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> > > Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection, London

28 May 2013

Photo of Satoshi Nihikowa's 'Apple of Rabbits'  showing a ceramic apple made up entirely of small rabbits

Satoshi Nihikowa's 'Apple of Rabbits' (1991)

The first major display of Japanese Outsider Art in the U.K is now showing at the Wellcome Collection. The 46 artists represented are residents and day attendees in social welfare institutions across Japan. Nicole Fordham Hodges went to see and experience the power which is 'Souzou'.

The word 'Souzou' has no direct translation into English. It has a dual meaning: it means both 'imagination' and 'creation'. It refers to the force whereby new ideas are born in the human mind, then given shape in the outside world.

This exhibition is confident with the force of 'Souzou'. It uses an object-led rather than a biographical approach, hence trusting the artwork to speak for itself. The work is divided into six categories.

In the first, 'language', Ryoko Koda bypasses linguistic conventions by refining a single character of her name, then using it to construct a spacial universe. In 'Untitled (1990-2000) pen on paper', one red character stands isolated in blank space amongst rows of streets made of black characters. For me there is a combination of modesty and quiet assertion here: this is who I am, in context. I'm an individual, yet the streets around me share the same characters, are made of the same stuff. Is it all made of my perception? Is the underlining of one particular character a private note to self? There is both clarity and a mystery here.

Mineo Ito's lines of Japanese characters are patterns of meaning: waves, or music. Toshiko Yamanishi's love letters to her mother are made of colour, movement and swirl: a feeling-language. The results are empowering and direct.

The next section 'making' exhibits the tactile craftwork traditionally associated with Outsider Art. The use of unconventional material is also characteristic. Satoshi Morita's tapestries, for example, are tellingly made from 'other people's discarded threads'.

Koichi Fujino saves his monthly quota of India Ink to make large symbolic paintings. 'Daruma, Figure of Bodhidharma in Seated Meditation 2001-06 ( India Ink on Cardboard)' is  stylised expression of presence: two circles balanced on top of each other to form a seated body; two huge all seeing eyes. This ink was worth saving: the very act of waiting seems present in this confident, meditative work.

Meanwhile Shota Katsube's tiny action figures are made from bin-liner ties. Legs apart, with feathered wings or swords, this is an army of tiny presences made from something 'worthless' . They add up to a statement of empowerment.

The 'Representation' category points to the subjectivity of our experiences, but is far from lost or inward. It is a knowing examination.  Satoshi Nihikowa's 'Apple of Rabbits' (1991), clay, natural glaze) is a ceramic apple made up entirely of small rabbits. It's odd, exquisite,  and it crawls with life. It's as if the object itself is made up of many rabbity perceptions. Meanwhile Hideaki Yoshikawa's ceramic series 'Eye Eye Nose Mouth' dissects and examines the abstracted angles of a face.

In the 'Relationships' category Yukiko Yamada's portrait series 'She is Nobody' ( coloured pencil on paper) ' shows faces stretched and distorted like bubbles, turning as if floating. Eyes are smudged, mouths are tiny, red and open. However this section is not dominated by interiority. Most of the work here is vital, confident and outward. Alongside the 'Culture' section, it shows keen awareness of the social and cultural context, firmly challenging the common belief that Outsider Art springs entirely from the isolated, interior mind.

The final section 'possibility' shows the imaginative force of 'Souzou' in process. Norimitsu Kukubo, for example, creates detailed fictional city spaces. The scope of these panoramas is expressed in their breathless titles and extensive list of media. ' 3 parks with a panoramic view- a 360 degree world of panoramic view – ferris wheel, clusters of buildings and magnetically levitated trains, past, present, future [....] a city under development with indigenous people and natural resources'. ( 2011- ongoing) pencil, coloured pencil, ballpoint pen, water-based pen, oil based ink, pen on paper' . It's as if Kukubo's possibilities are expanding alongside his ongoing artwork, as fast as he can keep up.

The imagination/creation of Souzou is itself like 'a city under development with indigenous people and natural resources.'  It's shown here thriving and expanding. The 'Outsider Artists' are its indigenous people. This exhibition is Souzou at work: confidently displayed and deeply empowering. It speaks for itself. See it if you can.

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan is showing at the Wellcome Collection until 30 June. 

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