After talking with Atsuyuki Nakahara, the chief curator of the Art as a Haven of Happiness exhibit, I knew that I would probably write at least two posts about my adventures that night. It would have been very easy to dismiss the exhibit as simply one where the museum could feel good about displaying the artwork of people with disabilities because it was now part of the museum’s new mission. But that is not what the curator wanted. In the show’s catalogue, he even quotes the museum’s mission statement at length, including this part.
The Museum will strive to build an art community as a place for creativity and coaction, where people can encounter new values, re-examine themselves, and deepen their bonds with the world. It will seek to be a place where people engage in art as nourishment for [the soul].(Source: 2010 partially amended “Designated Administrator Proposal Document [Business Plan]” of Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture)
Nakahara and his assistants worked together for several years in making this show, but he wanted more than just showing off crafts made by the two studios. He wanted people to think about what they saw and “encounter new values”. To fully understand what is happening here, you have to know two things: people with disabilities in Japan are hidden away and Nakahara is also an expert in the Gutai art movement.
People with disabilities are sadly discriminated against throughout the world, but in Japan they seem to be hidden away. In Canada, trainable mentally handicapped (TMH), educationally mentally handicapped (EMH), and physically handicapped (such as hearing disabilities) students also attended my juniour-high school. (Forgive me if those terms are no longer politically correct. I am using the terms that were used at that time.) It was a small town with no separate facilities; we all shared. At recess, students regularly interacted with each other. Nobody ever thought anything of it. In fact, I do not recall anybody bullying those students either. It was as if we all instinctively knew that we should be nice, protect them, and just be friends. Most did not go on to high school but some might have had jobs at a local facility where people made wooden patio furniture or rubber doormats that were extremely popular among locals. Somewhere I even learned basic sign language and sometimes chatted with one girl who was deaf. I remember the pleasure we both had when we banged into each other in a nearby larger city. At my high school in the city, I do not recall anybody with any obvious educational disabilities other than one blind girl, but the odds are high that some students were somewhere on the Autism spectrum, right? Many friends volunteered at the St. Amant centre to work with people who had various disabilities. The school now has, and maybe they always did have but I was unaware, a co-operative education program for students whose academic or personal needs require individual attention. I do not know the extent of that program. Many places in Canada are now barrier-free, and people in wheelchairs are commonly seen in shopping malls. A special bus used to offer door-to-door service in Winnipeg, but now people with wheelchairs and strollers can use regular transit service. In Japan, stairs are everywhere and an obvious barrier to anybody with a physical disability. Train stations might have one platform to go to City X, but the platform for the return trip has only stairs or the station’s entrance has only stairs and no elevator. Train stations might have adapted their stairs with a so-called elevator, but somebody has to go and get the staff at the station to turn the elevator on. You have to go up the stairs to do that, and those makeshift elevators look very shaky to me. Escalators may only take you partway up; the last leg of the journey has to be finished by climbing stairs. People with any kind of disability usually attend separate schools, often from a young age. I remember one friend whose mind was incredibly active although cerebral palsy crippled her body. She was fluent in English and Japanese but probably never had a chance to attend an academic high school or university. Another girl attended a regular juniour high but not high school. When I visited the “handicapped” school, one student had a hearing disability. I honestly do not know how much difficulty he had in academic subjects but I do know, however, that he used his Japanese-English dictionary to engage me in conversation. Many students at the academically inclined schools never tried to do this. He, however, did not seem to know sign language although his hearing was poor enough to affect his communication skills. People with Down syndrome are also rarely seen on the streets despite their usually sunny dispositions. They usually have to attend special schools when they are young and then learn occupational skills for work, such as the ones needed to work at the Tampopo Bakery in Shimonoseki. After much searching, a friend found a nursery school/kindergarten where her little girl with Down syndrome could go. The entire family moved to a different city, because one elementary school in the area accepted students with mental disabilities. As she got ready to start elementary school, she began speech therapy nearby. Sounds great, right? Her daughter’s disability was a taboo topic unless you were close friends. I do not recall such attitudes in Canada. Friends who have family members with mental disabilities freely talk about their families. Teenagers with Down syndrome or others with mental disabilities go to school, have pyjama parties, go on dates, have jobs, and sometimes live away from their families in group homes. Friends in both countries admit that although difficulties are inevitable, these special members are truly loved and bring lots of joy to everybody’s lives. With this background, you can imagine the impact that the participating studios and this exhibit are making in Japan.
Shobu Gakuen and Atelier Element Present might have started with a traditional approach with primarily occupational training and art therapy, but they now have a different attitude and a greater purpose. At the Atelier, they might have started painting with brightly coloured paint as therapy, but each painting is now regarded as the individual’s creation and worthy of respect. The artists are not involved in a production line; the paintings are not available for sale. The same principles apply to the patchwork pieces. Shobu Gakuen began as a place where TMH people made textile or wooden pieces to sell; skills and income were expected to be gained. People now work in the cafeteria and sell small objects made for retail, but individuals now use art to express themselves in painting, woodwork, textiles, and music. Staff prepare materials but do not provide much guidance for how something should be made. (I think that they would, however, provide guidance when teaching technical skills to ensure personal safety, such as when firing greenware in a kiln.) The band’s music is used in commercials, books of their creations are published with credit given to their makers, and the restaurant has a good reputation and organic produce. Directors at both facilities respect individuality but still have an eye for marketability and other ways to generate income. Some people might be attracted to the novelty of people with handicaps working, but many will forget that after a while and just enjoy their lunch. Others, like me when I saw photographs of the textiles created in the Nui Project, enjoy the art without knowing that the artist had a mental or educational disability. The independence and pride in oneself and in one’s work might enable one to not be seen as disabled. That is a revolutionary concept.
Bearing this in mind, Nakahara purposefully avoided using the term, outsider art, because he regarded it as derogatory. Outsider art was original used as the English term to describe what was called art brut in French: raw art or rough art such as the art made by the insane and others locked up in institutions. Most people with Down syndrome might have a learning disability but surely they are not insane or in such bad shape that they have to be institutionalized! That image did not match the cheerful, friendly places that Nakahara visited while planning this show.
With his background in Gutai art and especially the work of Atsuko Tanaka, Nakahara had no difficulty regarding the work as art. In fact, he said some of the pieces were much better than some of the Gutai work that he was familiar with. Gutai means the tool or way of doing something and the body but probably also plays with the homonym that means concrete or real in a physical or practical means. The artist wants to reveal the inner life of the material used, or as Jeanne Willette wrote on the Art History Unstuffed website, “Gutai Art imparts life to the material.” Nakahara regarded the work from the studios as manifestations of joy. Many of the participants valued the art of creation more than the end results. Doesn’t that sound like using your body as a way of doing something or making an abstract idea concrete? Sounds like Gutai to me.
As I walk around Tokyo, I am surprised by how much Japanese art has been influenced by Gutai and by how much some of the Gutai artists resemble some of the participants at the workshop studios. Thank goodness a local art history professor suggested that I and our mutual friend go to a Gutai show last year. He said that I probably would not like it but that I should see it to better understand Japanese art. He was right. At first the work of Tetsumi Kudo reminded of something that a first-year student might do in art school. After a while, you began to see the skill and craftsmanship. Other questions, however, also rose. Unlike these people with mental handicaps, Kudo’s pride was evident. Like the people working at the studios though, he was interested in the process of making art perhaps more than making money from it. He needed the help and the support of the people around him to make art. His productivity dropped drastically in the period when his mother died and stopped sending him an allowance and his wife became pregnant and could no longer help him in his projects and performances. He, too, would repeat themes over and over again. Many of his paintings and sculptures seemed somewhat childlike.
At the same time in the same building was another exhibit entitled, Mud and Jelly, featuring work from the MOMAT collection by several Gutai artists who explored the sticky nature of paint, sometimes with other media such as mud or jelly. Don’t the paintings look like they could be in the Art as a Haven show?
With the belief that objects have a unique beauty when they become damaged or decayed, Gutai echoes a sensibility found throughout Japanese culture. People around the world who have an interest in textiles might now the word, boro, and how it relates to frayed or ragged fabrics, especially mended and patched textiles from Japan. Sometimes exhibitions featuring such ragged fabrics are held in Japan or in other countries; many Pinterest boards are devoted to the topic. Work from Shobu Gakuen would fit right in with those concepts.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that so many of these art movements or artists were regarded as revolutionary in their day. Some of the paintings and other creations at Art as a Haven of Happiness were incredibly beautiful; some were not. Walking through the exhibition, you could not help but ponder the age-old question, “What is art?” I recalled a quiz that had made the rounds on social media where you were shown a painting and asked if it was modern art or a children’s drawing. Try taking the test and then take a look at these and see what you think.
Doesn’t this remind you of some sketches by Raoul Dufy? Or it might if the background was a solid blue. this is Miura Coast by Shuhei Tomita.
Does this remind you of Mondrian‘s work? Check out this title: I Want to Have Fun by Miri Anzawa.
Is all work created by a famous artist art? In the workshop studios, where does art therapy stop and art begin? How about craft versus art? These are some of t he questions that Nakahara wanted us to ponder as we looked at this show.
The catalogue for the show also contains some poems or writing of representatives from the workshop studios. Hiroatsu Sakuma from the Atelier Present Tokyo wrote the following prose in Japanese, and this is a translated version.
Beauty and Life
In our experience of beauty,
there are no divisions such as between artist and viewer.
There is only experience.
It should be earnest and sincere,
for through beauty,
we connect with the essence of life.
Out of this, deeper sensitivity
and a capacity for awe and respect are born.
I would like not only the artworks but also
the place of production each day
to have this kind of beauty.
What do you think? Did Nakahara achieve his goals of displaying the artwork of disabled people and making people think and examine themselves when confronted with new values? Possibly. Some people will; some people won’t.
This washroom was the last photograph I took in the gallery space. I know it might seem silly, and even Mr. Nakahara stopped to ask me what I was doing. But yet it made sense to me. It seemed an appropriate photo to add, because it seemed to tie in with the show. It had the same strong pink and blue that many of the paintings had as well as strong shapes. And when it comes down to it, aren’t all people just men or women regardless of whether not they have any disability?