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.

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A muse is for sharing: Fiona Sampson's Lyric Cousins

In her latest work, Fiona Sampson’s verse is alive to musicality.

“Songs,” according to Tom Waits, “are really just very interesting things to be doing with the air.” Much earlier, a vase made in the 5th century BC depicted Sappho with her book of poetry and the beginnings of a few scratched lines: “my words may be mist and air/but they are immortal”. For Fiona Sampson, whose thought-provoking study Lyric Cousins quotes Waits’s typically insouciant comment, breath is also all important, giving “musical sense to semantic content, and creating a grammar for sound”.

Yet Lyric Cousins, as Sampson stresses, has a far wider remit than song. Rather, her study considers poetic creation through the sounding board of musical theory, exploring the ways in which music – here mostly classical music or “art music” – and poetry might reflect on and illuminate each other. Sampson is not just a well-qualified but an entertaining guide. A concert violinist who became a much-lauded poet, she has also been the editor of the prestigious journal Poetry Review and is now a professor of poetry at the University of Roehampton.

Based on a series of Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures in 2009, her erudite and eclectic exploration begins with the various constituents of both genres, including musical time and poetic metre, form and phrasing, and the tricky issue of “meaning”. She then examines specific examples such as song, opera and the sometimes overlooked aspect of performance, including music notation, as well as extracts from poetry, contemporary and canonical alike.

As she explains, the brief here is to think about poetry “not as music but as if it were music” (her italics). And so a discussion of the “disobedient” notes of chromaticism leads to the work of the composer Olivier Messiaen; in poetry, she argues, such notes are “whatever’s put in the poem for sensory, rather than grammatical or denotative, reasons”, as in the “bat English” of Les Murray’s “Bats’ Ultrasound”.

For those who cannot pick out “Chopsticks” on a piano, this might seem like weighty fare. But Sampson’s lightness of touch waltzes us along as she “maps connections and intersections” between the two forms, combining high and low notes with ease. We move jauntily from Gabriel Fauré to Robert Frost and U A Fanthorpe via flat-pack furniture, or from W S Merwin through Marx (Groucho) to W S Gilbert. Meanwhile Charles Bernstein’s radical Language poetry is equated with Arnold Schoenberg’s atonality and John Burnside’s “breath slur” lines are set against Mendels­sohn’s use of fugue. Sampson’s own poetic voice remains perfectly pitched throughout; she sees the “turn” between the octave and sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet as being like “a hay-bale that needs to dry on the other side”, while her central image of a train journey, moving us through space and time, drives on her arguments.

It seems churlish to complain about omission in such a wide-ranging work. But given the tantalising references to translation dotted throughout, not to mention Sampson’s own experience as a translator of poetry, a chapter on these different performances of the texts would have been welcome. It is also a shame that, although there are passing mentions of Greek drama and epic, there is nothing here on poetry’s and music’s shared roots in ancient Greek lyric.

But these are quibbles. Sampson has the intellectual honesty to admit that there are no pat answers. In the end, like music, the writing of poetry, as well as the reading and the hearing of it, are all something to be experienced, “to be released by us”. How and why we frame that experience comes down to our individual consciousness, sometimes shared, sometimes separate, fluctuating with time. As Sampson’s train imagery underscores, it is not about the destination, but the journey; what matters is that “we are on the metaphorical train as it passes through the landscape”.

Sampson politely refrains from including examples of her own work in Lyric Cousins so it is intriguing to turn to her most recent collection, The Catch, published a few months earlier, to find new connections in her poetry. She adopted her trademark free verse and short lines, we now know, because of childhood bronchial infections (“How I breathe is how I think,” as Lyric Cousins explains) and yet her deep, resonant musicality remains.

True to form, some of the poems in the collection were commissioned for aural projects: “Stone Fruit” was set to music by the composer Sally Beamish and “Night Train” and “Neighbours” were written for the Festival of Sound at Magdalene College, Cambridge. In such poems language melts into sound, as with the “clustered voices” in “Night Train”, which become “overlaid in patterns/like birdsong or weather”.

Elsewhere she orchestrates a more overt intertextuality. For instance, the painted bowl of “Parsifal” returns us to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork” – the subject of a chapter in Lyric Cousins. And in “Zoi”, a stray street dog in Greece is illuminated in the evening star of Sappho’s Fragment 104(a), “bringing back everything the bright dawn scattered”, as well as transporting the reader to the beginning of lyric poetry – and music. But most of all, Sampson scores the delicate symphonies of the everyday world, such as the “blur of steam” rising “like a breath” above a cup of coffee in “Daily Bread” with

the word lying below it

waiting to be spoken you can’t

quite make it out what is it

humming all day out of hearing.

Like many of its poems, The Catch hovers on the edge of waking, a time of the subconscious, the non-verbal. Its lush and trance-like beauty is heightened throughout by synaesthesia, a technique much discussed in Lyric Cousins: for instance, “the light that rose up like/the odour of plums and of vines” in “Harvest”. Subtle and sonorous, these poems arrive “once again at/astonishment/at the brink of dream”. And, beside the cypress trees in “Arcades”, they exist both within and outside meaning, beyond category of music or poetry, as sound and word merge until they

. . . do not

know the morning or the evening

when it comes

they only know this speaking

that rises and falls

in them like song. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her new collection, “The Paths of Survival” (Shearsman Books), is out in April

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit