The Salt Meditations of Motoi Yamamoto

When we walk into the Meldrum Science Center on a Friday afternoon, the piece is already nearing completion. From the height of a second-floor balcony looking down, it appears as a 30-foot white circle on the wooden floor below. In the center, an organic form created by an absence of salt seems to push tendrils out towards the periphery, like a bacterial growth in a giant petri dish.

He holds a squeeze bottle filled with salt, carefully drawing the complex maze of lines that make up the white circle on the floor.

On the circumference of this vast white shape, just where the sweeping arc of the circle breaks down into a jagged edge, sits Motoi Yamamoto, dressed in his customary black T-shirt and black pants, cross-legged on a black cushion. He holds a squeeze bottle filled with salt, carefully drawing the complex maze of lines that make up the white circle on the floor.

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The intricate pattern is evident from our elevated perspective—it looks like the convolutions of a brain or a piece of coral—but as we descend to the level of the artist, the pattern grows more evident and the larger form fades away. Now, sitting just a foot from the edge of the piece, it’s like I’m looking across a vast corrugated landscape, Yamamoto’s dark outline hunched on the distant shore. My mind becomes lost in the labyrinth of the line work.

“Salt seems to possess a close relation with human life beyond time and space.”

Yamamoto, a trained painter and one-time dock worker from Japan, took up making his salt works after his sister’s death from brain cancer. She was only 24 at the time, and the installations were meditations on her memory and his loss. “Salt seems to possess a close relation with human life beyond time and space,” he wrote in an email to NPR.

The symbolic and ritual value of salt in Japanese culture is well established, from the salting of your doorway after a funeral to keep spirits out; to the little salt piles proprietors set outside restaurant entryways as a sign of purity; to the sumo tradition of whipping a handful of salt into the ring before a match (again as a spirit repellant).

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I wonder if the darkness creeping from the center of this white, brain-pattered circle represents a growing cancer. Or perhaps the slow degradation from the inside out of Yamamoto’s memories of his sister, gone for nearly twenty years now. If so, the organic nature of the shape sends a message—sickness, loss, and death are as much a part of this natural world as life and joy and the creative act.

Like the mathematical shape-universe of the Mandelbrot set, simple rules seem to govern the lines and interactions in this piece, yielding infinitely complex results. No two areas are ever quite the same—only very similar, only of a kind. In places, the lines interlock each other like needle teeth. They form stripes, long narrow channels, “T” shapes , ninety-degree angles interlocking like hands… Every so often, a line spirals in on itself before coming to an end.

As I follow the spaces between the salt lines, it seems that there are no closed shapes. If followed long enough, it appears, each pathway connects to all the others at some point. My mind wanders deeper into the maze as I try to puzzle the koan of it: the simultaneous oneness and separateness of the circular form and the lines that make it up—themselves made of crystals, in turn made of atoms, made up of molecules, and on…
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All the while, Yamamoto squeezes his bottle, precisely guiding the tip with his left hand in an act of painstaking concentration. My wife and I click away at our shutter buttons in an attempt to capture the sublime moment, alone with the artist in the echoing space.
Every couple of minutes, he draws back and lets out a deep breath, as if releasing a great tension. He takes little breaks to stretch his legs or use a small flap of cardboard to rearrange some minutely misaligned bit of salt. After one such adjustment, he looks up at us and smiles in polite acknowledgment before returning to his work. Occasionally he stands and moves his pad over a few feet, to a spot pre-marked with a square of gaffer’s tape. The squares guide his arcing course as it radiates from the center out.

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Another unavoidable reference in Yamamoto’s work is the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the sand mandala. Monks painstakingly craft mandalas at great length before destroying them in ceremonial recognition of the transitory nature of life.

When Yamamoto’s pieces are complete, they are swept up and returned to the sea. In the case of the Westminster installation, the hundreds of pounds of Morton table salt will go back to the Great Salt Lake, once a vast inland sea, at the site of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty earthwork. Those interested can participate in this return on April 12, 2014.

“I believe salt has a force to heal grief,” Yamamoto says in a video filmed at Utah’s salt flats, surrounded on all sides by a mirror-like expanse of the common crystals. “This is my favorite place in the world. Perfect place.”

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