Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Motoi Yamamoto


One crystal of Morton’s salt: uniform in shape with no expiration date. The national company was formed in 1848, offering not only a wide variety of culinary products but salt for pools, melting ice, softening water, and for the bath. Long before commercial companies, about 8,000 years before in fact, humans learned the value of salt. Our bodies need salt to survive; we use salt to preserve foods; in the past, we used salt as currency affecting trade and commerce.

Great Salt Lake’s natural resources were used first by the region’s Native Americans then by settling Euro-Americans and their descendants. After the Mormon pioneers settled next to the lake in 1847, its abundant salt was used first for culinary purposes then for mining and industry. The popular tourist resort The Great Saltair was built on Great Salt Lake’s south shores in 1893, catering to locals and travelers who enjoyed dancing and swimming in the lake’s buoyant and restorative salt waters. Today, the lake’s salt extraction is part of the state’s annual multi-billion dollar economic impact.

Given our region’s abundance of salt and ensuing history, it is no surprise the international artist Motoi Yamamoto would be interested in visiting Utah to create not one, but two installations in his creative signature style using salt. Weber State University (WSU) and Westminster College (WC) have collaborated to bring Yamamoto to Utah to create his signature saltwork installations to both campuses. Each show is titled Return to the Sea: Saltworks, yet individual subtitles present more personalized aspects of his work.

Yamamoto uses salt as his sole artistic medium, a practice he began in 1994 after the death of his sister. Salt heals grief according to Japanese culture: with each work, Yamamoto’s work is equal parts memory and meditation, past and present, mourning and materiality. For those unfamiliar with Yamamoto’s work, an excellent introduction is the short video Saltscapes. The correlation to Yamamoto’s work and the process enacted by Tibetan monks as they create sand paintings is, on first blush, obvious. Both create for the act and the art of contemplation, inviting audience members to watch the art manifest. Yet, according to WSU Department of Visual Arts chair Matthew Choberka there is a palpable difference, as Yamamoto’s work is grander in scale yet more modest than the Tibetan’s world cosmology as it relates more to personal grief and remembrance.

WSU’s installation was created over seventy hours of singular, meditative work. Watching Yamamoto work via the Shaw Gallery’s webcam was a more satisfying experience than I originally imagined: even on camera he appeared thoughtful and meditative. Installed by early March in the Shaw Gallery, this work reflects a more Eastern orientation to Yamamoto’s work in both philosophy and form. “Floating Garden” is this installation’s subtitle, referencing the swirl pattern he sometimes uses. These patterns are drawn ahead of time; at WSU there are three swirls in the work that spans 35 feet in diameter. The matte white salt, drawn on the black granite floor through squeeze bottles, is beautiful. Seen in person, there is a slight profile to the work. Lit from one side of the gallery, lines and swirls move in complex and compelling patterns, evoking organic forms and nature: mountains, the ocean, foam.

Given the variety of available salt crystals it is fascinating to learn Yamamoto uses only Morton Salt’s famous blue-container table salt for his installations. Bonnie Baxter, Director of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute, worked with Morton Salt to secure a gift of salt for each installation, saying: “I talked with Motoi about using local salt (we don’t make table salt at the GSL Morton), like Real Salt from Redmond. But he said the crush mining creates an odd grain size and shape, and it doesn’t flow well. We had Morton deliver the salt to both locations and are very grateful.”

Yamamoto then moved to the Westminster campus where he will create two “Labyrinth” installations from March 10-15. Each venue has scheduled public events to engage the community in Yamamoto’s work. WSU will host a panel discussion on March 27th including from WSU Paul Crow (Visual Arts), Michelle Culumber (Microbiology), Angelika Pagel (Art History), and Carla Trentleman (Sociology); from Westminster College Bonnie Baxter (Great Salt Lake Institute) and Hikmet Loe (Art History); and Mark Bitterman, owner of The Meadow, who will speak on culinary salt.

Westminster College will host a public reception on March 17th at 6pm commencing in the Jewett Center for the Performing Arts then proceeding to the Meldrum Science building. On April 10th a discussion between Bonnie Baxter (Great Salt Lake Institute) and Jesse L. Embry (salt historian and Associate director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU) will ensue in the Gore Business School’s auditorium. Included will be a salt tasting from Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli and a time-lapse video of Yamamoto’s Westminster Installation.

Both institutions close their installations on April 12th through identical processes. The general community is invited to sweep up the artwork from each location, collect the salt into containers, then drive to Robert Smithson’s earthwork the Spiral Jetty where the salt will be released into Great Salt Lake. The Westminster group will leave Salt Lake City at 9am; the WSU group will leave Ogden at 10am. This ritual is one Yamamoto enacts for all installations. Our inland sea is not an ocean per se, but serves the same purpose as Yamamoto stated about his work’s closure: “The salt came from the ocean. I want viewers to help return the salt to the ocean, and the salt then can come back to me” (Katie Lee Koven, “Memory and the Materialities of Salt – A Conversation with Motoi Yamamoto.” Weber: The Contemporary West, Spring/Summer 2014, p. 90).

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