On her Instagram, Mari Katayama describes herself as follows: “Taking self-portraits with my hand-sewn objects, wearing high heels on my artificial legs, singing and modeling on the stage.” And indeed, in Mari Katayama’s photographic work, performance plays a major role. Like other artists, this Japanese woman has turned her body into the object of her work. One thinks of Cindy Sherman who, since the 1970s, has been casting herself in the role of her own characters. One might also think of ORLAN who, in the early 1990s, transformed her body through plastic surgery, putting implants in her forehead and declaring that her body is “the site of public debate.”
What distinguishes Mari Katayama’s work is its autobiographical character. She suffers from a rare congenital disease that led to the amputation of both her legs at age nine, and she has a malformation of the left hand. She has turned this handicap into an asset, since the uniqueness of her body is her source of inspiration. For the past ten years she has been developing her work through a long process that is both artistic and therapeutic. Isolated from other children in her childhood, she was introduced to sewing by her grandmother. She puts this skill to use in numerous series: “Bystander”, “Shadow Puppet”, and “On the Way Home”. The slowness and the patience necessary to create these fabric “prostheses,” which she fashions herself, are as important as the final result.
The exhibition “Home Again” at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, brings together the artist’s works done in 2009, including “In the Water”, a series shown in Europe for the first time. Mari Katayama’s first images foreground imagination, transforming the artist into an octopus-woman, a femme-fatale, or a woman-doll in scenes shot outdoors or indoors in places that one might imagine to be her own home. Dream engulfs the reality, even while some self-portraits are disturbing because they lead us to reflect on the difficulties and the suffering implied in living in an extraordinary body like Katayama’s.
With “In the Water”, poetry gives way to abstraction, but the viewer is not fooled. Very quickly, one realizes that the large-format closeups, set up all in a row at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, represent the amputated legs of the young artist. The images are frontal and raw, for here Mari Katayama does not hide her body behind props but shows it in its raw state. As she explains, a major change occurred in her life with the birth of her daughter: “There is finally someone in this world who sees and considers my body as normal.” This is what Mari Katayama’s images teach us: to learn to look at difference while holding on to a childlike candor.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
Mari Katayama, “Home Again”, until October 24, Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5/7 rue de Fourcy 75004 Paris.
Mari Katayama, published by the Fondation Antoine de Galbert, collection “Un certain désordre.” Trilingual French/English/Japanese, 30 €.