Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto loves the same thing everyone else loves about Los Angeles. "The weather is great," he said eagerly through an interpreter.
But for Yamamoto the dry, temperate climate isn't just good for year-round tomatoes and brunching on patios in the winter -- it's ideal for his art.
Yamamoto makes site-specific installations entirely of salt. The Los Angeles air keeps the tiny grains from fusing and spreading, preserving his intricate, labyrinthine lines. His latest saltwork, his first in Los Angeles, is now at the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University, until closing with a ceremony on Dec. 8 to return the salt to the sea.
Yamamoto began making saltworks in 2001 after losing his young sister to brain cancer. He shaped thin lines of the spice -- Morton's table salt, shipped in several 50 pound brown bags -- into labyrinths, leaves, stairways and, as at Laband, spirals that evoke typhoons or galaxies. The Laband work is 26 by 31 feet, and the distance of all the lines he has ever made, Yamamoto joked, "would be from Los Angeles to Tokyo."
Salt as a material -- more than the sand of Buddhist mandalas, the only artistic influence Yamamoto cites -- had a resonance for the artist because of its importance to human history and ritual. Salt preserved food, sustained bodies, bolstered empires, served as metaphor for Christians in the Sermon on the Mount, and either cursed or blessed the ground on which it was spilled or sprinkled, depending on your source. Sumo wrestlers dust salt in the ring before fighting. Buddhist mourners sometimes receive packets of salt at funerals, to scatter in memory of the dead.
For all the many metaphorical paths the works could take, Yamamoto's salt, like Buddhist monks' sand or Andy Goldsworthy's natural elements, is primarily about embracing impermanence. Yamamoto works up to two dozen 10-hour-plus days to create each piece. He makes several a year when he isn't working as an administrator at an iron mill back in Japan. "It's a very physical act," said Laband director and curator Carolyn Peter of Yamamoto's work. "It takes a lot out of him." But afterward, all of them are destroyed. The salt is returned to the ocean, an idea Yamamoto adopted at in 2006 after a show in North Carolina, at the suggestion of a janitor who had just lost his father and who mopped into the salt the words, "Thank you, Mr. Yamamoto."
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Hunching alone on a black square of fabric at Laband, dispensing salt onto the floor from a plastic squeeze bottle -- the same kind his parents used to fix up bikes at a repair shop they ran outside of Hiroshima -- Yamamoto used nothing sticky to hold the grains in place. Dressed entirely in black, cheerful despite the meticulousness of the work, Yamamoto said that any accident, from a windblown line to an errant visitor's footstep to a janitor's broom, would become part of the piece, much as mistakes can't be erased in life. Even so, Peter, in preparing for the installation, worried about what would happen every time anyone opened the front door, how to keep the humidity right inside, and how best to block off the work while still allowing close-up views of the grains and higher views of the work as a whole. (She went with a simple cord, and a raised platform.)
During his first week of work at the site, a calm Yamamoto praised Laband visitors for keeping their distance from his piece. He particularly looked forward to student visitors, noting they could learn from the piece's more hopeful messages: that of rebirth, and of the possibility of making something big out of miniscule pieces and steps. As he joked, "There is no art major in universities for this."
Laband Art Gallery is at 1 Loyola Marymount University Drive, Los Angeles. Exhibit runs thru Dec. 8, Open Wed.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.; free.