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If It Wasn’t Made as Art, Can a Curator Make It Art?

Curator Nobumasa Kushino raises questions about how and to what extent items and actions not originally intended to be art can be rendered such, and whether they should be.

Nobumasa Kushino at Kushino Terrace (photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

On July 26th, six members of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo were executed by hanging for their involvement in a variety of crimes, including the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack that killed thirteen people and injured thousands more. These executions were a harrowing reminder of how a string of events in the 1990s — the bursting of the economic “bubble” in 1992 and subsequent neoliberal reforms, the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, and the Aum “incident” of the same year — continue to haunt Japan. Significantly, one of these members — Kazuaki Miyamae — participated in the “outsider” curator Nobumasa Kushino’s Art on the Fringes: The Drawings of Death-row Inmates show in 2016. Miyamae’s work can be interpreted as a protest of the inhumane nature of the death penalty, but it wasn’t originally intended to be viewed as art. He had entered the Buddhist priesthood in 2004, supported by Gyokuryuji, a Rinzai sect Zen Temple in Gifu Prefecture, and spent much of his time awaiting his execution diligently mending a garment given to him upon his conversion (death-row inmates in Japan, unlike other prisoners, are not provided a standard uniform).

The garment, known in Japan as a funzoe, derives from the dirty, frayed robe that the Buddha is said to have worn, and which he encouraged his disciples to adopt as well to assert their disavowal of desire. Miyamae’s mending of the funzoe represented his earnest religious devotion and practice inside prison. Later, he submitted it to the Expressions of Death-row Inmates exhibition, being aided by the Daidoji Sachiko Fund, an organization that opposes the death penalty in Japan. Kushino went a step further in his 2016 show, receiving permission from Miyamae to argue that the funzoe could also be viewed as a work of art. This act of recontextualization is characteristic of a curator who has made a name fighting for the recognition of marginalized creators in contemporary Japanese society. It also, however, brings up questions that have occupied Kushino since the beginning of his career in the mid 2000s and prompted a shift in his curatorial approach: how and to what extent can items and actions not originally intended to be art be rendered such? And, more importantly, should they be?

Kazuaki Miyamae’s funzoe (all photos by Nobumasa Kushino unless otherwise noted)

I had the pleasure of meeting Nobumasa Kushino on a sweltering August day at his space Kushino Terrace in Fukuyama City, Hiroshima. He explained early in the interview that he had no interest in art growing up, preferring manga and anime, and spent his years in college rather desultorily before gaining employment in 2000 at a facility for people with developmental disabilities in Fukuyama City. Upon starting his job, Kushino noticed how unhappy residents looked doing vocational tasks and decided to implement a program of art therapy. Later, however, he came to question this categorization: “I thought about what I was doing as art therapy, but, since there were people who would eat a piece of drawing paper when handed one, I realized … it wasn’t really therapy but rather just self-expression.” He became convinced that both the residents’ work, and the process behind it, could have profound effects on viewers if exhibited publicly. When, in 2003, he sought a precedent for his burgeoning vision of art, he discovered the legendary Japanese collective Gutai Group. The process-oriented work of the artist Shozo Shimamoto, in particular, resonated with him. Kushino befriended Shimamoto, who invited Kushino to do a performance with him at the 2005 Venice Biennale. In 2009, Kushino was appointed a curator at the Tomonotsu Museum after four residents from the facility where he worked were selected to exhibit in an outsider art show at the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art the same year. The museum, which opened in 2012 in Tomonoura, Hiroshima, is part of the nation-wide Diversity in the Arts program, sponsored by the Nippon Foundation, to support art brut in Japan.

Kushino initially saw his artistic intervention into the lives of the residents as empowering, even if the residents themselves couldn’t recognize their work or actions as art. He recounted that one man was continually chided at the facility for collecting cigarette butts that lay on the ground, another for having to spin around several times before bathing, and one more for rolling on the ground. When he convinced other employees at the facility that these residents’ actions were art, however, he noticed that they stopped reprimanding residents and trying to change their behavior. Subsequently, many paintings, drawings, and video works by the residents also gained acclaim at various exhibitions throughout Japan. Since then, though, he’s come to harbor doubts over this approach:

I discovered their work and introduced them to the art world, but since I left the facility and became independent, there’s still the possibility that they’re being forced somehow to draw or create art. I changed their lives — maybe … [he] would have been happier just rolling on the ground.

These doubts have caused him to take a more diverse approach to curation than solely introducing the art of the developmentally disabled. Several of the exhibitions he planned for Tomonotsu Museum reflect this shift, such as the above-mentioned 2013 Art on the Fringes exhibition (reprised in 2016), as well as Yankii Anthropology in 2014, which showcased elements of a youth subculture that is often characterized as delinquent. What has remained constant throughout Kushino’s career is his desire to present the expressions of those on the fringes of society as outsider art.

Installation view of the exhibition Yankii Anthropology in 2014

To understand Kushino’s usage of the term “outsider art,” it’s important to compare it with the Japanese use of the term “art brut.” In English, the terms are largely synonymous; in Japanese, they have unique, contrasting meanings. Art brut, originally coined by the French artist Jean Dubuffet to characterize art existing outside and in implicit opposition to the art establishment (and often equated with the art of the insane), is widely used by the Japanese government for public, artistic initiatives to support the physically and developmentally disabled. Outsider art, on the other hand, has a more generally antisocial meaning, not limited to the art of the disabled alone, nor easily reconcilable with the projects and aims of the state.

The Japanese art critic Noi Sawaragi has argued in his book Introduction to Outsider Art that the latter term, originally translated into English from the French in 1972 by Roger Cardinal, became popular in Japan after Maurice Tuchman’s Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art was exhibited in Tokyo at the Setagaya Museum in 1993. Noi asserts that the expressions of those who run counter to the law — prisoners, criminals, or religious prophets — are excluded from the Japanese term “art brut,” and Kushino largely echoed Noi’s opinion during the interview with me. He also expanded on Noi’s definition of the outsider artist as being entirely self-taught, mentioning that he saw the term as resting on two possible conditions: lack of formal training, and marginalized social status. Kushino takes both of these into account when he exhibits outsider artists (but both need not be met for someone to be considered so).

The artist Takuma in his studio

While Kushino held quite a bit of freedom at Tomonotsu Museum, he eventually left in 2016, feeling the desire to pursue new ways of showing and documenting outsider art on his own. He opened Kushino Terrace partially in opposition to the popularity of a style of exhibition that dominates art brut in Japan. This style, which derives from the approach of such curators as Jean-Hubert Martin and Maurice Tuchman, freely displays the art of famous artists with unknown outsider artists’ work (or with anonymous creations), in the hopes of asserting their radical equality. It’s become popular in Japan through the NO-MA Borderless Art Museum, founded in Shiga in 2004. Though he himself employed the style throughout his time at Tomonotsu, Kushino expressed discomfort with it in the interview, and especially the lumping together of a wide variety of expressions under the equalizing umbrella of “art,” which effectively ignores the drastically different social realities of participants in such an exhibition.

A poster for the Transgression Museum

His current Transgression Museum  show (on view until December 16th) at Kushino Terrace, which partners with S-House Museum in Okayama, serves as a critique of this tendency. Instead of mixing so-called insider artists with outsider artists, the spaces simply swapped parts of their collections and exhibited them independently. Hence, Kushino Terrace is currently showing Warhol and the popular Japanese art collective Chim-Pom, among others, while S-House shows a part of Kushino’s collection — local outsider artists, many of whom are from the curator’s hometown.

Here, I want to return to the questions I opened with: namely, how should things not originally intended to be viewed as art be turned into art? And, should they be? Some of the artists Kushino’s associated with are consciously working as artists and wish to secure a place in art history. One such artist, Takuma, an ex-member of a splinter group of Aum Shinrikyo, explores the difficulties of reintegrating into society by painting potted plants as self-portraits and cites Van Gogh as his biggest influence. In this case, it seems fair to say that Kushino’s efforts to support Takuma are fairly conventional in the context of curation. The 89-year-old Kimiko Nishimoto, who Kushino discovered, however, is largely uninterested in this endeavor. Nishimoto takes provocative selfies that challenge the way the elderly are perceived in a rapidly graying Japan. She’s quickly achieved fame, but Kushino no longer represents her and sees her work as part of a broader cultural phenomenon that can’t be contained in the category of art. He introduced her to the art scene as an outsider artist, but she’s gone in another direction completely: regularly appearing on TV and accruing 157,000 followers on Instagram.

A selfie image by Kimiko Nishimoto (photo courtesy of the artist)

Kushino is an outside curator — he wandered into art haphazardly by a drastically different channel than the standard elite programs and PhDs, and he continues to cut a path through it, and perhaps someday away from it, in similar ways. In this sense, it’s difficult to characterize his activities. One aspect of Kushino is engaged with relativizing and overturning dominant notions of art and artistic expression, of fighting against the “inside.” Another aspect of him seems to increasingly doubt this oppositional framework. Rather, he uses the social capital imbued in the word “art” to introduce to the public people doing noteworthy things (making Buddhist statues out of taxidermied beetles, or pruning the grass on the sides of the highway into interesting shapes) through his books and exhibitions regardless of whether they were, are or ever will be pursuing art. In short, he’s pitting the notion of a battle between the inside and outside against the more abstract reality that all art might be is a momentarily useful, socially-constructed label to elevate the activities of people on the fringes of society who are attempting to rationalize their existences to, first and foremost, themselves. In the more difficult case of Kushino’s early work with developmentally disabled patients, it remains murky whether actions and creations can or should be called art without the creator’s consent. These are questions that Kushino seems far from definitively answering.

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