There are plenty of artists who have spent the majority of their careers devoted to a single unlikely medium: For James Turrell, it’s light. For El Anatsui, it’s soda tabs. But for Motoi Yamamoto, a 47-year-old Japanese artist whose two latest shows recently opened recently at Mint Museum and the Monterey Museum of Art, it’s table salt.
Yamamoto’s work borrows from traditional Hindu and Buddhist meditation mandalas—which are created as a form of meditation and swept away shortly after completion—and they have an incredibly short shelf life. A piece begins when Yamamoto sits down, usually on a gallery floor, and begins to draw using a bottle of salt that functions as a pen. This phase can take weeks, and the public is often invited to watch him work. He stops working when the exhibition opens officially, and when it closes, he invites the public back—this time, to help him sweep up the salt and deposit it back into the ocean.
Salt (and more often, sand) has long been used to make traditional mandalas—but for Yamamoto, there’s a deeper meaning to the substance, since it represents an important part of Japanese funerary rituals. He worked as a more conventional oil painter up until 1996, when his sister died of a brain tumor and his work took a radical turn. He began drawing in architectural space, using only salt—a kind of symbolic memorial, reflected in titles like Forest of Remembrance and Return to the Sea. “Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory,” he says. “What I look for at the end of the act of drawing could be a feeling of touching a precious memory.” It's hard to imagine reliving such a painful event over and over. But for him, these drawings seem like a kind of meditation—a way to preserve memories both good and bad.
Check out Return to the Sea, Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto at Monterey Museum of Art until August 25th, and be sure to catch the beautifully-shot documentary short below. Or check out our previous coverage of Yamamoto’s work, from 2011.
Forest of Remembrance, from 2011.
Yamamoto's finished piece at Mint Museum , earlier this spring.
And its subsequent destruction on March 3.
Yamamoto at work at the Monterey Museum of Art this June.