Return to the sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto


Motoi Yamamoto was born in Onomichi, Hiroshima in 1966 and received his B.A. from Kanazawa College of Art in 1995. He has exhibited his award-winning creations in such cities as Athens, Cologne, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Seoul, Tokyo, and Toulouse. He was awarded the Philip Morris Art Award in 2002 as well as the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 2003.

LMU_Yamamoto_Postcard_R5 1-618x400

The field of modern and contemporary art is crowded with artists who have worked with unconventional materials. From Meret Oppenheim’s mink-lined teacup to Joseph Beuys’s felt and suet, to Wolfgang Laib’s use of bee pollen, the list is endless. Enter Motoi Yamamoto. He uses salt to create mental maps, miniatures of the mind. Yet, in his case, he doesn’t seem to choose materials merely for the sake of novelty or originality.(5)


Throughout the ages of Japanese history, salt has played an elemental role in cultural and spiritual tradition. Salt has acted as a symbol of mourning and is often mythically related to taboos and superstitions, spiritually representing purification.


Yamamoto forged a connection to salt while mourning the death of his sister, at the age of twenty-four, from brain cancer and began to create art out of the element in an effort to preserve his memories of her. Salt, is used in funeral rituals and by sumo wrestlers before matches. It is frequently placed in small piles at the entrance to restaurants and other businesses to ward off evil spirits and to attract benevolent ones. Yamamoto’s art radiates an intense beauty and tranquility, but also conveys something ineffable, painful, and endless. (1)

Motoi Yamamoto, Bellevue I


While at first Yamamoto’s salt patterns look random, closer scrutiny reveals that each installation is in fact a true labyrinth with limited points of entry leading to the center of the work. He notes comparisons to western European mythology where labyrinths symbolized rebirth… Through creating these intricate labyrinths of salt, Yamamoto says he expresses both the re-creation of a memory, as well as the physical representation of how memories are formed. Seen in another way, his saltworks also look eerily like one-dimensional flattened brains, metaphorically mimicking the corridors and paths of memory.(3)

Motoi Yamamoto

Both Tibetan Sand Mandalas and Diné [Navajo] sand paintings have similar principles of execution, where the creators use colored sand to make elaborate displays which are ritually destroyed after completion to represent the inconsequence of humans in the metaphysical scheme. Yamamoto has a comparable intent with his process, wherein the salt mazes are enjoyed only briefly, then swept away. He requests that any salt used in his installations be returned to the nearest sea.  (3)



It is the role of salt in his culture and the nature of his sisters illness that led Yamamoto to begin creating temporary pictures of the brain out of salt. This journey of his, this attempt to reconnect with his sister, remember her through the process of work has led him to create amazing drawings which confront the viewer with the reality of death.(4)


Here’s what Yamamoto has to say about his work:

Drawing a labyrinth with salt is like following a trace of my memory. Memories seem to change and vanish as time goes by. However, what I seek is the way in which I can touch a precious moment in my memories that cannot be attained through pictures or writings. I always silently follow the trace, that is controlled as well as uncontrolled from the start point after I have completed it. (4)



  1. Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto, Laband Gallery
    September 8 – December 8, 2012
  2. Monterey Museum of Art Hosts Return to the Sea, Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto
  3. Yamamoto Motoi | Saltworks
  4. Motoi Yamamoto’s Salt Drawings Are An Incredible Testimony to The Artists Love For His Sister
  5. MOTOI YAMAMOTO RETURN TO THE SEA: SALTWORKS. Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art