Motoi Yamamoto grieves with an elaborate salt installation 

Salt of the Earth

The Clemson Architecture Center has built indoor and outdoor platforms for viewing Yamamoto's salty show

Courtesy of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

The Clemson Architecture Center has built indoor and outdoor platforms for viewing Yamamoto's salty show

When someone dies, those left behind are said to go through five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote that these stages are not chronological, and that people coping with loss can cycle through various stages or get stuck in one stage or another. But what happens when a death is unexpected or comes too soon? Do those left behind ever reach the final stage, or does the grief stay with us forever?

In Return to the Sea: Saltworks, Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto uses salt as part of his healing process to grieve the loss of his 24-year-old sister to brain cancer. Her death in 1994 inspired Yamamoto's artistic exploration with salt. In his large-scale installations, he gives the unspeakable a shape.

Using anywhere from 400 pounds to 7 tons of table salt and working 10 hours a day, Yamamoto starts in what he calls "the middle of the storm" to create his design. Saltworks is the best of both worlds, the kind of art that is intellectually crafted and deeply moving. The carefully planned blueprints are combined with an emotionally rich concept to create a map of salt that is both creative and scientific. The final result reflects the hard and soft qualities of life and eventual death. Filling three rooms of the Halsey, the design is done in a lace pattern that resembles a river of arteries. "The healing continues," Yamamoto says.

Careful planning aside, the artist explains that he must always improvise based on the exhibit space, the level of humidity in the air, and the salt itself, which is different wherever you buy it. What never changes is his method, which always begins in the middle. Working outward with a squeeze bottle (like a ketchup dispenser), he "draws" the salt onto the floor. The long hours spent cross-legged on a yoga mat, leaning over the hardwood floor are tough on his body, and Yamamoto doesn't like to be interrupted during the first few days of this meditative stage. Once the middle is set and he begins moving outward, the public is allowed to come and observe the artist at work, though care must be taken with this fragile material. He laughs as he describes the various accidents that have occurred over the years. There was the cleaning lady who swept up the salt, and another time someone with a cane walked across the floor, messing up the design.

Yamamoto initially began working with salt in 3-D forms, forming a stairway at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York and a long tunnel at the Gallery Le Deco in Tokyo. The break in the stairway and the twist at the end of the long tunnel represented the crossroads of death. Over the years, Yamamoto's art, like his sorrow, has changed. In an attempt to create a design to reflect the brain itself, he was inspired to flatten the 3-D structure into a 2-D labyrinth design. As he has moved through the stages of grieving, his work is filled with joy, like the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, he says. "In being alive, we can remember the dead."

The labyrinth was shown at the Halsey in 2006, and incidentally, it was at the conclusion of that exhibit that Yamamoto first invited the public to dismantle his design and return the salt to the sea. Until then, he had always dismantled the designs by himself and says it was a lonely experience. When he learned about a man who worked at the College of Charleston as a locksmith who had lost his father to brain cancer, Yamamoto allowed the man to dismantle the exhibit. Similar to the process of throwing ashes into the sea, this man swept up the salt and tossed it into the ocean at Folly Beach in honor of his father. "It's a rebirth," Yamamoto says. "It's about connecting the people and the ocean and continuing the process of healing. It's as if I've released the resistance built up from the creative act." The joyful, celebratory public dismantling is now a part of nearly every exhibit.

Over the years, the work has changed from the labyrinth design to a lace pattern. Yamamoto says the labyrinth is a Western symbol of rebirth. When he was looking for an Asian symbol to reflect his attempt to reconnect with his sister, he came across the swirl or typhoon design. While the process is less intimate and more joyful for the artist, his sister is still very much a part of each exhibit. "I dream about her while I'm working," he says. His goal is to preserve small memories of his sister. These tiny circles of memories are woven into the swirl design like stitching or embroidery. It's reminiscent of the art of quilting. "I have been spinning all the small memories into my art these days," he explains in the exhibition video. The process has gone from a private experience to one that is more directly connected to its audience. "In the beginning, it was for me. Now I hope that others will heal as well," he says.

The exhibit will include a series of drawings, paintings, sketchbooks, video, and a 150-page color catalog documenting 14 years of the artist's saltworks around the world. Students and professor David Pastre from the Clemson Architecture Center have built indoor and outdoor viewing platforms. Walking up the wooden steps of the platform allows viewers the opportunity to look out over the design, and it feels like you're standing at a bridge above the sea.

Spoleto Festival USA. Return to the Sea: Saltworks by Motoi Yamamoto. Opening reception May 24, 5-7 p.m. Artist residency through May 24. Conversations With Motoi Yamamoto May 26 at 5 p.m. On view through July 7. Public dismantling July 7 at 4 p.m. Free. Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, 161 Calhoun St. (843) 953-4422

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