The DART Interview: Natsuki Takauji

By Peggy Roalf   Friday July 31, 2020

Peggy Roalf: Originally from Tokyo, Japan, what were some of the experiences of your formative years that made you recognize that you were an artist?

Natsuki Takauji: I always enjoyed the once-a-week art classes in school and some of the work I made; I still remember them to be pretty good for an untrained kid. I knew I could do it better than the others and I was passionate about making something unique and different. I remember wanting to make all my clothes and bags because I didn’t want to wear mass-produced products that were designed by someone else. Of course, I couldn’t make everything, but I made a lot.

Since my parents didn’t let me apply to art schools, I was thinking of studying fashion or design but as I was never interested in following the trends or in the business aspects, that wouldn’t have worked out. That’s why I pursued fine art, and additionally, I felt as if there was no limitation to freeing my individual expression. In the end, I majored in creative writing at Waseda University in Tokyo. Creating a series of poems and novels gave me joy, and helped me realize that I felt limited, because not everything is fully describable in words; then it became clear that I needed to explore the visual arts. Today, I would not know what else to other than to be a visual artist.

PR: As a visual artist working primarily in the 3D—and primarily in metal—what is your special interest in public art? When did you realize this was your passion? 

NT: It all began in 2013 when I was nominated by the Model to Monument   (M2M) program to develop a public sculpture on Riverside Park South in 2014-15. It was a big deal for me since the program was organized and commissioned by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and The Art Students League of New York. “Window” was the name of my very first public monument. It incorporated a functional swing within a dome-like sculpture. I wanted to share an experience where a person would first feel enclosed, and then, when the person swings to the outside space—overlooking the Hudson River, the person gets the unusual sensation of escape. The work was so successful that I learned that public art could have a tremendous impact in the community, and I knew it wouldn’t be my last public art piece. That’s why it became my mission to create “Window II”, knowing already the complexities involved in materializing a public art piece at this scale.

PR: Please tell us more about what this artwork meant to you, what happens when making large-scale public art, and how is this different in a gallery environment?

My goal was to be site-specific, to engage with the general public and ultimately to provide a lasting experience while meeting my artistic and conceptual desires. The idea of employing the swing into my work fascinated me; the fact that we just enjoy the back and forth movement at any age, and the repetitive movement seemed to be a metaphor for our life. As we move from a place to a place, from one state to another, one feeling to another, this repetition or routine changes us and brings us to another level over time. The sculpture is colorful because I wanted to create the sensation of traveling between colors—in a way a kind of sci-fi time-travel machine.

“Window” was a very ambitious project because we had to work within a modest budget, and the fabrication of the work was complex. I got so much support from my artist  friends—I could not have realize it without their help. The monument was well received and there was always a line of people waiting to swing on it. It was truly the most important experience I had had until this time. As an artist who was just starting her career in New York City, to witness how her idea, together with collective art-making, could make such a public impact—I was reborn. I received many positive reactions on-site and online, and I still randomly encounter people who remember “Window.” It was the first moment in which I finally felt that I had truly contributed to others and reconfirmed my intension to live as an artist.

In a gallery situation, viewers have certain expectations when they find themselves before the work; however with public art, people from all backgrounds will encounter the art, often unexpectedly. That made a fundamental difference my usual studio practice and my approach to public art. I find it rewarding to overcome the added challenge when working on projects that must take into consideration the many conditions for having the work outside exposed to the elements.

PR: The piece you currently have installed at Rye Town Park in Rye, NY (above), just an hour from the city, is astonishing. It is clearly a work of sculpture when seen from a distance, and at close range, when all of its beautifully welded and painted forms can be seen and handled. It also looks like a giant plaything—so irresistible that I found myself inside of it and flying through the air within minutes of seeing it last fall. Please tell the readers how the concept for Window II came about and your process in materializing it.

NT: “Window II” was commissioned by the  Rye Art Center as a temporary installation and will be on view through October 2020. Originally I was asked if I could install “Window”. However, “Window” was not my property to dispose of at the time. Also, when “Window” was removed from the Riverside Park in 2015it got damaged. I was eager to propose “Window II” and that is when I decided to revise the design and make a new sculpture, “Window II”, from scratch. The concept and  my artistic intension did not change, but the process of fabrication and transportation was very different. I implemented everything I learned from making the first one. Because I was able to anticipate possible problems, everything went smoothly this time.

PR: So after years of intense scrutiny as you proved yourself, can you point out how your experience as a Japanese immigrant to America influenced your life, artistic process, and studio practice

NT: Living in and making art in NYC have given me so much, way beyond my expectations. When I left Japan, I hoped that I would have a better chance as an artist in America than in Japan. And I was right. I have benefitted and been influenced by the free spirit, individualism, cultural diversity, and most active art scenes that resonate in the city. The number of opportunities are enormous; you never know how and where you will find something meaningful t engage with.

Through all these experiences I have learned much about my own sense of being Japanese, such as a particular work ethic, way of thinking about certain things, shyness, formality, etc. It has been a journey to adapt to a foreign culture and language, but somehow, I feel more myself in America than in Japan. Discovering and progressing as an artist in NYC is parallel to overcoming all of my preexisting beliefs while adapting to new situations, on both personal and professional levels.

PR: You recently completed an Art Residency in LaGuardia Airport, where you and your co-resident artist Haksul Lee created a work of great complexity, one that involved hundreds of volunteers who, as immigrants, shared their names [and stories in their native languages. Could you please tell the readers about the process of working with people of many different nationalities. What were some of the important takeaways from this?

NT: I collaborated with a South Korean artist, Haksul Lee for the project that we titled "What Is Your Name?" This program was made possible by the "ArtPort" residency program at Laguardia Airport, organized by Queens Council on the Arts and funded by Port Authority of NY & NJ.

Haksul and I observe ourselves as both "aliens" and "locals": We have experienced how our mother languages can protect our identities as well as isolating us from others. This project has grown out of our struggles to remain connected to our origins while integrating into this culturally diversified city by affirming our individual dissimilarities from it.

For the project we interviewed visitors in the airport, and at various public spaces such as Queens Libraries, to collect nearly 200 peoples names in their own language, in their own handwriting, and recorded in their own voices. 

We saw that this intimacy and willingness to share their individual selves evoked a genuine interest and desire to connect with others, reaching beyond the fear and denial of anything perceived as foreign. The frustration and the celebration related to diversity can coexist as we acknowledge the difficulty and the importance of finding mutuality. This socially engaged art, which is a relatively new form of public art, has served to further expand my artistic practice.

The residency was prematurely ended due to the COVID Virus pandemic; however, the project was selected for a virtual group exhibition,Mother Language” by The Immigrant Artist Biennial, in October.

PR: I noticed that you have done a number of large-scale curatorial projects, including one for Sculptors Alliance, at Governors Island, in 2017. How does the process of organizing the work of other sculptors compliment your work as an artist? Please tell the readers about some of the pleasures and pitfalls of working with a large group of artists on tight budgets and deadlines.

NT: It was a truly rewarding experience to curate an art show with so many talented artists. After reviewing all the applications, I tailored the curatorial direction to showcase the various possibilities in the use of metal: from traditional cast bronze sculptures to large forged metal forms to found objects to metal pigments to metal wires in installation. I wanted to project how different approaches each artist had with metal as a material, which was nearly equivalent to seeing the relationship between the artist and the material. 

I am currently working with Sculptors Alliance to curate a meaningful exhibition—and what to consider—during this new norm. This exhibition will focus on the aspects of how this pandemic has been influencing artists by showcasing their works from before and after the pandemic. It is scheduled for Fall 2020; the Call for Entries will open mid-August 2020.

PR: With artist opportunities for exhibiting art and doing public events sabotaged by the Corona Virus Pandemic, and the uncertainties that exist in teaching art, how have you shifted gears to find new and different ways of working and having your art seen?

NT: I teach metal sculpture at The Art Students League of NY, and because the school facilities are closed, I have been teaching my class online. My students and I struggled at the beginning because the Zoom platform is so different from what we used to do, such as the laborious and physical acts of welding and grinding.

Instead of feeling frustrated, I focus on the importance of continuing the artistic practice in any circumstances with seemingly restrictive conditions. Most of my students are now exploring a variety of approaches such as paintings, mixed-media, digital art, and the like. I think it’s a good time for all artists to explore something new and to inspire each other by expanding our possibilities.

In the meantime, I am investing this quarantine-time to create a new body of work with a new concept, and to gain new computer skills, such as 3D CAD and animation programs because I want to be able to digitally visualize any kind of idea to propose and to exhibit online. This pandemic definitely has caused me to pay more attention to new technologies to consider for my work.

PR: Do you think it is a difficult time for interactive public art? Or its is an opportunity to rethink this discipline with a focus more on the public aspect, and what it might take to make these works possible? Please explain the challenges and advantages, if any.

NT: This COVID pandemic situation has definitely taken people away from interactive public art. Since “Window II” has a swing, it was caution-taped for two months following the state’s COVID guideline. That was ironic since it was installed with the intention to bring people into the park.

I think if parks are an oasis for people during the quarantine, then art in the parks also can be. Perhaps an installation might have to have an oasis-like form so people can spread out and be socially distanced. The physical interaction would have to be different…and the biggest challenge is any excitement that brings people into a public space would need to be self-monitoring for the pandemic situation. I am currently working working with Sculptors Alliance concerning how to curate meaningful exhibitions—and what to consider—going forward.

PR: What do you look forward to in the immediate future and in the coming year?

NT: I look forward to installing the project “Confession” in a community garden in Harlem in September. For this project I am recycling the material from “Window.” Since the work needed fixing and was in storage, waiting for decisions to be made, I went to see what could be done. I felt inspired to push the swing further. I am very fortunate that I was granted permission to re-appropriate the work and do with it whatever I wanted, so “Window” was reborn into “Confession”: a reclining chair in which visitors can sit and a secret conversation with themselves in the public space.

In October, “What Is Your Name?” (above) will be showcased in the virtual exhibition, "Mother Tongue/Language", organized by The Immigrant Artist Biennial. On April 2021, I have a solo exhibition at Resobox Gallery in Long Island City, Queens, where I am am going to exhibit a new concept influenced even more by my Japanese background. On October 2021, I will be in a group exhibition of Kameyama Art Triennial in Japan. It was scheduled this year but was postponed due to COVID. I really hope all the exhibitions in 2021 will be realized—both artists and viewers need physical space and interaction in addition to online presentation.

Japan-born artist, Natsuki Takauji based in NYC. She is a member of faculty at The Art Students League of New York and Sculptors Alliance. Solo exhibition venues include Berkeley College Gallery, Manhattan, NY, and Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, Brooklyn, NY. Most recent group exhibitions include "Time Space Existence" at Palazzo Mora during the 16th Venice Biennale, Italy, and “Mother Language” by The Immigrant Artist Biennial, NYC. Her large-scale public installation venues include Riverside Park, Manhattan, NY, and Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx, NY. Her recent socially engaging project, "What Is Your Name?" was made possible by the Art Port Residency at La Guardia Airport, Queens, NY. PRinterview


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Photos courtesy of the artist, Sculptors Alliance, and Wavelength-Editions