Natsuki Takauji: Sensuous Abstractions

Natsuki Takauji, String, stainless steel, aluminum, hydraulic oil, pigment, steel base, H72″ W40″ D40″, at WHA, Williamsburg, photo by Etty Yaniv

Natsuki Takauji sculptures create a stimulating tension between the monumental and the minute, the calm and the stirring. They are grounded yet flow, at times literally with fluids, and range from intimate indoors sculptures to large scale outdoors interactive structures. The Japanese born artist who draws upon Japanese culture and Buddhist philosophy share with Art Spiel some of the origins to her imaginative work, her process, and her projects.

AS: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to art.

Natsuki Takauji: I grew up in Tokyo, Japan in a conservative family. I went to a strict French Catholic school for 12 years. I was always interested in art making but my parents were somehow never supportive. I suffered because I couldn’t pursue my dream without their approval. By the time I graduated high school, I was pretty much wasted in soul. I was hopeless about my future until I decided to give a try no matter what, at the age of 25. I needed to change my environment to be free.

When I moved to NY, it was my first time visiting the US. There was no guarantee that I wanted to be an artist nor to stay in the US, because everything was first time for me. But the more I experienced art making, the more I knew I had to continue. Living in NY gave me many great things; inspirations, people, opportunities and finding myself as an artist.

Natsuki Takauji, Petaled, welded steel, sinew, paper, H38″ W36″ D13″, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: During your undergraduate studies in Creative Writing at Waseda University you discovered your fascination with forms transcending language. How do you think your background in writing informs your visual art?

Natsuki Takauji: As I have lived in NY, my linguistic expression has changed toward English which has completely different ways of expression than Japanese. But I do find something in common between my visual and linguistic expressions: They are both sensuous and abstract forms rather than realistic and descriptive. I do like to describe through intellectual senses rather than facts and surfaces. I remember one of my professors said my writing is too sensuous as if walking in the clouds, and feels like there is no structure, but there is. I can say that about my art too sometimes. Perhaps, my experience of writing and reading prepared me to be in tune with the intellectual senses.

AS: It seems that you started with abstract geometric paintings and moved to sculptural forms. What can you share about this transition / process?

Natsuki Takauji: It was my early process of finding my expressions. With geometric paintings, I was discovering the movement, form and compositions. But I started to feel so limited with geometry and the medium I was using. I began to shape canvas freely in 3D forms, sometimes using Origami method but I still felt limited creating on the square-canvas platforms. Finally, I started to learn metal fabrication to create free-form structures and naturally I ended up making sculptures using that skill. Once I started using the right method for myself, my expressions became much more fluent and easier.

Natsuki Takauji, Tenchi/Chi, acrylic on canvas, wood, 25″x 42″, 2011, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In 2014-15 you exhibited “Window”, your first large-scale public sculpture on 61st street at Riverside Park South in NYC. What is the genesis and process of this project?

Natsuki Takauji: I was thinking of interactive public sculpture but in a way that’s directly interactive. The experience itself completes the work: it came from my experience as a child in Japan. I didn’t go to museums so often but encountered some public art and I felt nothing but boredom looking at standing statues. If I had experienced something more engaging, I could have had different ideas about public art or art. While I was having these thoughts, the idea of swinging in the sculpture just came to me.

I was so excited about the idea of going in and out of a space by swinging because it is a metaphor for many things in our lives, as well as it would bring a completely different experience from a conventional swing. I wanted the sculpture to create an outer shell-like space surrounding the swing – this idea came from a Buddhism word, “Kekkai” in Japanese, meaning the ritual boundary.

Therefore, the overall design of “Window” became quite large. The biggest challenge while making a design of “Window” was limitations considering the public safety, and limited budget and time. It was a very ambitious project. I made it all manually, eyeballing everything in a teamwork.

Natsuki Takauji, Window, steel, resin, acrylic, rubber, H13′ W15′ L18′, 2014-15, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: In “Fatal, Fertile”, which was on view during the International 16th Venice Architecture Biennale at Palazzo Mora in Venice, Italy, you drew upon Asian religious symbols and eroticism. Can you elaborate on the ideas behind this sculpture and a bit how this project came to life?

Natsuki Takauji: “Fatal, Fertile” is my 3rd oil fountain sculpture. I use machine oil which has a high viscosity and gloss. It creates beautiful effects, on the other hand it’s an industrial product that is smelly and nasty to touch. I like that irony with my visual concepts of religious symbols and eroticism. Nothing keeps a singular face in reality. Something sacred can be profane. As an example, I feel my desire to conceive a child is natural and also forced. The sacred idea of pregnancy and motherhood is also a curse for women. I use the intermittent flow by timer to create different scenes of sculpture. When the oil isn’t flowing, in a quiet bare state, you will see more clearly the patterns inspired by Zen Garden as the substance withdraws slowly. Once it flows, the entire scene becomes abundant, glossy and fluent. The same object will exist differently depending on the situation.

Natsuki Takauji, bronze, stainless steel, steel, aluminum, hydraulic oil, H45″ W28″ D28″, 2018, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What would you like to share about “Window II” your recent public art at Rye Town Park in Rye, NY?

Natsuki Takauji: “Window II” is a new version of “Window”. I changed the fabrication process from manual to digital (CAD program), changed the materials and size, and the design of course. But the concept is the same. It was made site-specifically for Rye Town Park since they commissioned me. I visited and picked the exact location to install because the view from the swing is very important part of the installation. “Window II” looks over Long Island Sound from the beautiful and calm Rye Beach. Ever since “Window”, I wanted to remake it to be more versatile and durable. Because it was such an ambitious project, I felt that it had potential to expand and still feel the same. I want to create an indoor version of “Window” with a completely new vision.

Natsuki Takauji, Window II, stainless steel, steel, fabric, acrylic, wood, paint, H10′ W11′ L12.5′, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

AS: What do you find most challenging and most fascinating in public art and how does it differ from your other forms of art?

Natsuki Takauji: It was a blessing for me to have the opportunity to create public art because it gave me a new perspective as an artist. It’s not so much about what I usually make, it’s more about the environment (site) and the community, how I get inspired by them and interact with them. If I didn’t think from that point of view, I wouldn’t have come up with the interactive sculpture “Window”. The most fascinating part is that I don’t get to choose audience to be art-lovers like ones who come to museums or galleries, but rather anyone who just passes by. In another word, the audiences don’t get to choose what they see in their everyday lives. My sculpture will be within their sights no matter what, and that impact is huge. I still meet people who remember “Window” in Riverside Park.

The most challenging part was the determination of the design and materials, considering the public safety and the condition of being outdoors. Since it’s an interactive sculpture, especially the swing is a playground equipment that people go wild with, I had to consider every possible situation of people’s behavior. How to engineer and design a sculpture for the safety and durability with minimum compromise was most challenging.

Natsuki Takauji, String, stainless steel, steel, aluminum, hydraulic oil, pigment, H72″ W40″ D40″, 2016, WHA, Williamsburg, photo by Etty Yaniv

AS: What are you working on now?

Natsuki Takauji: I have a new fountain sculpture working in progress, which is inspired by the mechanism of “Shishiodoshi (dear chaser)”. It will be about us counting time since we are born to age, to a new life and to death. And I am working on a new body of work which would be a completely new form. I want to start a project about contemporary Japanese spirituality and mentality: it’s been my interest for many years since when I was writing; I always found it very particular and had a sense of crisis about it. I don’t know exactly how yet, but I am very excited to finally talk about the taboo through my artwork.

Natsuki with her work