Return to the Sea: Saltworks
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is organizing a major traveling exhibition of new work by contemporary Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto. The exhibition will premiere in Charleston May 24-July 7, 2012, as a featured presentation of the Spoleto Festival USA.
Entitled Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto, the centerpiece of the exhibition will be a site-specific installation created entirely out of salt by the artist during his two-week residency at the Halsey Institute. Curated by Mark Sloan, director and senior curator of HICA, the exhibition will also feature a series of recent drawings, paintings, sketchbooks, a video about the artist’s process and the importance of salt in Japanese culture to be produced by the Halsey Institute, and a 170-page color catalogue documenting fourteen years of the artist’s saltworks around the world.
Motoi Yamamoto is an internationally renowned artist who calls his native Japan home. He was born in Onomichi, Hiroshima, in 1966, and received his BA from Kanazawa College of Art in 1995. He has exhibited his award-winning creations around the globe, in such cities as Athens, Cologne, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Seoul, Tokyo, and Toulouse. He was awarded the Philip Morris Art Award in 2002 as well as the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2003. Although he participated in a group exhibition that same year at New York’s P.S. 1, his work has yet to be widely seen in the United States.
Motoi is known for working with salt, often in the form of temporary, intricate, large-scale labyrinths. Salt, a traditional symbol for purification and mourning in Japanese culture, is used in funeral rituals as well as by sumo wrestlers before matches. It is frequently placed in small piles at the entrance to restaurants and other businesses to ward off evil spirits and to attract benevolent ones. Motoi forged a connection to the element while mourning the death of his sister. at twenty-four, from brain cancer, and began to create art out of salt in an effort to preserve his memories. His art radiates an intense beauty and tranquility, but also conveys something ineffable, painful, and endless.
“Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory. Memories seem to change and vanish as time goes by; however, what I seek is to capture a frozen moment that cannot be attained through pictures or writings. What I look for at the end of the act of drawing could be a feeling of touching a precious memory.” – Motoi Yamamoto
Motoi views his installations as exercises that are at once futile yet necessary to his healing. An important aspect of the installation is the dismantling of his work at the end of the show and delivering the salt back to water, usually in collaboration with the public; hence, the title Return to the Sea. He recognizes that salt is a vital part of many living things, and that this mineral could conceivably enter and leave multiple organisms throughout the planet over the span of time. Each grain of salt contains its own history and trajectory. Something so seemingly common becomes a metaphor for the evanescence and transience of human life.
Director & Producer: John Reynolds
Executive Producer: Mark Sloan
Original Score: Bill Carson
This video includes interviews with Japanese art curators contextualizing Yamamoto’s work, and features Yamamoto at his studio in Kanazawa, Japan providing insight into his creative process. Also in the video are still images and time-lapse videos of many of the artist’s previous installations all over the globe and an overview of the fascinating history of salt in Japanese culture.
Director & Producer: Dave Brown
Original Score: Bill Carson
This video documents Yamamoto’s salt installation at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art for Spoleto Festival USA 2012 and the construction of a viewing platform designed and built by students in Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston. It also includes an interview with the artist.
Director & Producer: Dave Brown
This video documents the dismantling of Yamamoto’s salt installation at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art for Spoleto Festival USA 2012 and the ceremonious return to the sea.
Producer: Brady Welch
Associate Production: Arden Sherman
Camera, Sound, and Editing: Brett Novak
Photography: Brady Welch
Music: Winston Morris
Shot on location in Wendover, Utah and Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles
Motoi Yamamoto takes one of the earth’s oldest, most sought-after mineral elements and creates elaborate and painstakingly detailed installations. His material of choice is regular table salt, but you might miss that when gazing down upon one of his saltscapes. In some ways reminiscent of Tibetan salt mandalas, Yamamoto’s works are expansive and often stretch to cover entire gallery floors with their elaborate patterns. (He’s also made work in churches and soy sauce breweries). Sometimes his patterns evoke byzantine labyrinths. Other times, they are like metrological projections of typhoons. But the root of Yamamoto’s work lay in something more personal. More than halfway through art school in 1996, his sister passed away from brain cancer. The resulting shock and grief prompted Yamamoto to abandon his work in traditional painting in search of something more fundamental. Because salt is a funerary material in Japanese culture meant to help cleanse one of grief, it was a natural choice for the artist. But salt also engenders more grandiose notions about life and the passage of time, thoughts which Yamamoto shared with The Avant/Garde Diaries on a trip to the ancient salt flats outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.
RETURN TO THE SEA: SALTWORKS BY MOTOI YAMAMOTO AT THE HALSEY INSTITUTE MAY 24 – JULY 7, 2012
To accompany the exhibition, we will be creating a fifteen-minute video about the artist as well as a 170-page catalogue with essays by Mark Sloan and Mark Kurlansky, author of the New York Times and international best seller, Salt: A World History. The video, produced by Sloan and Emmy-award-winning videographer John Reynolds. will include interviews with Motoi at his studio in Kanazawa, insight into his creative process, footage of the creation of the labyrinth as well as its dismantling, still images and time-lapse videos of many of his previous installations, and an overview of the fascinating history of salt in Japanese culture.
The public will have an opportunity to watch Motoi create his installation at the onset of his three-week residency, as well as interact with him in the galleries. Further educational programs will include an artist’s talk, exhibition tours for the public, and the opportunity to witness the ultimate dismantling of the salt labyrinth. We will also produce a free gallery guide that outlines the basic tenets of Motoi’s enterprise along with a brief curatorial statement by Sloan and a biography of the artist.
Motoi Yamamoto has had very little exposure in this country, much less a solo exhibition. Motoi will travel to each venue on the tour to create a site-specific salt installation in tandem with the other elements of the exhibition. Our goal is to introduce the work of this extraordinary artist to a much broader audience, to create a lasting document in the expansive catalogue, and to provide an indelible vision of the artist’s unique process in the video.
A Story in Salt:
Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto is something of a magician. Although he does not utilize sleight of hand, he creates installations that encourage the mind to travel between astonishment and wonder. His medium is salt, yet the effect of his labors is transcendence. Not an easy feat.
The field of modern and contemporary art is crowded with artists who have worked with unconventional materials. From Meret Oppenheim’s mink-lined teacup to Joseph Beuys’s felt and suet, to Wolfgang Laib’s use of bee pollen, the list is endless. Enter Motoi Yamamoto. He uses salt to create mental maps, miniatures of the mind. Yet, in his case, he doesn’t seem to choose materials merely for the sake of novelty or originality.
Motoi Yamamoto is known for working with salt, often in the form of temporary, intricate, large-scale installations. He has created projects throughout the world—Jerusalem, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Athens, Seoul, Toulouse, Hamburg, and Charleston, to name but a few places. Salt, a traditional symbol for purification and mourning in Japanese culture, is employed in funeral rituals as well as by sumo wrestlers before matches. It is frequently placed in small piles at the entrance to restaurants and other businesses to ward off evil spirits and to attract benevolent ones. Motoi forged a connection to the element while mourning the death of his sister, at twenty-four, from brain cancer, and began to create art out of salt in an effort to preserve his memories. His art radiates an intense beauty and tranquility, but also conveys something ineffable, yet endless.
Motoi views his installations as exercises that are at once futile yet necessary to his healing. An important aspect of the installation is the dismantling of his work at the end of each show and delivering the salt back to water, usually in collaboration with the public; hence, the title Return to the Sea.
He recognizes that salt is a vital part of many living things, and that this mineral could conceivably enter and leave multiple organisms throughout the planet over the span of time. Each grain of salt contains its own history and trajectory. Something so seemingly common becomes a metaphor for the evanescence and transience of human life.
Yamamoto’s art might most productively be compared to the intricate sand mandalas created by Tibetan Buddhist monks. In both cases, the work is destroyed at the end of a predetermined interval and returned to a body of water thus enacting the circularity and ephemerality of life. Both are used to induce meditation and to access the deeper reaches of human consciousness. One important difference is that Yamamoto’s work emanates from a powerful personal experience rather than a shared spiritual tradition.
The book and video that accompany this exhibition take measure of Motoi Yamamoto’s engagement with salt installations since he began making them in 2000. By showing the range of works he has produced, we seek to chart the artist’s journey of healing as he explores these different forms of expression. As Mark Kurlansky states in his essay, salt has a very rich and noble history entwined with Japan’s development as a world power. Knowing its myriad uses in Japanese culture makes it less of a common, everyday substance and more of a mercurial one. Its snow-white purity, combined with the uniformity of the grains, provides Yamamoto with a material at once literal and poetic— loaded with associational possibilities.
Yamamoto’s artistic trajectory is full of innovations and surprises. His ability to adapt his concepts to the various configurations and idiosyncrasies of the galleries and exhibition spaces that have displayed his work itself serves as a source of inspiration. His subtle use of gradation and perspective may cloud the mind into thinking this could be a mountain range as seen from the air, or a typhoon out in the open ocean. The real power and magic of Yamamoto’s work resides in the indeterminate space between what is and what might be.
Director and Senior Curator
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art