Salt. It’s an element essential to the survival of humans and other animals, keeping our bodies charged on the cellular level. People all over the world figured out pretty early on salt’s value both as a commodity and condiment [let’s face it, most things just taste better with salt]. For thousands of years, ancient civilizations studied and performed rituals with the mineral. The Greeks and Romans upped the monopoly ante of the stuff, regulating its harvesting and trade through government regulations [fun fact: the word “salary” comes from the term that Roman soldiers used for the portion of their pay that was given in salt rations]. In our neck of the woods, people have been harvesting salt from the Great Salt Lake for thousands of years--using it in trade all over the Western US--and it’s still used in ceremonies and religious rituals worldwide, usually as a symbolic banishment of evil spirits or a rite of purification [ever toss a pinch over your left shoulder for “good luck”?]
In Japanese culture, salt symbolizes both purity and cleansing [case in point: as part of their elaborate Shinto rituals preparing for a match, Sumo wrestlers throw a handful of salt into the ring to banish any lingering malevolence]. Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto started using salt as his medium for expression after his sister died from brain cancer at the age of 24, while he was attending art school. Trained initially as an oil painter, he changed both the scale and method of his work to express the magnitude of his grief. He describes his process now as a kind of meditation; using table salt, Yamamoto exactingly pipes the salt grains using what looks like a fancy ketchup bottle into complex patterns.
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. At his most recent installation—now on view in the Meldrum Science Center at our very own Westminster College—there are three breaks in the perimeter of the salt maze with actual corridors to the core [Minotaur not included]. 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.
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. In this case, SLC’s own Morton Salt donated the hundreds of pounds of raw material for this project, and after the labyrinth is swept up, all the salt will be returned to our own inland sea at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty on the shores of Great Salt Lake. Since he cannot stay in town for the duration of the installation, Yamamoto brought salt from Japan and scattered it at the Spiral Jetty during a recent visit with scientists from The Great Salt Lake Institute and exhibit sponsors, which he considered one of the highlights of his visit [unlike the Sapporo beer he was served in Utah, which he told me tastes more like beer-tinted water than the brew he gets at home. Maybe we should send him a case of Epic’s Spiral Jetty IPA as a conciliatory gesture]. The guy definitely deserves to sit back and prop his feet up after every project—
he won’t hesitate to tell you, his knees are killing him.
If you go: The installation is open to the public until April 12, 2014. Enter the Meldrum Science Center at Westminster College through the east doors [to prevent drafts]. The exhibit is free, and photography and children are permitted, but let’s state the obvi, here: keep track of your slippery lens caps and curious kiddos. There’s even a very cool “DIY” section where you can try out making your own salt masterpiece.
Related events: April 10, 2014 Panel Discussion on Salt with scientists from The Great Salt Lake Institute, and a salt tasting with the fine folks from Caputo’s. On April 12th at 9:00 am, the public is welcome to participate in sweeping up the installation and joining a caravan out to the Spiral Jetty to return the salt to the “Sea.” Visit the Westminster College website for more details about these and other events.