Alone with Materials

Vol. 6 MARI KATAYAMA at her studio in Gunma, Japan, July 10, 2020

Meet virtually award-winning artist Mari Katayama, who is surrounded by boxes of art paraphernalia and handmade objects in her new studio in Gunma, Japan.

She explains why and how she uses her handicapped body in her photography and installations, and how she began accepting other people’s bodies and external elements in her art, especially after she became pregnant.

MARI KATAYAMA (b. 1987, Japanese)

Mari Katayama Studio © Mari Katayama

Born with tibial hemimelia and having her legs amputated at the age of 9, Mari Katayama is best known for her arresting self-portraits elaborately staged with hand-sewn sculpture and other decorative objects she creates. Mari regards her photography as the best way to show the details and atmosphere of these objects while maintaining the principle of doing all the shooting by herself.

you're mine #001, 2014 chromogenic print ©︎ Mari Katayama

“In self-portraits, I tend to think of myself as someone else (or just a mannequin or a motif), but I think this way of taking a portrait is a kind of antidote. People who look at my work can imagine the story or background of what’s behind it. As an artist, I don't care what people think. They can think about anything. I don't really want to control the audience. This means that the subject's original story, social attributes, worries, happiness, and sadness are all but gone.”

bystander #014, 2016, chromogenic print ©︎ Mari Katayama

The bystander' series (2016), made during her stay in Naoshima Island, features the hands of local residents as material—using textile with printed photographs of their hands sewn on to the objects. These are the hands of female puppeteers of bunraku puppets who, hiding under a black cloak, become the feet and spine of the dolls. For the first time, Mari has incorporated the bodies of other people into her work, feeling their limitations to echo the way we live in these hard times.

Just as the body is the central presence in Mari’s work, her artist's statement in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic is quite thought-provoking.

“In this coronavirus crisis, the body is the source of infection because the body is 'substance.' The world must have learned that the body we thought we knew was unreliable. Where does 'substance' go? Even if it’s gone, its existence cannot be erased. I believe this crisis is casting some positive aspects to the future. Because I majored in information studies, and through the Internet, I have enjoyed expressing myself and communicating with others without physical interaction. All body-inflicting matters seem obsolete when we can no longer rely on the 'body proper.' This is why I think it’s necessary to focus on the disembodied mind, imagining that person might be me or I might be that person.”

in the water #001, 2019, chromogenic print ©︎ Mari Katayama
hole on black, 2018, chromogenic print, © Mari Katayama

Born in Saitama, Mari Katayama received her M.F.A. from Tokyo University of the Arts in 2012. She has exhibited her works internationally including the 58th Venice Biennale (2019). Other notable venues are Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Meiji University Izumi Library Gallery, Tokyo; La Criée, Théâtre National de Marseille; Aichi Triennale; Setouchi Triennale, Miyaura Gallery Rokku, Naoshima, Daegu Photo Biennale, Mori Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art Gunma; Okawa Museum of Art, University of Michigan Museum of Art. Her work will be in an upcoming group show, “Fashion is a Verb,” at the William Patterson University Gallery.

Mari is a winner of the Encouragement Prize at the 8th Gunma Biennale for Young Artists, Grand Prize at Art Award Tokyo Marunouchi, Higashikawa New Photographer Award, and Kimura Ihei Award. United Vagabonds published her first photo book, Gift, in 2019. She lives in Gunma with her husband Hiroaki and young daughter Himari.