Nanjing Outsider Art Studio: A Whole New World

Nanjing Outsider Art Studio: A Whole New World

First published: Winter 2019

A pioneering studio in China brings art, community and a Daoist spirit to 23 patients – Raw Vision talks to its founder Haiping Guo

When Chinese contemporary artist, Haiping Guo was eight, his older brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and went to live in a psychiatric hospital. Perhaps it was this early, personal experience of mental illness that gave Guo – who is a curator as well as an artist (self-taught) – his passionate interest in the relationship between psychology and art. In 2006, he started the Nanjing Outsider Art Studio (NOAS), a pioneering, temporary program for resident patients of the Nanjing Zutangshan Psychiatric Hospital. Until then, neither Guo nor the Chinese public were aware of outsider art, nor of the way that spontaneous creativity can reveal the thinking and truth of psychiatric patients who have had no formal art training. A whole new world suddenly opened up to Guo. Inspired and fascinated, he devoted himself to the exploration and promotion of art created by psychiatric patients and, in 2010, set up a permanent, stand-alone NOAS studio.

From Monday to Friday, 23 local artists who suffer, or have suffered, with mental illness, go to Guo’s studio to create freely, without interference. They are provided with a painting room and art materials at no cost. They are not treated like patients, although Guo and his team provide any support or supervision that the artists may need while they are there, and arrange activities and exhibitions for them. A legal agreement signed by their guardians means that the artists receive 30 per cent from the sale of their work, while the remaining money goes towards the upkeep and running of the studios. The rest of the funding for the studio comes from government subsidy.
 

Jie Li, A Child in Adventure, 2016, gouache on paper, 21 x 15 in. / 53 x 38 cm

From time to time, the studio opens its doors to patients, present or former, from all over China rather than just the Nanjing area. Attendees must follow the studio’s simple rules – they must love art and must not disrupt others. People of different mental states are encouraged to treat one another with respect, as equals, and to trust, forgive and cooperate. There is no pressure to communicate if they do not want to.

The ethos of the studio echoes that of Daoism, although not in any deliberate, formal or prescriptive way. It can be discerned in the underlying attitudes in the place. Guo had always believed that, among the existing cultural systems in China, it was only Daoism that worshipped the natural qualities of human beings, but he had also felt that Daoism was overly entrenched in ancient tradition and too far removed from real life. However, once he encountered outsider art, his view changed – he found a synergy between outsider art and Daoism. He says that the Daoist culture recognises and values the cultural significance of outsider art, and that outsider art brings Daoist culture to life, making it relevant and fresh. He explains: “Outsider art is the reflection of individuals’ spiritual freedom as well as people’s natural will. It brings back the right and dignity to live for spiritual worlds different from that of others. It tells us the answer of what we are, where we come from and where we are going”. In 2018, NOAS celebrated its Daoist influences when it held an exhibition of its members works, borrowing an ancient Daoist motto “Nothing gives birth to being” for its title.
 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #104