Salt Art of the Coolest Kind

Salt labyrinths. Yes, labyrinths made from salt by Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto.  Achingly beautiful.

Motoi Yamamoto, Kunst-Station, St. Peter, Cologne, Germany, 2010

And a close-up:

Motoi Yamamoto, Labyrinth, Salt, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan, 2010

I guess that it goes without saying, although I’ll say it anyway, that these remind me of sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks.  For me, the beauty of the sand mandalas is very much wrapped up in the fact that they’re destroyed in the end.  I saw one for the first time at the Indiana University Art Museum, and as shocked as I was when I learned that the mandala would be destroyed, it’s really what makes them what they are.  Yamamoto’s salt labyrinths are also destroyed in the end, and the artist asks that the salt be thrown into the sea.  There’s something there about the interconnectedness of life, about life and death, particularly since salt is essential for human life, and as the artist points out, salt is important to Japanese death rituals. (It is sprinkled on mourners after funerals because it is believed to repel evil.)  The fact that the salt is put back into the ocean, thus completing its journey, brings it all full circle.  Something which is elemental to human life is used for art, then thrown back into the sea from whence it came.  Beautiful.

Here’s another one:

Motoi Yamamoto, Forest of Beyond, Salt, The Hokone Open-Air Museum, Japan, 2011

And a close-up:

Yamamoto, Forest of Beyond, detail

I’m also thinking about salt caravans across the Sahara Desert, which have always struck me as being terribly romantic, although back-breaking and difficult are words that probably describe them more accurately.   There are only two (or so) of these routes left across the Sahara, since trucks and roads have replaced them, which I’m sure isn’t all bad.  But there’s so much about these salt caravans that fascinates me.  They’re run by the Tuareg, a nomadic ethnic group that mostly lives in Mali and Niger, who are fiercely proud, and who are the good guys and heroes in the movie Sahara (which is a fun action flick, worth checking out for the African scenery alone).  And one of my favorite music groups, Tinariwen, is Tuareg. (Watch one of their mesmerizing videos here.)  They in themselves are a fascinating people.  Also, the caravans had very few landmarks as they moved across the Sahara.  This, and simply the fact that they were traveling across a desert, made it quite dangerous.  The sands shifted, they could get lost and run out of water, and even the salt they were carrying couldn’t save them.  Check out episode 2 of the cleverly named series Africa (probably available at your public library) for an excellent depiction of a modern-day salt caravan.

Switching gears completely, here’s one of my favorites by Yamamoto:

Motoi Yamamoto, Forest of This World, The Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan, 2011

A Japanese zen rock garden made of salt.  Wow.  I need to do something to meditate, whether it’s walk, or bike, or play the piano, or struggle through some Tai Chi.  Sitting and meditating doesn’t work for me, so I really appreciate the contemplative and meditative value of a Japanese zen garden.  You get to DO something while you meditate.  And then this one’s made of salt.

If you’re in or near Bellevue, WA, you can check out Yamamoto’s work at the Bellevue Arts Museum, now through the end of May.  Don’t you love this one?

Motoi Yamamoto, Labyrinth from Making Mends, salt, Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, WA 2012

Yamamoto says, “I believe that salt enfolds the memory of lives,” and as I’m thinking about all of the ways that these salt labyrinths touch me, evoking Tibetan sand mandalas, the cycle of life, Saharan salt caravans, (and I haven’t even gone into the whole labyrinth thing, or that the first photo is from an installation in a 16th century basilica and my ties to Medieval art,) I’m thinking that yes, for me, in this case, that seems to be true — a collective memory, maybe across time and countries.  So I amend what I said at the beginning.  It’s art of the coolest kind.


2 thoughts on “Salt Art of the Coolest Kind

  1. I had no idea! Thanks for this post Karen.

    When I was reading this I was reminded of the people I know who work on Islamic manuscript painting/illumination and find it meditative as well, although for me it was very stressful and frustrating… To each is own I guess.

    I find the destruction in the end to complete the circle of life achingly beautiful.
    I am kind of stuck on the idea of a creative work expanding beyond the artist/creator and completing its circle. I like to think that in my unassuming world of art historical learning and thinking, I am accomplishing this by sharing my finds in blog posts.
    Do you think we can compare sending out the knowledge and contemplation of a work of art to the blogosphere analogous to throwing the salt back in the sea?

    • Thanks, Sedef! I love your thought about the creative work expanding and completing its circle through others. I’ll have to think about that — maybe we are doing that through blogging, and commenting, and sharing. Cool. As far as putting the salt back into the sea, maybe it’s kind of the same thing — distilling and sorting, then tossing it back. Love it!

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