Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan


A few weeks back I flagged an upcoming exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, which I was able to visit yesterday with my fantastic friend Jenny. Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is an aesthetically impressive and moving exhibition; I would say it is not simply an art exhibition but an exhibition about the mind. I highly recommend you stop by and check out the Wellcome Collection’s latest major exhibition, which is running until 30 June 2013.

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‘Souzou’ and ‘Outsider Art’

Souzou is a word which has no direct equivalent in English but a dual meaning in Japanese: ‘creation’ or ‘imagination’. Both meanings allude to a force by which new ideas are born and take shape in the world. In the context of this exhibition, souzou refers to the practice of 46 self-taught artists living and working within social welfare facilities across Japan.

‘Outsider Art’ is another term that does not perfectly sit with the English language but the closest approximation would be French artist Jean Dubufet’s theory of art brut, art that is uncontaminated by culture. It is now an internationally-recognised term commonly used to describe the work of artists who have had no tuition but create for the sake of creation, without an audience in mind and who are often perceived to be on the edges of mainstream society. The artists exhibiting at Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan have been diagnosed with various cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illnesses, and are residents or attendees of specialist care institutions.

As you move around the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the fantastic works on display are the artists’ main way of expression their hopes, fears, ambitions and their perception of the world around them.

Art and the Japanese work ethic

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In Japan, Outsider Art has become closely aligned with public health and education reform since 1945 when a highly developed social welfare system was established. In 1947, an educationalist named Kazuo Itoga founded Omi Gakuen, the first facility for war orphans and children with disabilities which was revolutionary for its time, offering a free-form syllabus encompassing agriculture, education, medicine, psychology, art and literature.

The main emphasis of such institutions was on work, an essential component of Japanese life which informs every level of social interaction and is key to an individual’s identity. It was hoped that training people in workshops would improve their chances of finding employment, and a place in society, once they had left the institution. An artist named Kazuo Yagi took over Omi Gakuen’s workshop in 1954 and insisted on his students’ right to self-expression, arguing that they should be allowed to produce non-functional objects when they wanted and without formal training. This policy of non-intervention in the creative process became a model for other social welfare institutions in the Shiga prefecture and, eventually, the rest of Japan.

The artistic process is therefore firmly embedded in social care in Japan, whereas it was traditionally seen as more of an ‘alternative’ in Europe, and so Outsider Art was not typically displayed in museums for many decades. In 2004, the Borderless Art Museum NO-MA opened and exhibited works that were made within a welfare context alongside mainstream art, radically changing the landscape of Outsider Art. The following year, the not-for-profit organisation Haretari Kumottari was founded and undertook an audit of all the artists creating work in welfare institutions in order to protect their rights and conserve their art. Souzou is the result of the body of works that was formed.

The exhibition

The history of the Souzou exhibition is incredibly interesting and, of course, you are probably wondering what kind of works are on display. I recommend picking up a leaflet when you step through the doors, as this will comprehensively guide you around the displays and provide some background information on the artists and what they are expressing through their works, and why they have chosen their particular medium. The art on display ranges from paintings to paper dolls to pottery to traditional Japanese washi paper.

There are six different sections to the exhibition: ‘Language’ and ‘Making’ introduce some of the characteristics commonly associated with Outsider Art; ‘Representation’ and ‘Relationships’ provides insight into how the artists perceive themselves and interactions with other people. ‘Culture’ and ‘Responsibility’ explore the artists’ awareness of the world in which they live and their bid to understand and take control of it, which leads to new works being born.

A couple of artists really stood out for me, although I imagine that each person will be drawn to different works. In the centre of the exhibition is a large glass cabinet holding hundreds of tiny glittering action figurines, each one a different colour, size and holding various weapons. Amazingly, these are styled out of twist-ties  by Shota Katsube which are conventionally used to fasten bin liners. The intricacy of these figures is unbelievable, and is best appreciated by crouching down so you can spot the obvious influences of the Gundam series and Transformers.

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Norimitsu Kokubo’s huge-scale drawings of fictional cityscapes explore places that he has never visited but have been constructed by what he has glimpsed in books and on the internet. One of his works-in-progress that was on display, taking up an entire wall, was amazingly unfinished but will be 10 metres long once completed. Marie Suzuki‘s phobic portrayals of sex, procreation and gender were the most uncomfortable part of the exhibition for some people but impossible not to look intently at.

This is not an exhibition you should visit when you are in a rush, as it’s essential to get up close and examine the hidden, tiny details in the artwork. The exhibition was busy on a Saturday, so you often overheard the person next to you pointing out something that you missed in a piece of art. It is impossible not to be impressed by the sheer variety of creative work and the stories of the artists behind them. In the final section of the exhibition are some televisions playing short movies of some of the artists making their work and interviews with their families. It is rather moving but I recommend watching at least one of the videos.

Whether your area of interest is art, psychology, sociology or Japan, Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is well worth a visit. The exhibition is incredibly insightful and a great way to spend an afternoon. Don’t forget to explore the rest of the Wellcome Collection’s exhibitions once you’re finished!

Photo credits: The Wellcome Collection

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One comment on “Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan

  1. Pingback: Souzou: Japanese Outsider Art « Giant Robot

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