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Personal memories of loss define Motoi Yamamoto's expansive salt installations

Japan-based artist Motoi Yamamoto gives a tangible form to his personal memories of losing a dear one in large-scale salt installations.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Dec 02, 2021

The memory despite its fluid flow sustains a cohesive view on everyday practices and challenges of human life. To conceptually translate a personal memory of loss into the visual appeal of large-scale installations is the art practice of Japan-based artist Motoi Yamamoto. The intricate pattern of the installations — made with sea salt that take close to a counted number of days or weeks to complete — is a way to channelise the memories into a tangible form. A way to preserve the times spent with the close ones. The installations with an expansive scale have been housed in unconventional art spaces, for instance: a castle tower of the medieval times in France, and a desolated home transformed into an art place on a remote island of Japan.

Labyrinth | Motoi Yamamoto | Japan | STIRworld
Motoi Yamamoto, Labyrinth, 2010, Salt, diameter 12m, Kunst-Station, Sankt Peter Köln Image: Worring Stefan

Interestingly, Yamamoto did oil paintings before turning his practice into on-site installations with salt as a medium. In an interview with STIR, the artist informs us about this shift from canvas to physical spaces, “After the death of my sister, I wished to become part of the work, and so I turned to this technique of making installation with salt. In Japan, salt holds a cultural significance of cleansing and purifying the mind and the soul.” The gentle white colour of the salt for Yamamoto reflects the purity of his emotions in pain. If salt is the key to the installations, then its ephemeral quality could pose unique challenges. Yamamoto talks about such difficulties, especially when the works are created in a closed environment, “When the humidity exceeds 75 per cent, salt absorbs the moisture of the air and dissolves. Because of that, humidity control is always important in venues without air conditioning.”

<em>Return to the Sea Projekt / Labyrinth</em>, , Kunst-Station, Sankt Peter Köln | Motoi Yamamoto | Japan | STIRworld
Return to the Sea Projekt / Labyrinth, Kunst-Station, Sankt Peter KölnImage: Bernd A Hartwig

This nature of the salt for the artist is an important reminiscence of the transient place humans hold on the earth. “Precisely because it is a material that is difficult to preserve permanently, this feeling of gratitude arises to the fact that it exists here and now. It reminds us of the fear that everything can disappear at any moment; it reminds us of the finiteness of life and time. It might also mean to reflect on death.” The artist, in the recently concluded exhibition Utakata at the Mikiko Sato Gallery, Germany, aptly epitomised this theme of transience. The title of the show refers to the most famous passage of the book Hōjōki, written by the Japanese writer Kamon no Chōmei (1153-1216). The author uses the metaphor of a moving river with its fleeting foam crowns (utakata) to describe the Buddhist concept of transience. The temporality-emphasising character of the shown works reveals the engagement and pursuit of Yamamoto with related themes such as memory and transience.

Falling Cherry Petals | Motoi Yamamoto | Japan | STIRworld
Falling Cherry Petals Image: Motoi Yamamoto, Courtesy of Setouchi City Art

In a solo show, Sakura Shibefuru or Falling Cherry Petals at the Setouchi City Art Museum, Japan, Yamamoto created one lakh cherry blossom petals with salt against a dark red floor. Before the final work was presented to the audience, the artist had spent close to nine days creating the installation by putting salt on the petal-shaped mould and then spreading it in a coherent pattern. At the Setouchi Triennale, in 2016, the artist layered the second floor of an ancestral home on Takamijima with an installation Floating Garden—made with salt against the blue surface of the floor—that bore a close resemblance with the ebb and flow of the ocean.

The Dragons of Lapis Lazuli / OTSU1731-GOEMON Bath House (Onomichi) / A Corridor of Art through the Seas and Mountains + Onomichi Art Crossroads / 2017| Motoi Yamamoto | Japan | STIRworld
The Dragons of Lapis Lazuli / OTSU1731-GOEMON Bath House (Onomichi) / A Corridor of Art through the Seas and Mountains + Onomichi Art Crossroads / 2017 Image: Motoi Yamamoto

Yamamoto offers a brief glimpse of every step he takes to create these monumental works. “I do not draw exact drafts, but I do draw rough sketches based on photos and ground plan of the venue as a plan. After that, I visit the space physically and decide the lighting etc. depending on the daylight situation and other details of the space. And then, in the process of actually drawing with salt on the floor, I draw while searching for the shape, step by step.” Since the works are short-lived in nature, he believes to document the installations, “which acts as the hub that connects various memories with our present selves. I keep making my works so that I do not forget my precious memories, and the documentation of my past works helps me to do that.”

Tracing Memory | Motoi Yamamoto | Japan | STIRworld
Tracing Memory Image: Courtesy of Foto Kanazawa College of Art Team

The salt installations by Yamamoto grow from his personal family history of loss and pain. The artist says that these are made to “solve my problems, not for someone else. And I think that won’t change in the future.” However, he mentions that the viewers have often felt the sense of circulation or warmth. “They often tell me that seeing my work was a moment of reflecting on the deceased and their feelings about the deceased. That makes me really happy.” In a world driven by individualism than collectivism, the contemporary art practice of Yamamoto, despite being a rescue mission for the artist, buoyantly finds an audience who could comprehend the void left by the departed.

TFloating Garden | Motoi Yamamoto | Japan | STIRworld
Return to the Sea Projekt / Floating Garden, 2013 Salt, Ernst Barlach Haus Hamburg Image: Andreas Weiss

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