Week 37: 27th May – 2nd June
I’m back in London again and just in time to see the new Wellcome Collection exhibition of Japanese Outsider Art, entitled Souzou. As the exhibition information explains: ‘Souzou is a word which has no direct equivalent in English but a dual meaning in Japanese: written in one way – 創造 – it means creation and in another – 想像 – imagination. Both meanings allude to a force by which new ideas are born and take shape in the world.’
What is Outsider Art?
The phrase Outsider Art, coined by British academic Roger Cardinal in 1972, is an interpretation of Jean Dubuffet’s theory of Art Brut, which was developed in the 1940s, as part of CoBrA’s response to Primitivism. Art Brut referred to work that appeared to be uncontaminated by culture, and was therefore generally created by or appropriated from people who were seen to be on the margins of mainstream society, and who had little or no artistic training.
I’d purposefully avoided the curatorial text prior to viewing the exhibition, except for a brief overview of the artists and their work, I was therefore aware the exhibition contained the work of 46 artists from Japan, who were residents or day attendees of specialist care institutions. Upon entering the exhibition, the curatorial care and attention to detail soon became obvious and questions started formulating in my head about the level of engagement between the artists, curators and organising institutions.
The collection contained ceramics, textiles, paintings, sculpture and drawings, which were separated into six sections, namely Language, Making, Representation, Relationships, Culture, and Possibility, as a way to question assumptions about the ways in which Outsider Art is produced. However, despite the sensitivity to the nature of creative practice in institutions and the validity of the resulting artworks, the inescapable fact was that the object of inquiry was in fact the makers themselves. They had literally become objectified.
Who is an artist?
This sense of othering may arise from the distinct differences between the UK and Japanese cultures in relation to the reception of Outsider Art. Organisations in Japan have been championing the connection between health and creativity for decades without pursuing the alternative art market values of Art Brut. However, in 2004, the Borderless Art Museum NO-MA opened in order to exhibit art made by ‘outsider artists’ alongside mainstream artworks, in order to challenge the how the works were received. Shortly after this, 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 the artworks.
This information along with video documentaries of the artists at work gave insight into some of the processes that had made this exhibition possible. Watching the artists at work, it was clear that their working processes were not dissimilar to any other artist working in their studio, even perhaps that they were more productive. This was clearly the intention of the exhibition, however I still felt an uneasy tension about how the artists had been implicated in the subject of their works, and how this might have been achieved in a different way.
For example, another world famous artist who publicly discusses living in a psychiatric hospital and producing work in response her mental illness is Yayoi Kusama. Despite having suffered nervous disorders and hallucinations since childhood, choosing to live in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital for the last 38 years, and receiving limited formal training, Kusama’s work is never classed as Outsider Art, even as she plays the notions of being an ‘outsider’.
While this is commendable, it seems to suggest a requirement of agency and self-definition on the part of the artist to overcome this categorisation of ‘marginal’. However, it also begs the question whether this tension is precisely the point, as exhibitions of work by ‘outsider artists’ continue to both define and defy categorisation.