Mari Katayama’s self portraits and Giorgio Agamben’s The Open

I just visited the Setouchi Triennial that takes place on a group of Islands in the south/east of Japan. In a gallery on Naoshima I fell upon the installation “bystander” by Mari Katayama made specifically for the triennial.

One of the photographs in the installation by Katayama
One of the photographs in the installation by Katayama

In a series of photographic self-portraits, Katayama arranges herself, with stuffed, toy-like mannequin-like prosthetic legs and arms, in a way where it becomes difficult to figure out which is her limbs and which are dummies. It takes time and effort to see that she has a deformed hand and both her legs are amputated mid-leg. To a backdrop of the sea, she mimics the figure of the mermaid or the siren, which made me think of Giorgio Agamben’s The Open in which he tells the story of how scientists have always struggled to point out exactly what it is that separates human from ape, animal or even mythical figure. The Danish anatomist Caspar Bartholin categorized the siren as “Homo Marinus” next to man (homo sapien) and orangutang (homo sylvestris). Agamben goes on to argue:

“[Homo-sapiens] is an optical machine constructed of a series of mirrors in which man, looking at himself, sees his own image always already deformed in the features of an ape… Whoever refuses to recognize himself in the ape, becomes one.”

In this manner Katayama, points to the deformity at the heart of what it is to be human.

Agamben, Giorgio (2004) The Open, Man and Animal, Stanford University Press
Setouchi Triennale 2016 Official Guidebook (2016) Gendaikikakushitsu
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5 Comments on "Mari Katayama’s self portraits and Giorgio Agamben’s The Open"

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Anna Rowntree

thanks so much for this- amazing photo! just a little thought because i have been thinking about deformity of the human body recently too. it has struck me that we tend to figure deformity in terms of disability and limitation where as much of the powerful affects of the deformed body have a lot to do with the possibilities that the altered body offers/leaves open. we are forced to imagine a human beyond the usual range and that can be both threatening and exciting. seems to me that this art makes imaginative use of that open possibility for reimagening/offer alternatives.

Ângela Longo
Hello Honey Beckerlee – First I didn’t know this artist, so thank you for the amazing reference. I agree with you in this work the deformity is at the center redefining the human. I think that the doubt and the uncanny feeling of it is powerful, aesthetically and ethically. If I understand correctly this passage of Agamben talks about our prosthetic nature, our relation with the many mechanism and other life forms that ultimate in assembling the human. It remind me of one of Cary Wolfe remarks about posthumanist approach: “Acknowledging that is fundamentally a prosthetic creature that has coevolved… Read more »
Eva Krarup
Eva Krarup
Thank you for the interesting example. I think this art work is a good example of something Mads Rosendahl Thomsen touched upon in his lecture; how art can (and maybe should?) be used to criticize the tendency towards perfection and enhancement within the posthuman field. I like your point that Katayama’s work shows the deformity at the heart of the human, but isn’t it at the same time an example of a work of art that tries to break away from the focus on the human? (by making the body more animal-like through the use of prostheses, the middle of… Read more »