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Blog - Richard Butchins

Turning Japanese


At the end of last month I returned from a two-week trip to Osaka in Japan. The Arts Council gave me an Artists international Development Fund grant and I travelled to develop an artistic collaboration with Kazuyo Morita a disabled dancer.

Japan is a strange place to western eyes, firstly the fact that I could not read a single thing, made me appreciate what a gift learning to read is – it was as if I’d become illiterate overnight. Going to the pharmacy to buy toothpaste became a comic nightmare; first I had to find a pharmacy and then try and distinguish between toothpaste and haemorrhoid cream, and ordering anything to eat could be equally unfortunate… Fortunately, I had a support worker who was both fluent in Japanese and had lived in Osaka otherwise I suspect I would still be there trying to find the way to my hotel.

photo of dancer in white dress

Kazuyo Morita

I worked for two weeks with Kazuyo who’s an excellent and positive collaborator. We designed the beginnings of a dance/video/augmented reality, work we both feel has a lot of potential. I hope we can develop it further. Disability in Japan is approached in a somewhat old fashioned way, at least that was my feeling, a lot of the language used to discuss disability is difficult for Europeans to hear until you appreciate that western terms have been Japanised and don’t mean the same thing in a Japanese context. This became clear after Kazuyo introduced me to Atelier Corners, a haven for non-verbal autistic artists. Their work is exceptional and strong. Takako Shiraiwa, the woman responsible for starting and running the centre talks to me about her vision in terms I find difficult – until we stop the conversation and define what is meant, then I get it ,and what she has created is awe inspiring.

As I arrived to talk to them about my work the director of some art gallery in Strasbourg was just finishing up a meeting – the purveyors of “Outsider Art” flick around places like this, like vultures around carrion, hoping to pick up a bargain or two, but the woman who runs the organisation, is wise, knows how to get the best for her artists and deals well with the ableist art junky. I have always looked at the “Outsider Art” and “Art Brut” movements with deep suspicion, lets face it, even the names are pejorative.

Ever since Jean Dubuffet coined the term in 1948 it has represented a way to exclude artists and at the same time exploit their work and lack of guile for financial gain. There is an organisation that states on it’s website that it gives “a platform for artists who find it difficult to access the art world” but these artists couldn’t give a flying fuck about the art world and why should they? – Let’s turn the phrase around shall we, and say it’s about the art world accessing them and exploiting their work for profit. I have written before about how disability is becoming a commodity that can be sold and traded for revenues.

I take a contrary view to many on the issue of “Outsider Art”, particularly with regard to the definitions of outsider and where there are concerns about the artist’s capacity to give consent. There’s a very fine line between ‘expose’ and ‘exploit’ and sometimes people can end up on the wrong side of that line without even knowing it. That said, the art produced by the artists at Atelier Corners is lovely and worth showing for the sheer joy it brings to the eyes and the heart -as long as the makers are not patronised or viewed as some kind of visual art clowns. Now, I can already hear the howls of protest from the ableists saying that they would never do that….oh really, you need to look at it from where I’m standing.

My trip to Japan yielded many positive results and although I am not yet able to talk about them publically. I have plans to make art with, about and around the people I met on my trip. So don’t fret – Arts Council and British Council – it was money well spent.

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