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Born with tibial hemimelia, Japanese artist Mari Katayama chose to have her legs amputated at the age of nine. Now she uses her body in her dazzling work, adorned with crystals, seashells and lifesize dolls
by Chris Campion
Mari Katayama stares out from the centre of the photograph, looking like a mannequin with a Louise Brooks bob. Lit by fairy lights and surrounded by all her personal artefacts, she is wearing a cream corset and reclining in a Louis XVI-style loveseat. Beside her sits a lifesize doll, a handsewn replica of herself – and on the floor in front, decorated with images of leaves and butterflies, lie her discarded prosthetic legs, each shoe adorned with a sparkling light.
Katayama was born with tibial hemimelia, an extremely rare condition that stops bones in the lower legs from fully developing, often leaving them foreshortened. In her case, the condition also caused club feet and a cleft left hand that resembled a crab’s pincers. Consequently, crab motifs recur in the work of the Japanese artist, who was also born under the sign of Cancer.
“You can’t separate my body from my work,” she says, when we meet at Gateau Festa Harada, a sweet factory in Gunma that doubles as a gallery and is hosting a retrospective of her work. “But,” she insists, “I’m not making art out of my disabilities.” However, given that she uses her body as a sort of living sculpture, she acknowledges that the subject is complex.
Still in her 20s, Katayama is a star in the making, her work already attracting notice from collectors and curators in Europe and America – a rarity in the vibrant but insular world of Japanese contemporary art. Remarkably, Katayama never set out to be an artist. Her intricately embroidered and stuffed objects – inlaid with lace, seashells, hair, crystals and collaged images – were made purely for her own amusement. And art was far from her mind when she began to take portraits of herself. “I was only taking photos to show my friends on MySpace what I’d made,” she says.
The retrospective is one of two major Katayama shows taking place in Gunma, to the north of Tokyo. The other, an exhibition of new work called On the Way Home, is at the prefecture’s Museum of Modern Art. In person, Katayama is nothing like the fierce, singular character suggested by her photographs. She is sweet, unassuming and girlish, sitting in her wheelchair with a face mask on to ward off a cold, yet rising to almost 6ft tall on her prosthetic legs when she gets up to open a box full of the seashells she uses to decorate her work.
Her retrospective is called 19872017, the year of her birth to now, which reflects how entwined Katayama’s life and work are. “Creating and living are the same thing for me,” she says. “There is no separation. I really don’t know where my work ends.” She grew up 45 minutes from the sweet factory in a small city called Ota, where she still resides in an apartment that also serves as her studio. In fact, it is more of a constantly evolving installation.
Simon Baker, curator of photography at Tate Modern, was struck by Katayama’s work when he first saw it at the Unseen photography fair in Amsterdam last year. “It really stood out,” he says. “There are ideas about identity and performance, as well as obvious references – art historical references to previous artists.” He cites Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Matthew Barney. At the same time, he adds, Katayama’s work stands alone. “She’s touching on things without being derivative of them. There’s also this incredible personal story.”
As a child, Katayama wore special shoes buckled to her legs with braces, which meant she couldn’t wear regular clothes. She recalls three generations of women in her family – great grandmother, grandmother and mother – constantly sewing clothes for her, and encouraging her to make her own. “I learned to hold a needle and thread before I could hold a pencil,” she says. “It was like: if you want something, you make it.” Sewing became second nature.
Inevitably, her disability set her apart at school. The bullying started in third year. Far from offering sympathy or support, Katayama’s teacher suggested that she had provoked her tormentors by looking at them with disdain. The bullying got so bad she began to skip school and, for a while, was even kept away by her parents.
At the age of nine, of her own volition, she decided to have her lower legs amputated. It seems a remarkably mature decision for somebody so young but Katayama says it was entirely practical: “It was a choice between being bound to a wheelchair for the rest of my life – or being able to walk but losing my legs. I chose to walk.” Afterwards, she underwent a year of training that seemed to last for ever. Relearning how to walk on prosthetic legs instilled in her a discipline and focus that, she believes, carried over into her artistic practice. Able to wear regular clothes and shoes, she became interested in fashion, hoping she could fit in by dressing like other kids. But the bullying continued.
When she was 16, Katayama caught the eye of Tatsuya Shimada, then a fashion student, now a stylist for Vogue Japan. He was putting together his graduation show, using unconventional, non-professional models of all ages and body types, and came across Katayama through her blog.
As she was completing the project, another new body presented itself, this one living inside her. Katayama is pregnant – and tickled that her child will be born under the sign of the crab, though she is uncertain how this will affect her art. She sums up with the words: “All human bodies – including ones like mine that have been altered by human hands – are perfect.” (-The Guardian)