Motoi Yamamoto shifts his weight on the mat he is kneeling on, sitting up from his work and surveying the mammoth design on the floor of the gallery. The 46-year-old Japanese artist wears all black, wire-rimmed glasses and socks with five toes. He blows out a breath and hunches over his work, tilting a bicycle squeeze bottle to draw a curlicue pattern on the floor with a trickle of table salt, like a baker adding piping to the rim of a cake.
The work expands, inexorably, slowly, until its large design is discerned.
“Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto” opens at the Halsey Institute of Art, the latest of Yamamoto’s full-scale installation pieces that have appeared across the world, and once before at the Halsey, in 2006.
“I like for art to have an awe factor, for people to be gobsmacked and astonished,” said Mark Sloan, director and senior curator of the Halsey, of his choice to bring Yamamoto to the Halsey.
Many of the artist’s temporary installations were inspired by the death of his 24-year-old sister from brain cancer in 1994.
“In order to overcome her death, I made pieces ... related to the theme that a person is going to die,” Yamamoto said. “I started thinking that I would like to make a piece based on the funeral. And I realized that in Japan we use salt at the funeral. This is why I began using salt for my art.”
Yamamoto has been crafting his labyrinths, undulating forms, stairways and towers out of salt as a way to heal and to reconnect with his memories, in a process requiring concentration and meditative calm.
Historically, salt was a precious commodity in Japan, and an essential component of Japanese funerary rituals, used by the deceased’s family members as a purification tool.
“Return to the Sea,” which was completed on Wednesday, is wonderfully ambiguous. A giant spiral radiates out across the floor; it could be a whirlpool, a giant eddy, a hurricane or a sprawling galaxy.
“(The swirl pattern) indicates things that exist in time and time-based events,” said Sloan. “It reinforces the impermanence and transience of life.”
The swirl is the Asian equivalent of the labyrinth pattern Yamamoto used in his earlier works — a symbol of birth, death and rebirth.
“I was looking for a pattern that has similar meaning (to the labyrinth) in Asia and I found this in the form of swirl or spiral,” said Yamamoto.
The design stretches out to the edges of the room, dissolving into small, bubble-like circles of salt, some as small as a dime, like sea foam on a beach or delicate lace.
“Each circle resembles a small memory with my sister,” said Yamamoto. “In this manner, I collect many small or trivial memories, and spin all of them into one larger piece.”
The best vantage point to absorb Yamamoto’s work is from a platform constructed by students from the Clemson Architecture Center in their fifth collaboration with the Halsey. It allows viewers to see the work in its entirety from above.
In keeping with the cycle of life theme, Yamamoto invites members of the community to collect the salt from the Halsey floor on July 7 and return it to the sea at the Aquarium Wharf on Concord Street. Yamamoto, who enacts this ritual with each of his salt installations, said he likes to collect photographs sent to him by people who participate in this final gesture.
To an artist immersed in memories and symbolism, these small acts are the basic elements of great art.