Motoi Yamamoto couldn't be there for the last day of his exhibit, “Return to the Sea.” The show, at Loyola Marymount University's Laband Gallery, consists primarily of one large installation, Floating Garden. It is made entirely out of salt. It is a piece of exquisite beauty and involved many hours of Yamamoto obsessively placing tiny grains of salt. But he was still prepared for members of the public to muck it up.
Curator Carolyn Peter brought in Yamamoto after seeing his show at the Halsey Institute in Charleston, S.C., in July. She figured he'd be good for a university gallery, which was kept open during the installation process so students could observe an artist creating work from a very unusual material.
She also found Yamamoto's salt art incredibly moving.
“It pulls you in,” she says. “On all levels: artistic, technical, scientific, biological, spiritual.”
Yamamoto had trained as an oil painter but turned to using salt shortly after his sister died from brain cancer at the age of 24.
Salt is a funeral material in Japan. A symbol of purification and mourning, packets of it are handed out to guests after burial services. A pinch tossed on your front door wards off evil spirits. Sumo wrestlers throw handfuls of it into the ring before matches for luck. Restaurants display little bowls of salt at their threshold as evidence that the place has been purified.
Yamamoto never went back to oil paints. Now 47, he has been making site-specific salt installations for the last 20 years.
His very first salt piece was a model of his sister's brain. Staring at it, he wondered what it would look like spread out on the floor. Since then, he has made salt labyrinths and mountain ranges that dissolve into salt mazes. He has strewn floors with delicate salt cherry-blossom petals. He once built a tall, slender staircase out of salt bricks that collapsed in the middle. Another time, he carved a life-size, too-narrow salt corridor with no exit in sight.
For the Laband, Yamamoto made a whirling spiral of salt that spreads like a big, lace doily over the gallery's wood floor.
Referring to a master sketch, he gridded the floor with pieces of clear Scotch tape, 10 blocks by 10, for a piece that is 31 feet long by 26 feet wide.
Taking it one square at a time, he began at the back and inched forward, painstakingly sprinkling tiny lines of salt with a plastic squeeze bottle. It's an oil bottle, actually, the same kind his parents used in their bicycle-repair shop in Hiroshima.
An oil bottle. A cup. A plastic funnel. The modesty of his tools contrasts with the monumental quality of his art.
“He's very methodical and peaceful when he works,” Peter says.
Yamamoto sits cross-legged on a small yoga mat, sandals off and placed neatly to one side. He works 10-hour days. Each morning he downs a couple aspirin to combat the pain.
The university booked him into a nearby hotel, but he pretty much lived in the gallery.
He thinks about his sister while he works. He remembers small moments from when they were kids — the time he cheated at cards, the time she stole his pudding out of the refrigerator.
He believes that he is spinning these tiny memories into the giant, lacy web of salt. At the end of the act of drawing, a feeling sometimes comes over him of having touched a memory.
“He says it's his way of preserving memories of her,” Peter explains. “The piece asks some very deep questions about the meaning of life. About birth and death and cycles of human existence.”
It took Yamamoto 100 hours and 275 pounds of Morton table salt to complete Floating Garden.
He uses no glue or other adhesive to keep the design in place. His piece looks as if it might be blown away by a breeze or a sneeze.
For the duration of the exhibit, Peter kept it roped off with calf-height stanchions so observers wouldn't accidentally step on it.
But the installation proved unexpectedly durable. “It really hasn't changed much,” Peter says. Moisture in the air packed it down, forming the slightest bit of crust.
On this, its final day, the gallery is relying on visitors to dismantle the piece. In a few minutes, they will pack up the salt, carry it down to the ocean and toss it in.
A time-lapse video of Yamamoto — wire-rimmed glasses; sparse, scrubby goatee — making the installation is playing softly in a corner of the gallery. “I believe salt has a force to heal grief,” he says in voice-over. As the salt dissolves in seawater, he continues, it supports the life of fish and other creatures.
When we eat the fish, perhaps we eat some salt from Yamamoto's art. In this way, he and his viewers are connected.
“You are all going to become collaborators in this exhibit today,” Peter tells the crowd. “Now, we're finishing the process. Well, I shouldn't say finishing. We're taking the salt to the next step. We're sending it off to its new life.”
She urges people to think about loved ones who've been born or died or otherwise transformed: “We remember them.”
A visiting monk starts chanting and ringing bells. He's talking about heaven and hell. Buddhists believe these states are not beyond our bounded world.
“People live every day in heaven and hell, in suffering and joy,” the monk says.
As the bells chime, Yamamoto's face — his real, live, in-person face — pops up on a computer screen attached to the wall. Gallery technicians are connecting him via Skype.
Yamamoto couldn't be here in person for his show's closing day because, when he isn't creating subtle yet monumental salt installations, he works full-time as an administrator in an iron factory.
Waiting patiently half a world away at home in Kanazawa city, he lifts up a cat sitting on his lap and turns it toward the camera. Afternoon in Los Angeles is early morning in Japan.
The idea of returning the salt to the sea came from a janitor at one of his exhibits several years ago. The janitor had lost his father and he asked Yamamoto if he might return the salt to the ocean after the exhibit. It seemed a shame just to dump it in the trash.
Yamamoto liked the idea, and they now perform the ritual after each show.
Yamamoto watches as people scoop the salt into Ziploc bags. “Thank you for gathering so many people,” he says to the room at large. “I'm so happy. Please enjoy to destroy my work.”