In Opulent Self-Portraits, Mari Katayama Rejects Standard Beauty Norms
A dreamy, cinematic glamour pervades Japanese photographer Mari Katayama’s frames. She stages her self-portraits on the beach or in snow white bedding, among flowery fabrics, and in front of a glimmering painting. She wears her hair in a fashionable black bob. Her skin and red lipstick are pristine. It takes a moment for viewers to realize that her body diverges from those in the pin-up or fashion shots to which we’ve become accustomed—Katayama’s legs have been amputated, and she has a cleft left hand.It’s a surprise, but it shouldn’t be: While the media is expanding its conception of beauty, the concept is too often limited to the able-bodied.
Mari Katayama, bystander #002, 2016. © Mari Katayama. Courtesy of Rin Art Association.
Yet the young artist’s oeuvre is about much more than the condition—tibial hemimelia—which led to her to decide to amputate her legs at age 9, while she was growing up in Gunma prefecture. The photographs are celebrations of glittery, girlish making, and of traditional craft objects. They’re lush vehicles for all of Katayama’s creations: painting, sculpture, and of course, her own self-presentation. She creates a theatrical world in which she’s simultaneously the author, director, and star. The pictures’ confidence, and Katayama’s inclusion in the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale, augur an exciting career and a receptive international audience.
In one of the pictures on view in the Biennale’s central exhibition, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” at the Arsenale, Bystander #02 (2016), Katayama sits tall on a burgundy sofa with a floral pattern, flanked by pillows she sewed herself. The backdrop is sparkling, textured teal—part of one of her paintings. Stuffed, sewn arms studded with pearls wrap around her like a shawl. They feature lifelike fingers: She prints hands directly onto the material. Katayama appears like a queen from a fairy tale of her own making.
As a child, Katayama had to wear specially tailored clothes that her mother and grandmother sewed for her. She picked up the skill, as well as other creative outlets, to distract herself from her school, where bullies targeted her. She drew and played in a band. A fashion student named Tatsuya Shimada noticed her unique aesthetic when she was 16, and she became a model in his graduate catwalk show. Over the next decade, she continued making work and attended the Tokyo Art Institute.
A recent trip to Naoshima island inspired Katayama to make the stuffed appendages. There, she learned about naoshima onna bunraku, a traditional all-female style of Japanese puppet theater. She’s noted how the art form features dolls that don’t have any legs. In her series “bystander” (2016), her arms surround her while she lies on the beach, sometimes on her cellphone: She looks like a mermaid-cum-influencer, washed up from the sea.
In Venice, Katayama has found a more receptive audience than in Japan. In her home country, she struggles to communicate with viewers. “People tend to ask [me] to make [my work] crystal clear and explain too much,” she told me at the Biennale, via her translator. At the opening, she met curators and artists who appreciated the nuance in her photographs.
At the Arsenale, Katayama mounted an installation featuring the objects she uses throughout her photoshoots. Half prop closet, half three-dimensional mood board, the presentation further confirms her maximalist aesthetic. On top of a table, floral pillows commingle with beaded fabrics and stuffed legs with shells sewn into the material. Decorated boxes feature cut-out texts and pictures. One appears to be an article about Stan Douglas—another biennale artist who similarly creates cinematic magic in his still photography. Foot braces rest at the back of the table, as does a tiny gold shoe. Katayama has mounted another self-portrait behind all these objects, featuring herself amid mannequins and mountains of materials. Blinking lights at the side offer additional radiance.
One of Katayama’s photographs displays three prosthetics that she’s decorated with bright, bold flowers, a bird, and a crab. The limbs recall Frida Kahlo’s intricately-adorned corsets, more like beautiful shields than medical devices. Through her work, Katayama asserts that her inventive possibilities are infinite.