Artist Mari Katayama uses photographic self-portraiture to dismantle expected notions of beauty and sexuality and to explore the interconnectedness of the human body to fashion and props. Katayama was born in Saitama, Japan in 1987, with congenital tibial hemimelia, which caused her to have shortened legs, club feet, and a cleft left hand. She chose a double leg amputation at the age of 9, facing the choice of using a wheelchair with the legs she had or walking with prosthetics. Much is made of Katayama’s differently-abled body, and while an understanding of her physical history is necessary to fully appreciate her images, her work expands beyond a mere exploration of disability.
Because women in visual art have often been portrayed through a sexualized, standardized, and male gaze, there can be a particular potency in work that individualizes the female body. Much like Frida Kahlo, Katayama uses her particular bodily contours, along with accessories and fashion, to create an iconoclastic look that redefines beauty. In “you’re mine #001″ (2014), Katayama reclines in bed. Her black hair is bobbed with bangs, and her eyes lined in dark eyeliner look directly at the camera. Her lips and nails are red, and she wears a lingerie bodysuit. Katayama is not wearing prosthetics in this photo, and her legs, covered in sleeves, rest on pillows. Her left hand sits jauntily on one thigh. In many ways this image is a straightforward beauty shot, one in which Katayama uses signifiers of sexiness, including red lipstick, red nails, black eyeliner, and lingerie, to demonstrate that these markers easily transcend a particular body. The shot makes no attempt to “normalize” her body, thus creating a new form of beauty.
Katayama explained her interest in props to Hyperallergic:
I started taking photos of myself together with objects, treating myself as a mannequin. By doing so, it’s easier for the audience to know the roles of these items … these photos were initially meant to archive, to explain the objects around me before people started calling them “self-portraits.”
In “bystander #001″ (2014) Katayama lies on a wood floor, her body positioned in a gentle v, a shape repeated by the fingers of her left hand and the angle between her arms. A series of fabric, prop-arm appendages, with hands containing between two and five fingers, radiates from her torso. These props both emphasize Katayama’s heterogeneous hands and also downplay them as one of many. This multiplicity begs the question: if we have two arm appendages, why not many? Why usually five fingers and not two, or four? In this and other images, Katayama uses objects both to reference her body and to submerge the viewer in a world where the expected limits of the bodily form are reimagined.
In a 2015 interview in Fragments, Katayama muses on this fusion of the animate body with inanimate objects:
Since I still felt them, I couldn’t tell whether artificial legs can be considered part of the human body or not. There was a time I thought about that a lot. Since I couldn’t determine where my body began and ended; I was kind of tracing my body with objets-d’arts.
Ralph Rugoff included Katayama’s work in this year’s Venice Biennale. Unlike much of the apocalyptic work in the Central Pavilion and Arsenale exhibitions, Katayama’s images have a definitively positive undertone: they use style and physical difference as agents of self-definition and redefinition. They reimagine how the material world might be integrated with the body, not in a dystopian human-as-robot sense, but rather to create new contours of beauty and functionality.