Mari Katayama, Gift

JTF (just the facts): Published by United Vagabonds in 2019 (here). Hardcover, 136 pages, with 70 color and black and white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and Simon Baker. In an edition of 2500 copies. Design by Simon Dara. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Japanese artist Mari Katayama uses her body as a living sculpture, placing it in the center of her photographs, often together with hand-sewn sculptures or tightly surrounded by collected objects. But while the nuances of her body seem to dominate her work, Katayama is very clear that she uses it primarily to share her experiences. “You can’t separate my body from my work. But I’m not making art out of my disabilities.”

Katayama was born with an extremely rare condition, tibial hemimelia, that stopped the bones in her lower legs from fully developing and caused a cleft left hand. Katayama’s legs were amputated when she was nine, and during her childhood, she had to wear shoes buckled to her legs with braces. Since regular clothes didn’t fit, her mother and grandmother started sewing clothes for her. So naturally, Katayama picked up sewing as well, turning it into her own practice and a way of expression. She started to make patchwork, and her self-portraits were initially a way to show off these objects and their scale. Now she uses her body, as well as her prosthetics and created body parts, which are often decorated with lace, crystals, seashells and other sparkling objects, in provocative and surreal self-portraits. Ultimately, art has helped her to understand and explore her own body.

Gift is Katayama’s first photobook and is a retrospective survey of her past works, its release coinciding with her first solo exhibition in Europe earlier this year. The book is covered in a lush mustard fabric, and an image of Katayama’s hands making a circle shape against a black background is elegantly embossed on the cover. It shows the artist’s cleft hand in a striking design, announcing that unexpected beauty and creativity will be found inside.

The photographs in the book were taken between 2007 and 2018, and bring together several projects. The book opens with an artist sitting in an eye doctor’s office wearing the vision examination equipment like fashionable glasses, their circle details matching the decoration on her blouse; then, our eye moves to notice her prosthetic legs. Perhaps this is Katayama’s way of questioning our traditional way of seeing the world? This image is followed by a full spread black and white photograph of Katayama on a table with her amputated limbs exposed, with her prosthetic legs prominently placed under the table. She looks right back at us, confident and calm, allowing us to take a closer look at her body and get our first discomfort and awkwardness with her disability out of the way.

This opening sequence of black and white images and texts, printed on uncoated paper, serves as an introduction to Katayama’s world today. We see her first in her room, amid the clutter of sewing and fabrics, and then she stands like a dancer in a mini dress wearing her prosthetic legs and high heels, bending her left leg as she looks in the camera; while her wheelchair is visible in the mirrored background, we see this is a confident woman. Then, Katayama takes us back to her childhood. An image titled “Pink Legs” shows two misshapen legs sewn from different fabrics shot against a black background. It is followed by a photo of Katayama as a little girl on her bed, matched by her leather braces with pink Velcro straps. A selection of images follows, showing us her prosthetics covered with intricate tattoo-like paintings and embroidered objects of various sizes in the shape of limbs, carefully decorated with crystals and lace – she has taken possession of these phantom limbs, making them her own.

Katayama employs these objects to create striking self-portraits, from costumed performance-like setups to more bluntly provocative engagements with the camera. In a series of photographs titled “Bystander,” she is photographed surrounded by manufactured limbs. One photograph shows her lying on a bed intertwined with many extra limbs, her own arms and legs becoming momentarily lost in the jumble; another captures the artist sitting on the beach as the limbs become a continuation of her body, like an octopus. In another perplexing picture, she stands on her prosthetic legs on a bridge, with a patchwork shawl with attached limbs falling off her left shoulder all the way to the ground. She uses these objects and installations to reestablish and redefine her identity, to rethink what physicality means. The last spread in the book pairs a photograph of chunky high heel shoes seen through a circular door with an image of Katayama looking through a similar opening – she is ready to explore the world, and nothing, not even her shoes, are in her way.

As a photobook, Gift is cleanly elegant, with a straightforward design and layout. Seen in summary form, Katayama’s approach to her disability is moving and empowering, and there is also a sense of thoughtful playfulness in the way she explores the possibilities of limbs. What makes Katayama’s work stand out is her ability to share her traumatic experiences in a powerful and confident way, challenging our norms and perceptions. She forces us to empathetically confront a simple reality –  “all human bodies – including ones like mine that have been altered by human hands – are perfect.”

Collector’s POV: Mari Katayama is represented by Miyako Yoshinaga in New York (here). Her work has not found its way to the secondary markets with much regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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