Souzou 想像: Outsider Art from Japan

Koichi Fujino, Squid
Koichi Fujino, Squid

I wrote this review (of sorts) for on 11 April 2013.

You’ll find the world in the Wellcome’s Souzou exhibition of Japanese outsider art. It’s in one of the final rooms of this kaleidoscopic journey through the minds of forty-six untrained artists, all of whom happen to be attendees of Japanese welfare centres. Norimitsu Kokubo’s enormous patchwork cityscape, A Map of the World, depicts places and objects he has never visited, but has instead gleaned from the pages of newspapers and the internet. It’s a jam-packed fusion of landmarks and buildings enmeshed together on a groundless void.

A Map of the World sums up this show pretty well since we have here a dense assortment of objects from the imaginations of vulnerable, but gifted people who use their fragmented life experience to form cohesive and powerful artworks. The sheer breadth of the exhibition is impressive, and it makes sense that the curator has categorised the works into broad themes such as ‘language’, ‘making’ and ‘possibility’.

Even within these zones there’s enormous variety – Shota Katsube’s two-hundred-strong army of tiny combat-poised warriors are made from twist-ties, the diverse and strangely animated array evoke a boyhood universe of endlessly-fighting cartoon robots. Then there’s the crowded, vibrant ceramics of Satoshi Nishikawa, who has sculpted an apple of rabbits. Yes: an apple formed of rabbits with a repetitive symmetry reminiscent of ancient eastern architecture.

The bold ink-washes of Koichi Fujino in shapes of animals, which brim to the edges of the paper have an abstract power in their simple, sumptuous forms. There’s also handmade pyjamas with painted motifs of fried chicken, salmon roe and pigeon-shaped cookies by Takahiro Shimoda. A special mention should also go to Marie Suzukie whose intricate bodyscapes brimming with sex organs, thighs and breasts dazzled us with textured kaleidoscopic patterns. Stare long enough into the waves and dots and you see eyes and faces emerge.

Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-2012
Shinichi Sawada, Untitled, 2006-10

It’s uplifting to walk among objects unfettered from professionalism or conformity to market norms. This is an overgrown garden of the imagination and all the more inspiring that it’s made by people at the margins of society. It’s also rather apt that when you leave the show you pass an Antony Gormley sculpture, as this professional piece of cod-spiritual solemnity looks insipid and lifeless in comparison. We need a museum of outsider art to challenge the pros.


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