Return to the Sea: An interview with Motoi Yamamoto

Despite our best efforts, memories eventually fade away. For centuries, people have created memorials sites, and used objects and images to honor and preserve the remembrance of those that have passed. These sites are often designed to document existence, while inevitably underscoring absence.

For over a decade now, Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto has been engaging with his memories through the physical act of creation. Building large scale installations by hand and out of salt, Motoi brings form to the immaterial, actively wrestling with memories that are in a constant state of flux. Just as memories are unfixed and transient, Motoi’s installations are equally unstable and temporary. Motoi transforms salt into intricate and laborious installations, which are eventually swept up and returned to the sea. DailyServing’s founder, Seth Curcio, had the opportunity to speak with Motoi about the cultural implications of salt, the immaterial qualities of death, and the forms best suited to articulate loss.

The following interview was translated with the generous assistance of Miyako Fujiwara.

Image Courtesy of Motoi Yamamoto and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Seth Curcio: For nearly two decades, you have made intricate, yet temporary, installations using salt as your primary medium. I know that salt is a very important substance in Japan–as it is in many cultures–used in funerals, to ward off evil, as an offering, and as basic support for life. However, I understand that there was a very personal experience that brought you to this material. Can you tell me what led you to use salt and how it initially took form within your practice?

Motoi Yamamoto: I use salt because in Japan salt is used at funerals. My sister passed away from brain cancer 17 years ago. In order to overcome her death, I made pieces by picking up each event one by one, related to the theme that a person is going to die. I started thinking that I would like to make an artwork based on funerals.  And, I realized that in Japan we use salt at funerals, and this is why I began using salt for my art. The history of salt in Japan, how we use it, and the meaning of it, were all very suitable to my concepts.  Also, I liked the color of salt very much. At the beginning, I baked it into the shape of bricks, and then piled them up to build a sculpture of a bed.  Later, I made a three dimensional piece which was based on the complicated shape of a brain.

SC: Coping with death can be very difficult for many people. It can be equally challenging to convey emotions caused by loss. Yet, you have developed an acute visual language that allows you to simultaneously address your personal dealings of loss, while also giving form to the universal sentiment of mourning. Has the process of creating these works changed your feelings of death? How it altered your thoughts on loss and the process of mourning?

Motoi Yamamoto: I can’t tell if my feelings of death have been changed by the passage of time or by the process of creating my work.  I don’t have any way to compare to the two alternatives because I’ve only experienced this through my work, not through a more conventional mourning process.  I would like to think that it altered my thoughts on loss gradually, but I don’t know.

Image Courtesy of Motoi Yamamoto and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

SC:I’m fascinated by the connection between the ephemeral nature of your work and the fleeting quality of memories. It seems that just as a memory can never be fully permanent, neither can your installations. They’re both present for mere moments in time before slipping away. In a quote you mentioned, “What I look for in the end of the act of drawing could be a feeling of touching a precious memory.” Do you feel that your work is an action to preserve a memory, even though the nature of the work is temporary?

MY: I would say my work is not an action to preserve a memory, but rather a way to try and recall all the memories as much as I can.

SC:  Memories are always in a state of flux, they change and become less vivid the further we get from the original moment. Yet, your process seems to allow you the unique opportunity of keep a particular person alive in your mind – or at least consistently engage with your memories. This gesture seems very humble and moving. How do you think your sister would feel about your work if she were able to see it today?

MY: I know it would never happen, but I believe that she would be happy to see my work, and by thinking this it pleases me.

Image Courtesy of Motoi Yamamoto and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

SC: Even though your work stems from a very personal experience, it address ideas, and employs metaphors and symbols that are universally understood. However, eastern and western cultures often interpret ideas of death and mourning very differently. Do you feel that your work is interpreted differently when exhibited to in the context of a western audience, as opposed to an eastern audience?

MY: I think the reactions of the audience to my work in both the West and East have more similarities than differences.  But, speaking of the interpretation of my work, to be honest,  I don’t know the differences, because I can’t communicate with the audiences deeply in other languages.

SC: Verbal communication is often less than effective when attempting to convey many concepts found in your work. Over the years you have found several metaphors to help communicate your ideas visually–labyrinths, gardens, forest patterns, cherry blossoms, corridors and stairways among others.  Have you found that some of these forms are more effective than others at conveying your ideas? How does the rigidity of the Labyrinth form activate your concepts over that of the organic forms of the Floating Garden? And, vice versa.

MY: I feel that the Labyrinth is the most direct shape that connects my creative process, through which I am making and trying to connect some big and precious memories with my sister. The piece becomes the final shape that emerges from this process. Also, the Labyrinth makes me think about the concept of my work quite clearly compared to the others, because the Labyrinth will be most affected by the surface of the floor or the humidity while I am drawing lines with salt, and these uncontrollable elements remind me of my experiences with the terminal care of my sister.

In Labyrinth, I put one or several goals in position, which represent big memorial places I have with my sister. From the entrance points of the work, I start drawing a maze-like pattern by wishing these places could be connected. The Labyrinth was born in Greece and Scotland, mainly Europe, and the pattern symbolizes birth, death and rebirth. But after more than a decade since my sister passed away, I feel I am losing the ability to recall all the memories. It seems that I began to wish for a fresh breeze to blow into myself, and I also wish to look into the corners of all the drawers that are filled with memories by turning over the closet, so to speak. I think that these wishes lead me to find a pattern that has a similar meaning of the Labyrinth, but from an Asian perspective, which is the “swirl or spiral pattern”. The swirl is circling in and circling out (going into a circle and coming out from a circle) and the moment when the spiral meets both in and out, is the time of rebirth.  A swirl is also assembled using many bubble type circles, like lace. I want to spin all of these smaller bubbles into one larger piece.  In this context, each circle resembles a small or trivial but important memory with my sister.

Image Courtesy of Motoi Yamamoto and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

SC: There is a certain cycle that is found in each of your projects, as your work takes form with salt, and is ultimately disassembled and returned to the sea. I understand that this is a very important and symbolic action, so much so that it was used as the source of your exhibition title at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Return to the Sea: Saltworks. Tell me a little about the significance of this gesture? Since your projects take form through a laborious process of individual creation and stems from such a personal event in your life, I would only assume that you’d like to return the work to the sea yourself. Why have you decided to incorporate the community into this final stage?

MY: I suppose that the reason I started the Return to the Sea project is because a longer time has passed after her death. I can breathe more openly and think of other things, or can now afford to think of other things, that I believe I was not able to do shortly after she passed away.

I recall that it was the summer of 2005, 10 years passed after her death and my feeling had changed.  Before that time, my Labyrinth was composed of straight lines or even by curved lines, but the shape was very geometrical, and had only one entrance.  After the summer of 2005, I started drawing very winding lines and I added several entrances. The outline sometimes began to look like a sea shore, more natural than a pure geometrical shape. Also, around that period I started the public access to view my process while making the installations. I suppose that I was trying to get rid of the closed framework that included just my sister and me, by showing (disclosing) my very private process of making the work to others.

Another reason for allowing a public viewing of the Return to the Sea project, either or without me being present, is that I realized that viewing my work, or simply meeting me with my work, could heal some peoples’ wounds, especially those who had similar experiences to what I had with my sister.

Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto from John Reynolds & Lee Donaldson on Vimeo.

In 2006, I had an exhibition as a part of Force of Nature at the main library of the College of Charleston. A locksmith of the College of Charleston who lost his father because of a brain tumor, asked if he could dismantle my work and bring the salt back to the ocean.

My work, when I finish making a piece, becomes not my own in a sense.  The salt itself that I use is a natural substance that is still in a big circulation of the Earth, in the same manner as the salt in the ocean or salt in our bodies.  I am happy to see if people imagine or think about these ideas when they touch the salt of my works.

Motoi Yamamoto Return to the Sea: Saltworks will be on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC through July 7th, 2012.