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.

Yayoi Kusama
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.

Further reading:


Week 36: 20th – 26th May
Continuing on from my exploration of the symbolic languages of idioms and memes, I have been doing more research into the concept of the allegory, ‘a type of emblem or trope which contains an element of infinite iteration, as opposed to a symbol which is based on determinate reference, recognition and identity.’ (McDonnell, p.26) Such investigations are found throughout history in art and writing, and particularly in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze with reference to the earlier works on the subject by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Walter Benjamin.

Alchemical allegories
My interest in allegory has been growing as a result of working with alchemical metaphors in art. Allegory as a way of thinking was an important element of interpretative methods before the Enlightenment’s construction of a worldview based on positive knowledge, rigorous empirical study, and inductive reasoning. Such metaphorical associations were used to explain the ways that substances looked and behaved, as well as insinuating spiritual connections, thereby functioning as both literary and scientific at the same time. (Wamberg, p.85)

Artists have continued to use alchemical metaphor throughout history through the use of ‘alchemical thought-pictures’ in the work of French illustrators of the early 1900s. Word play and allegory were used in order to avoid government censorship of satirical images, and worked in affective ways, ‘according to the motto of the Rosicrucian Michael Maier, “to reach the intellect though the senses”.’(Wamberg, pp.156-7)

Benjamin’s theory of allegory
Benjamin began to develop his theory of allegory around 1923. He equates allegory with a kind of experience which ‘arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent…’ For Benjamin, allegory as conveyed through an aggregation of signs which represent fleeting and fragmentary truths rather than empirical knowledge, allows him to deconstruct the nature of the symbol, rather than oppose it outright. (Cowan, pp.109-110)

Truth and iteration
Such an inquiry also requires a resolution of the philosophical nature of truth, as a condition which is ‘unpossessable and impossible to present’, unlike factual knowledge. As such, allegory ‘arises in perpetual response to the human condition of being exiled from the truth’. Such forms of allegorical reasoning are explored in origin-myths related to the Fall of Man and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The argument that truth is never fully present, requires that it must continuously represent itself. Therefore, representation becomes less about the end product and more about its process, thus negating the dualism of experience and expression. As Cowan explains ‘allegory explicitly recognizes that the knowledge it affords is illusory. It manifests this awareness precisely by the unconvincingness, the mechanicalness, and finally the deadness, of its devices’. (Cowan, p.118)

Deleuze and the Fold
Benjamin’s exploration of allegory in relation to the Baroque is essentially traurich, or tragic, due to its perpetual inability to fully access truth. However, although Deleuze agrees with the analysis of allegory as a continual différance of meaning, he is more interested in Leibniz’s reading, which accepts this form of infinite iteration as a positive and joyful action. (McDonnell, p.38)

As Timothy Flanagan concludes in his essay in Deleuze and the Fold: A Critical Reader: ‘The reason that allegory is so philosophically significant [to Deleuze] is that no other form of expression is apt to elucidate the emergence of any perspective on the world without also requiring that things be resolved in terms of a disjunctive schema that would require an abstract, or at least determinate, beginning and end – limits not only to specific objects but so too to the drama of life, or physis, in general. By contrast, by a process of repetition whereby meaning is produced through the continuous presentation of events rather than represented in the unity of a narration, allegory suspends the lessons to be learned from life in general and instead adduces an apprenticeship of recognition towards the very reality of those indiscernible conditions of life itself’. (Flanagan, p.59)

Further reading
Bainard Cowan, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory’, New German Critique, 22 (1981) pp. 109-122
Niamh McDonnell & Sjoerd van Tuinen (eds), Deleuze and The Fold: A Critical Reader
Jacob Wamberg (ed), Art and Alchemy, (University of Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006)


Week 35: 13th – 19th May
This week was all about forums and reading groups, beginning with a group discussion about EARN (the European Art Research Network) and the projects that we might produce as part of an international collaboration with other research centres within the network. EARN is a group which ‘was established to share and exchange knowledge and experience in artistic research; foster mobility, exchange and dialogue among art researchers; promote wider dissemination of artistic research; and enable global connectivity and exchange for artistic research’, and is made up of 10 partner universities across Europe.

Participating research centres include Kuvataideakatemia (Helsinki), MaHKU, Graduate School of Visual Art and Design (Utrecht), Akademie der bildenden Künste (Vienna), Art Academy, Lund University (Malmö), Slade School of Art, UCL (London), Università Iuav di Venezia (Venice), Faculty of Fine, Applied and Performing Arts, UG (Gothenburg), Hogeschool Sint-Lukas (Brussels), Centre for Practice-Led Research in the Arts, University of Leeds (Leeds), Graduate School of Creative Arts & Media (GradCAM) (Dublin).

Discussion forum
The forum was a great opportunity to find out about the EARN project and to discuss our individual research and how it overlapped with the work of other practitioners in the faculty. Each researcher showed a short presentation of an aspect of their work, before opening the floor to questions. Presentations ranged from ‘Digital ways of seeing’ to ‘Walking as a political act’, ‘Visual investigations of nuclear bunkers and ‘Funerary traditions of dress’.

Needless to say, despite our disparate practices, conceptual threads began to emerge, along with an understanding of how thinking through making programmes could be implemented throughout the academy and the nature of artistic research: what the AHRC describes as research in which the professional and/or creative practices of art can play an instrumental part in an inquiry.

Thought/Process reading group
Next up was the Thought/Process reading group. Similar to other book groups, academic reading groups involve researchers coming together to respond to a shared text in a group discussion. The main difference is that usually university groups revolve around specific texts that deal with a particular theme, and are often non-fictional, except in the case of literary studies. Their aim is to introduce readers to new ideas and unfamiliar texts, with a view to developing critical thinking faculties. Group discussions also give each of the participants the chance to engage in peer learning, as many other texts are referred to throughout the course of the discussion.

The Thought/Process group refers to texts which deal with the intersections of concept and making, or how each might relate to the other. This week’s discussion focused on the ‘Hacking, Work, and Free Time’ section of Nicolas Bourriard’s book ‘Post Production’, a text written as an analysis of today’s art in relation to social changes, including an exploration of what the work is and how it is made and received. Although not written as a sequel to his 1998 book ‘Relational Aesthetics’, he addresses the same issues and artistic scene, as well as some of the criticisms of his previous work, most notably by Claire Bishop in ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’.

Post Production
Any art practice that attempts to conceptualise the idea of consumption, production and appropriation in a globalised world will always be problematic, and questions raised within the session addressed issues of originality, marginalised voices, corporate culture, and aestheticization. However, despite these issues of attempting to reflect and resolve social issues as an art project within the global art market, I find Bourriard’s way of thinking interesting in relation to my own practice and the way that objects can be activated within the gallery setting. Similarly, where art practices might be considered to be replications of social practice which are almost indistinguishable from life, the art gallery can then act like a mirror to reflect social inequalities and political affiliations.


Week 34: 6th – 12th May
I’ve long been interested in the nature of idioms and how they can contribute to an understanding of emotionality in different languages. Specifically, my previous interests have related to the ways in which animals are referred to in idiomatic language and whether there are correlations between the ways in which animals were discussed and the beliefs about, or uses of, those animals in that particular region.

It also highlighted some relevant biases on my part as I found myself to be the most interested in the phrases which made the least sense when translated into English, perhaps as they seemed to portray a kind of misdirected authenticity, which supported my ideas of cultural specificity. This bias seems to be reiterated in Jag Bhalla’s 2009 Guardian article The Idiotic Joys of Idioms, which lists the some of the ‘weird and wonderful’ phrases from around the world including ‘To seize the moon by the teeth’ a French idiom meaning ‘to attempt the impossible’ as well as ‘to belch smoke from the seven orifices of the head’ meaning ‘to be furious’ in Chinese.

However, having started to work through these preconceptions of ‘authenticity’, I’ve now become more interested in the structural elements of idioms and how they might reflect a more universal approach to translation and interpretation, not just geographically, but also temporally. These elements of emotionality and language also relate to my current investigations of affect and semiotics in artist books.

What is an idiom?
Bárbara Eizaga Rebollar in her paper, Letting the Cat out of the Bag: On Idiom Use and Representation, discusses how ‘idioms were considered to be peripheral expressions of language characterized as a fixed and anomalous group of two or more elements with a conventional meaning’. This means that the idiomatic meaning of a phrase was believed to be fixed and determinate, therefore requiring specific cultural knowledge to understand the conceptual links within the phrase.

However, following the Relevance Theory proposed by Sperber and Wilson in 1995, she suggests how concepts expressed by idioms are memorised as part of an internal lexicon to differing degrees, allowing for further conceptual structures to be created according to inferences by the speaker. In other words, such idioms are subject to the context (sentence) in which they occur, allowing for interpretation without prior knowledge. These meanings are therefore constituted of a range of lexical, syntactic and semantic flexibility.

Types of idiom
Different types of idioms may be classed as descriptive, interpretive or metalinguistic. Descriptive idioms refer to instances where the recurrent links between specific phrases and concepts, which don’t originally register as truthful, create a stabilised meaning in the memory. Interpretive or metalinguistic uses of idioms describe intermediate stages of conventionalization, depending on how the phrase has been constructed in relation to learned idioms.

Thus, although there is no complete identification between the phrase and the concept it connotes, it is interpreted in relation to the original, thereby producing a new idiom. Interpretive idioms refer to semantic resemblances with descriptive idioms, while metalinguistic idioms have formal resemblances. Equally, over time, interpretive and metalinguistic idioms can become descriptive as their meanings become more fixed within language as compound phrases.

This new research into the way that language adapts and spreads can be likened to the idea of a meme: a method of imitation that transmits ideas through society. Coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, it refers to a meme as a unit of cultural information in the form of a cognitive or behavioural pattern. Other writers on the topic include Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine, Seth Godin in Unleashing the Ideavirus and Francis Heylighen in What makes a meme successful? Considering the ways that idioms and memes may help with the interpretation and transmission of ideas, I’m interested to see how these can apply to my research in the ways that art objects are understood.