshi TAKAISHI)

 

(Masao OBATA. Credit: Nonprofit Organization Haretari-Kumottari. Photograph (c) Satoshi TAKAISHI)

 

(Takashi SHUJI, Telephone and Water Jug and Roller. Collection of the artist. Photograph (c) Satoshi TAKAISHI)

 

(Daisuke KIBUSHI, "Midori Harukani". Credit: Collection of the artist. Photograph (c) Satoshi TAKAISHI)

 

(Koichi FUJINO, Octopus. Credit: Collection of the artist. Photograph (c) Satoshi TAKAISHI)

(Nobuji HIGA, Naked woman 10. Credit: Collection of the artist. Photograph (c) Satoshi TAKAISHI)

Shinichi SAWADA, Untitled. (Credit: Private Collection, Wellcome Library, London)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.