Wellcome Collection’s spring exhibition, ‘Outsider Art from Japan’, will bring together more than 300 works for the first major display of Japanese Outsider Art in the UK. The 46 artists represented in the show are residents and day patients at social welfare institutions across the main island of Honshu, and they present diverse bodies of work including ceramics, textiles, paintings, sculpture and drawings.
'Souzou' is a word that has no direct translation in English but a dual meaning in Japanese. It can be written two ways, meaning either creation or imagination. Both allude to a force by which new ideas are born and take shape in the world.
Organised in association with Het Dolhuys, the Museum of Psychiatry in Haarlem (the Netherlands) and the Social Welfare Organisation Aiseikai (Tokyo), the exhibition reflects the growing popularity of and acclaim for Outsider Art - often defined as works made by self-taught artists perceived to be at the margins of society - while questioning assumptions about the category itself.
Eschewing a purely biographical approach, the show will be object-led, with a startling array of works offering singular and affecting explorations of culture, memory and creativity. The exhibition will record both intimately personal and expansive approaches to creating art and the processes of making through six overlapping sections.
'Language' will explore the creative release of visual expression for artists for whom verbal or written communication is challenging or impossible. Works will range from Takanori Herai's diary of hieroglyphics to Toshiko Yamanishi's kaleidoscopic love letters to her mother, which express depth of emotion through movement and colour rather than words.
'Making' will look at engagement with material, the repeated use of particular and unusual media, and the meditative and therapeutic aspects of creativity. Koichi Fujino's immersive ink paintings cover every inch of the paper, Yumiko Kawai's textile landscapes are built up through repeated freehand circular stitching and Shota Katsube's repurposing of wire ties creates a vast yet diminutive army of action figures: all these pieces are marked by the occupation and passing of time.
Works in 'Representation' and 'Relationships' reflect the things and people surrounding the artists, often taking surprising and curious forms. The eerie pastel still lifes of Takashi Shuji and abstract assemblages of Takanari Nitta hold an ethereal, otherworldly quality but are inspired by everyday objects, while Satoshi Nishikawa's surreal sculptures of fruit are made entirely from dense aggregates of small ceramic rabbits.
Takako Shibata's portraits freeze her absent mother in time, while Sakiko Kono's dolls - representing friends and carers - grow in size and stature according to the levels of her affection. Dreams and desire figure strongly: there are idealised self-projections in the work of Yoko Kubota and Masao Obata and in Nobuji Higa's highly stylised and sexualised nudes. Self-expression is framed through physical and emotional environments, but interpreted in richly imaginative and sometimes fantastical forms.
The absorption, reflection and acute observation evident in 'Culture' will contest the myth of Outsider Art as being solely reflective of the interior mind. Daisuke Kibushi's immaculately rendered postwar movie posters, copied from memory, Keisuke Ishino's origami figurines and Ryosuke Otsuji's ceramic Okinawan lions all attest to a sharp awareness of the cultural contexts and traditions of Japanese society.
The final section, 'Possibility', will feature works that seek to comprehend and reorder the surrounding world. Koichiro Miya explores notions of ability, disability and super-ability, Shingo Ikeda's beautiful notebook infographics calculate the endless possibilities of subway journeys he might make, and Norimitsu Kokubo's densely sketched cartographies imagine real places through information gleaned online, reframing the world through curiosity.
Shamita Sharmacharja, curator at Wellcome Collection, says: "We are delighted to be staging the first substantial exhibition of Japanese Outsider Art in the UK. This is a show that will reward inquisitive minds, with astonishing levels of creativity and resource at play in exhibited pieces. These diverse bodies of work offer unique visions of the world, richly expressed, which we hope will move, surprise and inspire visitors."
A series of documentary films featuring a selection of the exhibiting artists will play at the end of the exhibition.
'Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan' runs from 28 March to 30 June 2013 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE. A full programme of events will run alongside the exhibition.