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.

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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)

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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era