Souzou – a kind of Surrealism…or maybe not.

I remember the last time I went to Euston was to catch a train for a 5 hour journey to Aberystwyth, Wales. Last week, I went there to visit a gallery I had never heard of until a month ago for their latest exhibition. The Wellcome Collection’s Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan features the creative works of 46 self-taught artists from Japan, covering painting, sculpture and even textiles, each of them diagnosed with a particular mental illness.

The word souzou has a dual meaning: a combination of creation and imagination. This is where the Surrealist aspect comes in. ‘Outsider art’ refers to Jean Dubuffet’s theory of art brut – ‘raw art’ – one that is not influenced or contaminated by culture. The term is usually used to describe works by self-taught artists, those who produce works for creation’s sake with no audience in mind. However, this exhibition uses the term to describe works influenced and moulded by the mind of the mentally ill – a very Surrealist concept with an added emphasis on institutionalisation. As ‘outsiders’ of society, one that is considered ‘normal’ and ‘mentally-healthy’, their art has been given a category of its own. We don’t call them ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’: just ‘outsider’.

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Takanori Herai, Diary, c. 2009-11. Image via www.yahoo.com.

The exhibition splits itself into 6 sections: Language, Making, Representation, Relationships, Culture, and Possibility. If we use the traditional meaning of ‘outsider art’ then the ‘culture’ section shouldn’t really be there. But this exhibition also challenges the popular belief that outsider art is entirely created from the interior mind.

‘Language’ focuses on works that interpret visual forms as a coded linguistic tool for the patients to express themselves. The first work we are faced with is Takanori Herai’s Diary (c. 2009-11), a collection of sheets of paper with abstracted forms drawn onto them. Mother by Toshiko Yamanishi is a love letter to her mother, constructed from a vortex of colours that would seem almost meaningless to us. In fact, we’d probably discard it as a typical drawing made by a child. Deconstructed elements of the artist’s name is used in repetition to create abstracted images in Ryoko Koda’s works while Hiroyuki Komatsu digests the cast, plots and television schedules of his favourite soap operas in his Morning TV Serial Drama series (2007-10).

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Shota Katsube’s action figurines. Image via www.wordpress.com.

The next section ‘Making’ explores the various materials used to construct each work of art. Though not a necessary section, it is certainly interesting nevertheless, since it gives emphasis to the artists’ creative talents with limited available resources. Upon entry, my eyes were immediately captivated by two square horizontal displays in the middle of the rooms. These were the miniature sculptural works of Komei Bekki and Shota Katsube. What interested me about Bekki’s abstracted, yet humanoid, figures in clay was that they were all partially moulded in his mouth – gross, yes, I know. He apparently had a routine every day at 4pm that included the removing and putting on of his clothes while moulding the clay in his mouth. Katsube’s display, unfortunately, lacked a detailed description but his brightly-coloured army of miniature figures were extremely dynamic in their postures, something I could imagine would be very difficult to do on such a small scale. Scattered across the walls were various other works done with India ink, washi paper, or brightly-coloured textiles, such as those of Yumiko Kawai whose Circles series (2009-11) reminded me of Yayoi Kusama’s obsession with polka dots.

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Sakiko Tono’s life-sized dolls. Image via www.flickr.com.

‘Representation’ explored the artists’ perception of the people or things around them. Takanori Nitta’s drawings of neatly-categorised objects gave us an insight into his linkage of various unrelated objects, including Mount Fuji. The grid-like structures of his works, such as Curtain and Shoes and Rubber Boots (2011) was tempting to be interpreted as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A particular drawing by an artist called M.K. entitled Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair (2009) appeared to be based on multiple books, flight safety leaflets, and magazine images. A set of numbers was inscribed onto its cardboard surface, which I later found to be the telephone number of a building in Kumamoto, Japan. Also hanging nearby was a set of incredible drawings of fish and plants by Takuya Gamo, each of them made up of tiny geometric shapes, intricately constructed to form somewhat realist depictions.

‘Relationships’ was probably my favourite section of the exhibition. It focused on how the artists would depict and perceive themselves and their relationships with those around them, something that is often troubling for the families of mental patients. The first series of works in the section show ever-expanding depictions of Takako Shibata’s absent mother, while Nobuji Higa’s nudes are projections of sexual urges and desires. A longing to get married is seen in Masao Obata’s red pencil drawings that pronounce the sexual organs of his subjects. Obata’s style of drawing was highly reminiscent of the drawings seen in Aztec or Indian temples. In the room nearby hung Yoko Kubota’s idealised self-portraits of herself which seemed to show a longing to be beautiful and glamorous. Beside these were a series of dolls by Sakiko Kono that represented kind staff and friends in a residential facility she had lived in. I couldn’t help but feel disturbed when looking at these dolls since there was a strange disquietness about them. Even more disturbing were the sexually-enticed pen drawings of Marie Suzuki, who depicts very dark and violent scenes of sex, procreation and gender.

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Keisuke Ishino, Girl, 2011. Image via www.wordpress.com.

The ‘Culture’ section challenges the common belief that outsider art is entirely the imagination of the inner mind. It provides proof that the artists are completely aware of their cultural surroundings. Daisuke Kibushi renders old movie posters from his own memory while Masatoshi Nishimoto constructs detailed models of buses he remembers travelling on. Popular culture is expressed in the sculptural figures by Keisuke Ishino and Shoichi Koga, from folklore to anime to films.

The final section ‘Possibility’ is all about re-understanding the world around us and perhaps improving on it, a sort of ‘utopia’ shaped by the minds of the mentally ill. Norimitsu Kokubo’s vast map-like drawings portray fictional cityscapes of real places he had researched on Google Maps and never actually visited. One of these works is actually ongoing, started in 2011, and is intended to be about 10 metres long when completed. Various other works in this section involve statistical predictions about the future, while ceramic sculptures by Shinichi Sawada retain the child-like imagination for fantastical sea creatures and spiked animals.

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Shinichi Sawada’s mythical creatures. Image via www.happyfamousartists.com.

Overall the exhibition is a lovely insight into the human mind, with an emphasis on perception and imagination. Creativity could be seen as a universal concept, since it proves that anyone can make art, even the mentally ill. In some ways, the artists in this exhibition don’t seem too different than the people we are often used to, which is perhaps an objective of this show.

I really enjoyed it, and it was interesting to see everyday life from the perspective of other people. I was slightly disappointed, however, that they didn’t mention the disorders or mental illnesses of each artist, which would have been a valuable source of information when viewing the artworks. There was a room dedicated to documentary excerpts of several of the artists, showing us their daily lives and construction of their art. Unfortunately, that provided little extra information for me. Either way, I strongly recommend this exhibition since the insight received is quite an eye-opener.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan runs until 30th June 2013 at the Wellcome Collection, London, www.wellcomecollection.org.

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