Transient Salt Art Exhibits

Motoi Yamamoto’s salt installation called Floating Garden on display at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, S.C. in May 2012.
Most art gallery visits are more about don’ts than dos: Don’t touch, don’t lean too close, don’t use flash photography, don’t talk loudly, don’t run and so on. But Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto has a very different view about his exhibits. He doesn’t just want people to touch his delicate installations of salt, he wants people to sweep them up.

It’s all part of the creative art process, he says.
Mr. Yamamoto’s monumental salt installations are delicately composed constructions that take hundreds of hours and thousands of pounds of salt to create. And at the end of each exhibit’s run, visitors are invited to literally get to work with a broom and collect salt for returning to the sea.

"Labyrinth" at the Bellevue Arts Museum during an exhibit from March to May 2012.
This will be the case when Mr. Yamamoto’s exhibit at the Laband Art Gallery, which opened Sept. 8, in Los Angeles, closes in December. The exhibit is his first show on the U.S. West Coast.  He has also held exhibits in Tokyo, Kyoto, Milan, Hamburg and Paris.
It hasn’t always been this way. Mr. Yamamoto had been creating salt-based installations for nearly a decade before the idea crystallized of a formal ceremony to return the salt to the sea, back in 2006.
“Before then, I resisted the idea of my art work getting broken up at the hands of other people. That’s probably because the inspiration behind the work – the reason why I use salt – is directly tied to my sister’s death,” said the Kanazawa-based artist. “Because of this connection, in my heart, I was reluctant to let other people intervene.”
In 1994, the artist’s younger sister passed away from brain cancer. They were very close as she was the person who most understood his art, and her death, coming in his early years as an artist, had a huge impact on his work, he said.

To cope with her death, Mr. Yamamoto turned his grief into elaborate art pieces made of salt, an item traditionally used in Japanese funeral rituals. His art has gone on to soothe his grief to the point where he felt able to invite the public to get involved in his installations and help return the salt he uses to the ocean. In this way his art has evolved into something that isn’t only about his sister’s death, but also celebrates life, he says.
In creating his installations, Mr. Yamamoto transforms several tons of salt into intricate wonders of tiny detail: twisting crystalline labyrinths or unlikely canvases of cherry blossom petals. The detailed and mammoth scale of his work conveys vulnerability and a sense of loneliness.
His piece “Utsusemi,” recreated several times since its debut in 1998, is an architectural construction of a crumbling staircase. “It represented how much I missed my sister. I wanted to see her again, but it was impossible no matter how much I felt that way,” he said.

Working with salt in this way is a grueling process. During a previous exhibition this year at the Halsay Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, S.C., Mr. Yamamoto spent about 100 hours hunched over with his salt-filled plastic bottle to create the installation on site. It took 10 hours a day for about as many days to make a swirling whirlpool-like image for the exhibit. “It’s like running a marathon,” he said, describing the exhausting process.
Looking ahead, Mr. Yamamoto says he’s not ready to give up his penchant for salt just yet. “I’m not tired of it yet. But at the same time, I don’t think my medium has to be salt in the future. I’m open to other things,” he said.

Mr. Yamamoto has experimented with photography and sketching, but is most widely known for his salt installations.

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