Review – ‘Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan’ at the Wellcome Collection

‘Outsider art’, although a term that is so often criticised for its ambiguity and uncomfortable sentiments, takes centre stage this spring at the Wellcome Collection in London. Despite the semantic controversy surrounding the term itself, there is nothing ambiguous, controversial or uncomfortable about Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan.

Unlike the development and history of ‘outsider art’ in Europe; which ran parallel to the discipline of psychiatry – think Hanz Prinzhorn, in Japan, ‘outsider art’ has been “more closely aligned with public health and education reform from 1945.” Kazuo Itoga, considered the father of social welfare reform in Japan, pioneered the principle of producing personal artworks within an institutional context, insisting on self-expression and a policy of ‘non-intervention’ in the creative process.

Historical context aside, the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is as diverse as the term ‘outsider art’. Amongst the sculpture and 2D works on display are tiny shiny model figures, bongos (the animal – not the drum), lions, life size dolls, still lifes, graphic posters, illustrations of morning tv programmes, and – perhaps some of my favourites – the Fried Chicken Pyjamas and the Pigeon Shaped Cookie Pyjamas by Takahiro Shimoda.

Shota Katsube

Shota Katsube

Takahiro Shimoda 'Fried Chicken Pyjamas'

Takahiro Shimoda ‘Fried Chicken Pyjamas’

Split into six named sections – ‘Language’, ‘Making’, ‘Representation’, ‘Relationships’, ‘Culture’ and ‘Possibility’ – the exhibition represents works that are characteristically and stylistically common to what we consider to be ‘traditional outsider art’, as well as works that draw on popular culture, creativity and the structure of language. The section headed ‘language’ looks at the challenge of communication in a written or spoken form and how “visual expression can offer a release from the confines of language.” The ways we encounter language are explored, with Masataka Aikawa’s storybook-inspired ink drawings and Hiroyuki Komatsu’s pieces which reference the plots and characters from his favourite daytime TV programmes.

Komatsu’s pieces, amongst others, finally highlight that – contrary to Dubuffet’s stubborn views on isolation and immunity – ‘outsider artists’ are more often than not very much in tune with contemporary culture. In fact, there is a whole section of the exhibition entitled ‘Culture’, which demonstrates the “artists’ keen awareness of their surroundings and of the wider cultural context.” Kiyoaki Amemiya’s mountainous landscapes and Ryosuke Otsuji’s “contemporary interpretation” of Okinawan lions highlight the influence of historical Japanese culture; whilst Daisuke Kibushi’s post-war movie posters and Keisuke Ishino’s paper anime figures allude to the impact of popular culture.

‘Representation’ and ‘Relationships’ include depictions of the objects and people that the artists experience in their everyday lives. ‘Representation’ raises questions about subjectivity vs objectivity – exemplified in the work of Takashi Shuji and Takanari Nitta, where seemingly everyday objects – hairdryers, windows – “are elevated to objects of beauty,” whilst ‘Relationships’ examines “the ways the artists depict themselves and their multifaceted relationships with other people.” The artists explore idealised visions of themselves (as is the case with the work of Yoko Kubota and Masao Obata), as well as their ambitions, fears, desires and the notions of “absence, uncertainty and erasure.”

When we think of ‘outsider art’, we often think of the use of unconventional objects – in fact, I recently wrote a post about the ‘outsider artist’ as a pioneer of the ready-made movement in the history of modern art – and this is explored in ‘Making.’ In this section, the importance of work and employment in Japan is highlighted with the use of clay and washi (Japanese paper), used by Komei Bekki and Seiji Murata, who are both employed in these industries respectively. This section includes a vibrant array of tactile materials – textiles, clay, and cloth – which require “repetitive, time-consuming processes that have calming and therapeutic effects.”

My favourite piece in the show, however, sits in the final category of ‘Possibility.’ Norimitsu Kokubo’s panoramic cityscape is a work-in-progress which depicts a map of the world as visualised through the artist’s internet research. When finished, the work will measure a hefty 10 metres across. This work epitomises this section’s attempt to portray works which “collate and reorder information… to create parallel, ‘improved’ realities.”

Norimitsu Kokubo, '3 Parks with  a panoramic view. A 360 degree world of panoramic view - Ferris Wheel, clusters of buildings with magnetically-levitated trains, past present future, a suburban town with railroad bridges, a city under development with indigenous peoples and natural resources.'

Norimitsu Kokubo, ‘3 Parks with a panoramic view. A 360 degree world of panoramic view – Ferris Wheel, clusters of buildings with magnetically-levitated trains, past present future, a suburban town with railroad bridges, a city under development with indigenous peoples and natural resources.’

The term Souzou, in my opinion, goes part of the way in distilling any preconceptions about this type of art because it is a word that the Western world has (somewhat unknowingly) needed for so long. With no direct translation into English, it can mean either ‘creation’ or ‘imagination’ – “both meanings allude to a force by which new ideas are born and take shape in the world.” Maybe it doesn’t need a direct translation; after all, ‘Outsider Art’ is an “imperfect approximation” of another term that does not translate comfortably into English – Jean Dubuffet’s Art Brut. It is our need for labels and categories that has tied us in a knot when it comes to ‘outsider art’; when really we do not need words at all.

The exhibition is a timely reminder of the importance of displaying works created by those who cannot so easily align themselves with the mainstream art world. Created by Japanese artists in day centres all over Japan, the works perhaps illustrate the term Souzou better than any English translation ever could, and certainly better than many works in the current contemporary mainstream. The exhibition blows away the hierarchical idea of biographical context and focuses on the achievement of these artists and their incredible creations. There is something here for everyone, and I challenge you not to come away thinking about the astounding imagination and creative ability of these people. Perhaps this year is the year that ‘outsider art’ finally becomes recognised as an illustration of authentic creativity and talent and can once and for all be lost as a category, and works of the Souzou calibre can be known simply as ‘Art.’

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is on at the Wellcome Collection from 28 March – 30 June 2013. For more information, click here.

All quoted information is taken from the ‘Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan’ exhibition companion, available from the Wellcome Collection.


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