Exploring the realms of the “other”

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan

Much can be read from an exhibition title. The success of a show can rest on thousands of individuals making one small decision, asking themselves one question: does this sound interesting and appeal to me? The title of the Wellcome Collection’s newest temporary exhibition makes the promise of something curious, something new.

Japan is an enigma to those Westerners who have never made the trip, has an exotic, far-away, otherworldly feel, the yin to our yang. It feels like an opposite in almost everything. Tokyo, situated 6000 miles away from London, fills the imagination. We use popular culture to guide our ideas of the place: Kill Bill, bullet trains, Harajuku Girls, anime, James Bond, geishas, Japanese tea and flower gardens, Hello Kitty and overcrowding. Added into the mix is the “otherness” of outsider art, a curious term defined as “raw art” created outside of the main sphere of culture and society, by marginalised individuals. Expectations are being created, vague notions of the primitive and naive…

It’s easy to imagine furtive minds at serious play, studiously bent at desks and tables working through the nights. But this is a collaborative process. Whilst this work may not have been made for public consumption, staff at the various homes and institutions where the artists live or attend have recognised the talent, ambition and rate of production of those in their care and helped to make this project happen. There is certainly evidence of a lot of interest on my visit; there are animated conversations and debates going on around the room. The most disparaging comments write the exhibition off as a gimmick, the work as childish, with some artists more than others gaining critical approval.

On first glance this is a difficult show to connect with. The first works are pencil scribbles on paper, childish cartoon drawings detailing television programmes and colourful felt pen creations. Leading on from this there are vibrant rainbow weavings, a collection of miniature sparkly figures, what look like giant potato prints of animals and other weirdly wonderful creations. It’s hard to know how to judge or read many of the works as there are so few points of reference; this assemblage of art sits far “beyond” normal art history and artist practise.

Toshiko Yamanishi. Mother (Undated), coloured pencil on paper

Toshiko Yamanishi. Mother (Undated), coloured pencil on paper

There were a few gems for me, the first in the shape of Masaaki Oe’s ceramic figures, an “American” man in a suit and tie and two smaller “Dutch” fellows kitted out in trenches and hats. There was a humour evident in these characterisations as well as a skill in the working of the material. Takuya Gamo offered delicately intricate pencil and pen drawings of flora and fauna, whilst teenager Norimitsu Kokubo displayed city drawings huge in scale and definitely summing up the dual meanings of “souzou” (creation and imagination). The works which drew me in and impressed the most were the 13 clay figures by Shinichi Sawada, depicting cartoon like Aztec style monsters from the land and sea.

As a complete collection the exhibition showcases the product of people with dissimilar brain functioning communicating with and understanding their worlds. There is much focus on the humanoid figure, whether as person or robotic creation, and of repetitive abstract forms. The Wellcome Collection has tried to make sense of the disparate, often confusing, works by providing context within six overall sections or headings. As a location which wants to provoke curiosity this was a good second venue for a show which began life at a Psychiatry museum in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, with the over prescriptive texts describing the visual work on display, the interpretation is far too heavy handed, reading like a beginners guide.

The written content often felt overwhelming and congested an already overcrowded room full of powerful work. Surely trying to fully explain and categorise art of this nature is self-defeating, as by its very definition it is singular and unique? Bringing together the work of 46 separate artists who have only a few things in common, their country of residence being the strongest parallel drawn here, does not create a cohesive art movement nor make for smooth viewing. Nevertheless a challenging, positively disorientating and lively experience awaits those seeking something “other”.

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled (2006-10), clay and natural glaze

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled (2006-10), clay and natural glaze

On display until 30th June 2013.


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