Mari Katayama - White Rainbow exhibition (2018)

Commissioned by the British Journal of Photography

A bedroom scene, at first sight familiar: clothes hanging from a rail, piles of books, trinkets and personal paraphernalia. In the centre of the frame, a woman lies back in a lace dress, white bows in her hair. It takes a moment to notice that her legs end in pink prostheses, or that a life size, person-shaped sculpture is lying next to her, adorned in pearls and shells. A similar image, in the same setting, features the woman sitting, balanced, the end of her leg fitting snugly into a tiny, jewelled shoe. In another tableau, the woman sits again, passive, next to another sculpture of a body matching her own; like her, it is dressed in white, and the scene glistens with fairy lights, sparkling gems, jars filled with layered glitter. This is the elaborate constructed world of Mari Katayama, a Japanese artist whose work is showing at London’s White Rainbow gallery from January. Katayama’s main medium is her body itself; the sculptures, sets and photographs that she creates surround her like a constellation.

Katayama was born with tibial hemimelia, a condition indicating the absence of the larger bone in the leg. As a child, she walked using leg braces that made her unable to wear normal clothes; at age 9, she made the decision to have her legs amputated. The artist is nonchalant about her condition, and the heavy decisions she was forced to take as a child. “I am not that conscious about my body in my daily life to begin with,” she says. “Just like other people do, I try to do what I can with my own body; it’s nothing special.” Reactions to her work have tended to centre around her status as a disabled artist; Japanese viewers have described the feeling of seeing something hidden, something private being unveiled. Katayama, however, finds this an inaccurate reading: she sees her work as a reflection of the world outside. If anything, the differences in her body are fertile grounds for experimentation and production. “When I am taking a photograph of my finger, it’s obviously missing; there are certain things that I cannot do like other people. Sometimes it’s depressing, and I have to accept the situation that something’s different. But at the same time, it could be the recipe for a new creation, or give me a new perspective.”

Her engagement with her body’s differences is playful rather than mournful or regretful. She elaborates tiny, jewelled high heels to wear that glisten and sparkle like glittering doll’s shoes; she photographs her prostheses, painted with fine illustrations. The prostheses, in particular, recall Frida Kahlo’s interaction with the surgical devices she herself used: the painted corsets that she wore daily to support her back after a traffic collision at 18, and the decorated prosthetic legs of her own. Katayama’s prosthetic paintings, with their fine hand and cartoonish simplicity, recall Kahlo’s; but, when asked about inspiration or idols, she notes that “there’s no specific artist that has been a great influence.” Instead, her work springs from a desire to satisfy herself. She learned to sew before she could hold a pencil, and so the use of sculpture and textiles became a natural extension of her way of being in the world. “Initially I started making things for myself, for instance decorating my room in the way I wanted it,” she explains. Her inspiration comes either from inside, or from more uncertain sources; passing encounters with people in her life, for example.

As a teenager, Katayama’s initial pieces were sculptures, and photography was just a means of sharing them online. She made a sculpture of her leg, and posed with it in her bedroom in a photograph taken by her four-year-old sister. “At that time I started using my own body as a mannequin, wearing my sculptures as objects that I created. There’s kind of a feedback cycle: what I experience is generated into art. In that sense, the body cannot be separated from the creation.” The distance between Katayama and her body when discussing the work is striking; she speaks of ‘the’ body, rather than ‘my’ body, and it is indicative of the way she uses her physical self as sculptural material, just like the gems and pearls she sews into her pieces. “I feel it’s neither problematic nor empowering,” she explains. “People sometimes make comments like: ‘weren’t you embarrassed?’ But I’m never able to understand what they’re talking about. For instance, one of my self portraits happened to be nude, and I didn’t realise I was naked until someone else told me: ‘how courageous you are to take such a nude picture’. I didn’t even see the body in the photo as my own.”

The images are linked by a glamorous, almost commercial aesthetic, even as it is often reminiscent of classic painting: Katayama is striking, with sleek hair and glossy make up, and reclines in some images like an odalisque. In her series ‘bystander’, she appears as though washed up on a beach like Botticelli’s Venus, surrounded by a writhing mass of hand-sewn limb sculptures, while she calmly scrolls on an iPhone. She handles the modern and the classical with the same lightness of touch, creating an effect of timeless strangeness, the strangeness of her own body merging with her sculptures in a wash of neutral colour. The making of this particular work, which saw her travelling from her native Gunma prefecture to the island of Naoshima, involved her transporting her sculptures on the train herself. Her initial experiments with these particular sculptures had been unsuccessful, and she had been displeased with the portraits she had taken; however, after spending 5 hours with them in close proximity, learning their heft and their edges, their relationship changed. She found herself capable of communicating with them.

“The lesson learned from this process helped me a lot during my pregnancy,” Katayama describes of the ‘bystander’ series. The artist is a new mother, and newly sensitive to the processes of change inherent to womanhood — menstruation, pregnancy, menopause — and her ambivalence about these changes is reflected in her latest work, as well as in ‘bystander’. “I’ve heard that morning sickness is a signal of rejection when someone else is invading your body and inhabiting. When I heard that story, I realised this ‘bystander’ series was meant to be something like a morning sickness.” The artist’s work contends with change, ambivalence, drawing towards and away from a body which wields its own power.

Her newest work, ‘cannot turn the clock back', is informed by her first experiences of motherhood. In Katayama’s typically ambivalent handling, the images are moody and sensual; the artist poses in underwear, the ghost of pregnancy’s linea negra still visible on her stomach, her hair pulled under a netted wig cap like a performer who’s come off stage and stripped off her elaborate garb. Later, she photographs her daughter’s toys against the same ornate background, with the same grainy, analogue tonality: instead of symbolising childish simplicity, the images are ambiguous. Katayama is conscious of the dialogue surrounding motherhood, the way that we assume its trappings are positive, and calls them to question: “If you see it from a different point of view, it — love, toys, motherhood — could be something like a poison; it could be very contagious.”

Her ongoing work walks this ambivalent line, its pop aesthetic indivisible from its shadows. “I tend to create broken hearts since I believe they look more beautiful after being torn apart.” Katayama is highly sensitive to the beauty in the broken, the dark edge of the beautiful. “Their fractured pieces shine like a disco ball."