In her photographs, the Japanese artist Mari Katayama appears surrounded by her creations, objects made of fabric that act as extensions of her amputated or atypical limbs. Born with a serious handicap resulting in a cleft palm and stunted leg growth, from an early age Mari Katayama coped with her condition through creativity. The Sage Gallery features the artist’s work in its booth at Paris Photo.
If you ask her how she got into photography, the young woman will look back at you impishly and answer with a question: “How much time do you have? It’s a long story…” This is how she begins to tell her life story: the story of a disabled little girl who wanted to “be like her peers.”
Like threading a needle
“I love sewing,” is the first thing she’ll tell you. Because her legs were deformed, she recalls, her mother and grandmother always had to be very creative to fashion clothes that would fit her. “Sewing was how I began to express myself. When I had an idea, I would sew it rather than writing it down. I knew how to use a needle and a thread before I knew how to hold a crayon.” Aged nine, Mari Katayama decides to have both her legs amputated. Tired of moving around with the help of heavy prosthetic boots that only weighed her down, she made this radical decision mainly out of the need to be like other girls her age: she wanted to wear the same kinds of shoes. But as a hopeful gesture of assimilation the amputation brought further disappointment, and she admits that she has never found a real balance between a bodily ideal she envisions and the reality of her appearance. And thus she found refuge in sewing. She is an instinctive seamstress. She sews to fill her time or to forget about her loneliness. Her needles and threads conjure up anthropomorphic objects devoid of any utilitarian function. A world of feet, hands, feet, shells, hair, lace forms a cocoon in which she grew up.
A crab claw
As a teenager, Mari Katayama felt the need to communicate with the outside world and to share her creations. She thus took the first photographs of her sculptures which she published on MySpace, a blog platform popular at the time. But she quickly realized that her objects alone were not enough to convey the singular context of their creation. She then decided to put herself into the picture and display her body, so long hidden away. Backlit by a window she appears as a mythical creature growing strange, impractical appendages. Photography has allowed her to explore the curves of her imperfect body, a body which she has come to accept and with which she likes to play, like in these shadow puppets that show the malformation of her hand shaped like a crab claw. In Katayama’s world, the young woman’s body is metamorphosed through her sculptures and her imagination. Having tried everything to conform to the accepted canons of beauty, in the privacy of her workshops she adopts unlikely, poetic shapes, becoming a chimera of cloth.
Attentive to every detail, the artist has been known to spend entire days arranging the décor of her installations. “The control freak in me takes over!,” she says, laughing. Thus, in a recent series entitled Bystander, made outdoors for the first time, the artist even sketches the scenes before photographing them. She can be seen reclining on a beach on the island of Nahoshima, which she chose to confront natural settings. This choice is all the more poignant that a neighboring island used to serve as an industrial waste dump, and toxic detritus would often land on the beach where she decided to photograph. Her tentacular body, beached on this once-contaminated shore, becomes a metaphor for environmental pollution. However, around her, life goes on. Waves, clouds, boats steadily follow their course. Nature adapts to everything, just as the artist has adapted to her handicap. Katayama concludes, “I have faith in the humankind.”
By Coline Olsina
Paris Photo - Solo Show - Sage gallery- C33
From November 7 to 10, 2019
Grand Palais, 3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris