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Matoi Yamamoto

30th Dec 2014

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Radiating intense beauty and tranquillity, Motoi Yamamoto’s incredible salt installations are more than just works of art. We explore the world of one of Japan’s most intriguing artists...

“Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory,” says Motoi Yamamoto. The Tokyo-born artist is famed for his vast, two-dimensional sculptures and carvings of oceans, mountain ranges, typhoons, shattered planets and huge expanses of brain-like curves, created using just one medium: salt.

Although visually compelling and hypnotic, his works are far from being solely aesthetic. Each one of the artist’s ‘saltscapes’ is an event and experience in its own right, and a highly spiritual personal journey. Salt is a traditional symbol of grief and purification in Japan. Widely used in funeral rituals and by sumo wrestlers before matches, it is also placed in small piles at the entrance to restaurants and other businesses to ward off evil spirits and attract benevolent ones. It was following the death of his 24-year-old sister from brain cancer in 1994 that Yamamoto forged a connection with the substance and began using it to create art. It was in part an attempt to preserve his memories of her, but also a form of meditation that served as part of the grieving process. One of the artist’s first installations was a three-dimensional brain, as an exploration of his sister’s condition.

Fast forward nearly two decades to March last year, when Yamamoto completed two monumental works in Salt Lake City, Utah, taking up the ground floors of Weber State University and Westminster College. Creating new adaptions of his Floating Garden lacework, the show saw Yamamoto’s work within the confines of a circular form. Filling the frame were thousands upon thousands of minutely interconnected lines of salt, linked to each other within a convoluted labyrinth. The twirling, tornadolike pattern, hugely poignant for Yamamoto, is used in east Asia as a symbol representing life and death, resurrection and rebirth.

Asked about his biggest careerdefining moment, Yamamoto replies: “It was in Charleston, in 2006, during one of my exhibitions. Somebody wrote, ‘Thank you, Mr Yamamoto’, using a floor mop. I saw a photo of it in the newspaper next day, and it almost made me cry.” It was that moment that led him to his Return to the Sea project, a major travelling exhibition that saw him complete site-specific installations in Los Angeles, Charlotte and Monterey. Yamamoto’s sincerity is never more evident than when he is painstakingly creating one of his poetic saltscapes.

Working alone, he appears as if in a trance, carried far into the depths of his consciousness to a world of peace and calm. “I see drawing by myself as my mission, relating completely to my entire motivation,” he says. With the world on hold, Yamamoto has the ability to transfix those around him with the repetitive movement of his hand, which stops only when the final artwork appears as a whole. After each piece has been on view for several weeks, the public is invited to collectively destroy the work and help place the salt in jars and bags. It is then returned to the sea, a process which is just as important for Yamamoto as the creation of the work. Given the scale of his work, preparing for site-specific installations is a monumental task. “In an ideal world I would see each venue in advance,” says Yamamoto. “However, I tend to create the installations based on photos and floorplans of each space.” He takes into account each venue’s characteristics, including the history, floor shape, lighting and audience, but most importantly the atmosphere. “An installation at a historical site can be so different to that at a museum. It is only after I get to the venue that we decide on the final plans and procure the salt locally.”

Shunning the high life that international acclaim might bring, Yamamoto finds constant inspiration in his studio, a small wooden structure by the ocean in Japan's Kanazawa region. “I am always moved by the transition of nature over time – slopes on a mountain, changes in vegetation and the play of a valley. Ruins and temples bring out memories in me, too,” he says. Citing his mother and secondary school teacher as his biggest influences, Yamamoto reminds us how grounded he is.

Having recently exhibited Labyrinth in Paris’ La [Deuxième] Galérie Particulière to great acclaim, 2014 was certainly Yamamoto’s year. He is now venturing into photography and pencil drawing. With preparation for a solo show in Tokyo well under way, and plans to exhibit in France, Italy and the US, it looks like the world’s appreciation of his talents is here to stay...


Motoi, your intricate works are complex with incredible attention to detail, do you think you use your art as a form of escapism to focus away from everyday life?
No, I have never even thought of the idea of it as an escape.

Your works with salt has gained a lot of attention, tell us more about your pencil drawings and photography...
Pencil drawings are to study the structure of swirls. When I draw installation pieces with salt, I cannot undo or redo it. Thus, I need to understand the shape of swirls. I take time, using pencils, and draw them as part of a process to prepare for installation work.

Do you work as a team or is solely yourself as the artist?
I draw salt lines by myself because it closely connects and relates to my motivation for installation. I see drawing by myself as my mission.

What do you think you would be doing if you weren't an artist?
Something that connects people.

What is your career ambition that you feel you are yet to achieve?
I am guessing that my life will end before I have so many things to achieve. I know the general direction of my target but not the specific location of it. I just have to do my best until my last day.

Motoi Yamamoto;