28 April 2013


We'd made a Saturday afternoon plan of an exhibition followed by pints in the Princess Louise, so we met in the rain at the Gargosian Gallery to see Rachel Whiteread's casts of the space inside sheds. They were arresting for sure, solid and stark in the huge white room, but very grey blocks of art on a very grey rainy day. So we wrestled our umbrellas up the road to the Wellcome Collection, a place which always cheers me, being bright, buzzy and full of millions of interesting things. They usually have some kind of rather wondrous free exhibition going on, and I end up scribbling all over the hand-outs and staring at stuff like brains in jars and 18th century prosthetic toes.

The current special exhibition is the opposite of grey blocks. It is colourful and varied and crammed with all sorts of ideas and creations. It goes by the name of Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan. The artwork on show is by 46 artists who attend or live in Japanese social welfare institutions. All the artists have cognitive, behavioural and developmental disorders or mental illnesses. And they create. The word 'outsider' has somewhat negative connotations, and 'outsider art' is a rather ugly term for works by untutored artists who are not conscience of an audience for the pieces they make and who live the edges of mainstream society. However, the word 'souzou' is much more positive. It has a dual meaning: both creation and imagination. And these artists have imaginative creativity in no short supply.

This is art as therapy or distraction, but it's beautiful and intriguing in its own right. Visual expression is used as a release from the confines and confusion of language, and such different ways of seeing are represented throughout the exhibition rooms, as well as a whole range of materials and methods. Textiles and ceramics require lengthy repetitive processes that have a calming, therapeutic effect. One of the artists, Komei Bekki, takes a ritualistic approach to making his ceramic miniatures. Arriving at the studio at 16.00 every day, after everyone else has gone, he performs a sequence of actions which involve removing his clothes and putting them on again inside-out and partially moulding the clay in his mouth.

Everyday objects and the culture that surrounds the artists - film, television, landscapes and transport systems to name a few - are are very much in bright and bold evidence. Norie Shukumatari makes fluffy embroidery representing beloved subjects such as chocolate cake and a 1970s Japanese pop icon.


Shota Katsubi crafts a vast army of tiny anime soldiers wielding swords and bazookas from coloured wires which, on closer inspection, transpire to be the twist-ties used to fasten bin-liners. And an artist known as M.K. paints on a simple sheet of roughly cut cardboard. The image is called 'Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair' and is a vibrant depiction of a female bust accompanied by an aeroplane safety announcement in English, beneath which is written: The gnus/were afraid of/the alligators in the/river/They waited for a long/time/before entering the water.

Lady with Rainbow Coloured Hair
Norimitsu Kokubo is a map-maker; his sprawling, intricately detailed drawings are fictional cityscapes that explore real places he has never been to. He plots and constructs from facts he's picked up. The one I was most drawn to was 'Shanghai Disneyland of the Future'. It is relationships rather than landscapes that provide the overriding impulse behind Sakiko Komo's art. She makes round-faced friendly rag dolls, some life-size, representing friends and staff who have been kind to her over the 55 years she's lived in the residential facility. One of the dolls is called 'Looks a bit like an alien'. And Takahiro Shimoda is the artist behind the piece I loved most: a pyjama triptych. Comfy cream 'Ruff Hewn' tops-and-bottoms serve as a canvas for his fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies nightwear. Pyjamas printed with patterns of his favourite foodstuffs.

I want to eat a pigeon-shaped cookie. And, after walking through this odd forest of fascinating artworks, I just really want to make stuff. To whip out crayons, felt-tips, sewing kits, pipe-cleaners, paint and PVA glue. To create. That's the effect of souzou.