Galleries

From Salt to Saltwater, Artist Mourns His Sister’s Passing

by An Xiao on October 1, 2012

All images courtesy Motoi Yamamoto and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art.

LOS ANGELES — Just a few miles from the concrete jungles of Los Angeles are its beaches, miles and miles of sand, and silt. And just a few feet past those beaches is salt. Take a dip in the oceans of Los Angeles, and you’ll inevitably notice it, whether it stings your eyes or touches your tongue.

Salt is the subject of a new show my Motoi Yamamoto which has been traveling around the country. Landing recently in Los Angeles, at Loyola Marymount University’s Laband Art Gallery, Yamamoto’s labyrinthine installation, “Return to the Sea,” occupies the entire space. As he hunches over, carefully laying out each grain, his work is reminiscent of the mandala practice of Tibetan monks. But instead of colored sand, the use of salt as a medium speaks to this most basic of minerals.

“What began as an exploration of the practices of Japanese funerary culture and its use of salt has now become a more philosophical inquiry into the importance of this substance to life on the planet,” write Mark Sloan and Brad Thomas, authors of Force of Nature: Site Installations by Ten Japanese Artists. “Yamamoto likes to think that the salt he uses might have been a life-sustaining substance for some creature.”

In the show’s accompanying catalogue, edited by Mark Sloan, director and senior curator at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, we see gorgeous explorations of salt at a large scale. Yamamoto’s creations range from additional labyrinth pieces (each one is site specific) to cherry blossom petals and even stairwells. Glued lightly in place, the salt will eventually be collected by visitors at the end of the show — at which point Yamamoto asks that the salt be returned to the ocean after the installation is complete.

Similar to Zhang Huan’s ash Buddha pieces, the transience and basic materiality of salt reference notions of impermanence central to Buddhist thought. Salt permeates Japanese culture as well, as the catalogue notes, being used during funerals and sumo matches and to bring auspicious opportunities in business. And, of course, as an island nation, Japan is surrounded by salt.

But for all its symbolism, what gives Yamamoto’s salt installations their power is how they began: as a way to mourn his sister’s early death from brain cancer. “Motoi views his installations as exercises that are at once futile yet necessary to his healing,” writes Sloan.

Motoi Yamamoto’s Return to the Sea runs at Laband Art Gallery (on the campus of Loyola Marymount University in the Westchester area of Los Angeles) until December 8. There is a series of events throughout the duration, and a closing ceremony on December 8, when visitors will be invited to return the salt to the nearby Playa Del Rey beach.

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