Human hair is not often found in stockings. Neither are rings, cotton balls, jewelry, glitter or nail polish. But hanging ominously in the Irving Stenn Jr. Family Gallery of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, several pairs of stockings are stuffed with these items and synch the waists of white pillows cradled in a twine hammock. The sculpture hangs across most of the room, eerily displaying fractured parts of body-image culture.
To the left of this sculpture are three large photographs of a hunched woman, whose naked back is to the camera. The viewer can’t tell if over the course of the images she is turning toward the viewer or away from them. The woman appears again on hauntingly beautiful photographs on the back wall. She poses in various settings, draped in a peculiar sculpture that strings together multiple fabricated limbs into one garment for her to wear. She looks at the viewer with a complex certainty, a striking invitation for the viewer to look closer.
Mari Katayama, an up-and-coming Japanese artist, is both model and artist in much of her work. Born in 1987 with tibial hemimelia (a rare developmental condition), she has two fingers on one hand and had to have her legs amputated at nine years old. She has worn prosthetics ever since. The young artist’s work feels incredibly intimate. She showcases her disabled body along with hand-sewn sculptures (usually of limbs or body parts she is missing), which makes her body seem like a material she is also sculpting.
As an artist, she has taken complete ownership of her medium: herself. Nothing feels candid, but every piece feels deeply honest. It’s as if by crafting intricate, staged scenes, the artist reveals a direct line to herself. By leaning into the fantastical and strange elements of her art, she tells her truth more honestly than a candid photo ever could. Her gaze, in particular, is what caught me in each photo. Everything else — from her posture to her props to the color palette — feels otherworldly and staged. But her gaze cuts through the artifice, allowing you to view the captured moment through her eyes; you are immersed in a fabricated world that is true to her, however seemingly absurd or strange it seems.
The effect of this is an inward one; her work forces the viewer to reconsider how their own bodies fit into this strange, body-obsessed culture we’ve found ourselves in. Katayama owns her body, but it never feels trivial or glamorous or superficially celebratory. Rather, her work presents herself as one entity, as one spirit that fits perfectly into her own body. It’s blunt and asks important questions: How do we live honestly when we are cajoled into cramming our bodies into the latest fashion? What happens when your body and your spirit are the same entity?
There are no clear answers for society at large, but Katayama presents an answer in every secretive glance she gives the camera: she lives with power. Despite years of body image culture and typical notions of femininity attempting to exert power over her, she lives well. She lives as herself, as her art, as her materials and her spirit, and she invites her viewers to do the same.