Souzou, the Japanese Outsider Art exhibition at the Wellcome Collection is equally thoughtful as it is thought provoking. With works by forty-six artists that focus on different aspects of making, representing, language, process, culture, and relationships – it does make you examine why humans create, what it means to be creative, and if we were ever locked away in a cultureless vacuum, would we ever make anything at all?
Outsider Art (a concept I haven’t made my peace with yet), loosely refers to art that is self taught, raw, and made for the sake of creation alone, rather than to convey a certain message or influence a particular audience. It also refers to art that is made by artists with cognitive or behavioral impairments as a form of therapy, and is often believed to have no cultural influences at all. But that isn’t quite the case as some theorists argue, as no living being can be completely free from cultural and social influences.
Putting the theoretical arguments aside, Outsider Art developed differently in Europe compared to its evolution in Japan. In Europe in the 1850’s, psychiatric patients were encouraged to make art which was then used by their doctors as a diagnostic aid. But researchers later concluded that rather than being symptoms (here’s where I roll my eyeballs), these works of art were creative acts in themselves. It is around this time that Surrealists began to take an interest in Outsider Art making it a more acceptable and exotic form of art.
In Japan however, Outsider Art has nearly always been linked with health and education reform. The famous Omi Gakuen facility, as this exhibition explains, was one that housed war orphans and children with disabilities and provided education in a variety of streams including agriculture, medicine, psychology and art. While initially students were trained to develop skills that would help them earn a living, it was artist Kazuo Yagi who in 1954 became a champion for self-expression at this institution. He encouraged students to make whatever they felt like, including objects that were absolutely non-functional and required little skill or training to make (now this sounds more like it). This model must have seen good results because it was quickly adopted by other institutions across Japan. And now in a more organised format, institutions like Borderless Art Museum NO-MA and Haretari Kumottari work towards supporting, exhibiting and archiving the works of these artists, some of which are part of this exhibition.
Souzou (which has two meanings in Japanese – imagination/creation – depending on the way it is written) is a very accessible exhibition. It doesn’t demand an extensive art historical background from its audience. And for its very installation and display alone, it gets ten fingers up.
Here are some of the works from the show –
Toshiko Yamanishi’s Mother (above), looks nothing like a mother you and I would draw. On the other hand Takako Shibata’s (below), draws different versions of Mother, ca. 1996-2000, that expand with each successive drawing as if to symbolise a direct correlation between feelings of loss and time.
My favorite work of the exhibition is a display of 300 little action figures made from twist ties by Shota Katsube.
M.K.’s Lady with Hole, 2009 and Lady with Rainbow-Coloured Hair, 2009 (below). The latter includes an almost word-perfect inscription of a flight safety announcement which made me chuckle.
Installation shots of works by Keisuke Ishino (below).
Sakiko Kono’s dolls (below) stand in tribute to care givers and friends who have supported the artist in the 55 years she has lived in a residential facility.
And Norimitsu Kokubo’s The Economically Booming City of Tianjin, 2011 (below) depict magical cityscapes of real places he has never visited, but has only heard about in newspapers and online.
Many of the works in the show depict lust and longing with an adult like seriousness, while others are colourfully playful. And apart from the stark contrasts, there are also works that depict a sense of loss – be it the loss of a parent or caregivers in the institutions these artists come from. And beyond doubt, these are all depicted with an honesty that many a seasoned ‘insider’ artist would balk at, if made to share with his audience.
The web, however worldwide we may think it to be, provides little information about these artists or even the Omi Gakuen facility, which is why it is so hard to describe or present a peek into this exhibition online. Most of what it contains is not a Google away, which makes it special and therefore definitely worth a visit.