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Souzou: outsider art from Japan March 30, 2013

Posted by ayasawada in Culture, Japan, Personal.
Tags: , , ,

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It’s not often (read: NEVER) that anything in my workplace crosses over with my love of all things Japan. So when my colleagues at Wellcome Collection told me that they were bringing a Japanese exhibition over I got very excited. What I actually saw when the exhibition opened this week blew my mind. 

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Souzou is an display of “outsider art” – that is, art produced by untrained persons who create simply for the sake of it, and who are often “perceived to inhabit the margins of mainstream society” (I’m quoting from the exhibition booklet here). That description could apply to any number of otaku, but Outsider Art as a term has come to be associated with a therapy of sorts, here practiced by people with cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illness. Interestingly, in Europe the practice seems to have been used by psychiatrists in the late 19th and early 20th century as a way to express the subconscious mind. In Japan, however, outsider art is much more to do with public health and education reform, which is why Souzou is an exhibition born out of the Aiseikai social welfare organisation from the Tokyo region.

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There are lots of things I love about this exhibition. First, the title. “Souzou” can be written in kanji as either 創造 (meaning “creation”)  or 想像 (meaning “imagination”). This elegantly captures the concept of art, whether practiced by ‘trained professionals’ or you, me or anybody else just doing our own thing.

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Second, the 6 themes of the exhibition – Language, Making, Representation, Relationships, and Culture – nicely explore the narratives surrounding these artworks and the way in which outsider art can be expressed and help soothe the soul. As a colleague said to me, the great thing about this exhibition is that, unlike many other art exhibitions, it really inspires you to go out and create yourself. These aren’t artists on a pedestal – they are things made by ordinary people and they are wonderful.

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Third thing I love: the variety and colour. I don’t work directly on Wellcome Collection stuff, so prior to the opening my limited information on Souzou was that it was “from Japan”, something to do with therapy, and the main marketing image of the elephant man ‘Seitenmodoki’. I expected something more reserved and traditional, like some of the Japanese art exhibitions I’ve seen at the Royal Academy of Arts or the Japanese Embassy. I was so wrong. This is so much more down to earth, so much more grounded in the culture and concepts that I love about Japan and so full of expression, unconstrained by traditions and training. There are diaries, paintings, prints, sketches, textiles, maps, statues, action figures, buses made out of cardboard, wildlife, sea life and demons. There’s tragedy, melodrama, sex – so many stories in one small place.

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Then of course there’s the Japanese culture references. I didn’t even realise Seitenmodoki was based on a manga character, so imagine my surprise when I walked into the room and saw a table of 300 super sentai action heroes made out of tiny wire ties (this isn’t even all of them – there are more complex figures the 23-year old artist wouldn’t allow to travel!).

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Even outside of the direct references, you can see the general influences that pervade Japanese culture, leading to artworks and imagery we see often in anime, manga and Japanese film and books.  There are red octopuses, whales, tentacle demons, yōkai from Japanese folklore. Is that a soot sprite from Totoro/Spirited Away? Is that a blob out of Laputa or Ponyo? Are these Junko Mizuno influenced? Are these urban sketches something out of a Taiyō Matsumoto manga or Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys? There are artists who have written out the plots to their favourite dramas and anime as they watch them, or painted classic Japanese movie posters entirely from memory, or calculated in an exercise book the endless journeys one can take on the Tokyo metro or the outcomes of baseball and sumo tournaments, or are drawing a map of the world on a 10 metre long scroll.

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These artists, like anyone, are sponges for the culture surrounding them, and the very distinct themes, characters and visions of Japanese culture – those that Japanophiles like myself find deeply fascinating – are very much alive here.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is a free exhibition at Wellcome Collection in Euston, London, open now until 30 June 2013. Please do go and see it (if only so that I get more Japanese stuff coming my way at work!).

More photos from my sneak peek at the launch party and press preview in this Flickr set.

Disclosure: I work for the Wellcome Trust, the parent charity that owns Wellcome Collection. 


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