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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.

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

“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.

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(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)