Facing death with the spice of life


Staff Writer

Motoi Yamamoto was a third-year student at the Kanazawa College of Art in 1996 when his younger sister died at the age of 24 — two years after being diagnosed with brain cancer. To ease his grief, and to make sense of various personal issues he faced on the periphery of his sister’s death — such as the delay in approval of cancer drugs in Japan and the difficulty in choosing end-of-life care — he started working on a series of installations using these issues as motifs.

It was through such undertakings that Yamamoto came up with the idea of using salt in his works. Salt has a special place in the death rituals of Japan, and is often handed out to people at the end of funerals, so they can sprinkle it on themselves to keep evil spirits away.

Since 2001, he has been creating labyrinthine floor installations, filling a plastic bottle normally used for machine oil with white salt and using it as if it were a paint brush. One of the three works of his being exhibited at Hakone Open-Air Museum, titled “To the White Forest — Forest of this world/Forest of beyond,” is an extremely elaborate, though ephemeral, creation.

Occupying an area of 16 × 16 meters, the white, embroidery-like piece laid out on the deep-ocean-blue floor reminds viewers of many things: a giant tree with myriad branches, streaks of bubbles on the beach left by a tidal wave, or even the cells of our nervous system. Either way, the installation, which Yamamoto says was inspired by Hakone’s deep forests, conveys the sense of sedation the artist gets from the creative process.

“I draw with a wish that, through each line, I am led to a memory of my sister,” the 45-year-old artist who lives in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, said in a telephone interview last week. “That is always at the bottom of my work. Each cell-like part, to me, is a memory of her that I call up, like a tiff I had with her over a pudding cake she took from the fridge. My wish is to put such tiny episodes together.”

That particular piece, titled “Forest of beyond,” took him two weeks, with each day’s work lasting up to 14 hours. While he had a plan in mind before actually starting work at the gallery in July, he ended up modifying its shape quite drastically as he painstakingly crafted the patterns, he said.

But to heal grief, isn’t it easier to let some memories go? And in reality, don’t memories fade over time? “True, memories get blurry,” he said. “But that’s why it’s all the more important for us to keep thinking, isn’t it? Humans have the ability to forget, and that’s why people take action to call up their memory. The Bon ritual (of paying tribute to ancestors in the summer), I believe, is also something that people started so they would not lose memories of their dear ones.”

Yamamoto acknowledges the similarities between his art and colored-sand paintings of mandalas by Tibetan Buddhist monks, who also create their works for spiritual healing. And like the Tibetan sand paintings, Yamamoto’s works are destroyed when exhibitions end.

Five years ago, he started a project through which he, and visitors to his shows, have returned part of the salt used in the exhibitions to the ocean. Next March, when his exhibition in Hakone closes, he will once again ask anyone who is interested to each take a bag of salt home, and then disperse it in the sea wherever they wish. Watching the joyous, playful expressions of participants gives him a sense of relief — though it might not have much to do with the theme of his exhibits, he said.

“We instinctively like fiddling with sand-like things,” he said. “And we also enjoy tearing down beautiful things, important things, and things we are told not to destroy … My joy perhaps comes from having the chance to take a peek into such elements of human nature.”

“Motoi Yamamoto: To the White Forest — Forest of this world/Forest of beyond” runs through March 11 in the main gallery of the Hakone Open-Air Museum. Tickets, which include admission to other exhibits in the outdoor museum, are ¥1,600 for adults, ¥1,100 for those over 65 and college/high school students, and ¥800 for children. The museum is a 2-min. walk from Chokoku-no-mori Station on the Hakone Tozan Railway. For more information, call the museum at (0460) 82-1161 or visit www.hakone-oam.or.jp.