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.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism