Writing on photography

Review: Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at Wellcome Collection

Outsider art, a catchall term for work produced by people outside the ‘normal’ or professionalised world of art, can be a positive or pejorative label. For some viewers the term represents outpourings of genuine authorship, unfettered by the constraints of artistic education or expectation, work produced solely in response to the artist’s creative needs and desires. For others it still sometimes embodies a freakish, vulgar and unconstrained creativity that has no place in the refined world of mainstream fine art.

While recognition in Europe of the value of art practice in the context of psychiatry dates back at least to the First World War, similar use of practical therapies in psychiatric hospitals and social welfare institutions has only emerged in Japan since 1945. In the post-war era pioneers like the artist Kazuo Yagi advocated a more relaxed attitude to what patients were encouraged to create in the workshops of institutions, where previously they had been encouraged to focus on making only ‘useful’ things. As this new approach increasingly became the norm it lead to a quiet blossoming of Japanese outsider art, but it remained relatively cloistered, and it is only recently that outsider art from Japan has begun to be seen in exhibitions and garner serious critical acclaim.

The Wellcome Collection’s current show Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan, represents the first major exhibition of it’s type in the United Kingdom, bringing together 46 artists working in a broad range of media, from drawing to sculpture, collage to appliqué. The show is arranged into six thematic groupings, reflecting different aspects of the way outsider art mirrors and relates to the world. For example ‘making’ explores the use of unconventional and indeed often salvaged material by outsider artists, as in the case of Shota Katsube who manufactures vast armies of tiny figures from twist ties normally used to seal bin bags, or the drawings Masao Obata makes on retrieved pieces of cardboard.

Other categories follow similar themes, ‘representation’ explores how outsider artists depict the world that surrounds them, Takashi Shuji’s bright, ultra simple, indeed almost abstract pastel drawings of day to day objects being a nice example. The ‘relationships’ section was perhaps not surprisingly one of the most interesting and complex, with work ranging from Sakiko Kono’s life sized dolls representing people in the residential facility she lives in (and which alternate between being rather touching to quite sinister), to Marie Suzuki’s extremely detailed and very dark explorations of sex and reproduction.

The problem with the ‘outsider art’ label is it’s easy to end up treating the work just as an expression of this idea, variously excusing shortcomings or explaining successes in individual pieces by telling yourself that it somehow isn’t the same as ‘real’ art. Outsideness or otherness defines the genre and this exhibition, but is equally sometimes irrelevant to it. Much of the work on display is interesting in itself, the fact that it’s makers often have little formal training or are institutionalised often feels like a biographical aside that one day we might be able to do without. But not quite yet, I think we are still a little caught up in our own curiosity when it comes to the mentally ill, we still like to pay and gawk. Of course some of the work is the opposite, the status and biographies of the artists and the resultant work are impossible to extract from one another.

If you are familiar with western outsider art (for example if you’ve ever visited the astonishing Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne) then there will be much here that appears familiar, but also much which is strange, and for me the most enjoyable part of the exhibition were the internal contrasts that were taking place in my head between what I saw on the walls and what I remembered of the work of artists like Paul Gosch and Alexander Lobanov. Indeed I’d love to see a show which mixed works like these with those by outsider artists from other parts of the world. For now, this show is the next best thing.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is on at the Wellcome Collection until 30th June 2013.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography