Site Specific

The highly visible art of Nobuho Nagasawa

In 1993, UCSC art professor Nobuho Nagasawa and Czech Republic president Václav Havel stood together in the lush Royal Garden of the Prague Castle.

Attending the opening of an art exhibition, the two were dwarfed by Nagasawa's work, Where Are You Going? Where Are You From?--a 15-foot high, 82-foot-long, 100-ton bridge made of sandbags and barbed wire. With its war-era materials formed to mirror the nearby 12th-century Charles Bridge, the work invoked the region's rich and ancient culture as well as its unsettled and violent history.

At the head of the massive structure, Nagasawa had installed an elegant hourglass crafted from the Bohemian crystal for which the republic is famous. The black and white sand inside had been gathered from sites in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The piece caught the president's eye.

"The hourglass represents the repetition of time, which is history," Nagasawa says. "President Havel is a man who went from being a political prisoner to president of a nation. To my great honor, he was the first person to turn the hourglass."

Prague, Czech Republic, 1993:
Where Are You Going? Where Are You From?
sandbags, barbed wire, hourglass
15 x 82 x 15 feet
(All photos: Courtesy of Nobuho Nagasawa)

Nagasawa with Czech Republic president Václav Havel

During her 14-year career, the Japanese artist has planted dozens of site-specific projects around the globe, becoming a leading figure in the field of installation and public art.

Nagasawa is know best as "Nobi," a name that is uncannily appropriate. Nobi is Japanese for "field fire"--
the flame that reawakens the earth in the spring. And, like the pulse of spring, Nagasawa's works--sculptures, earthworks, museum installations, and public art--breathe life into the ghosts and history of their sites.

Nagasawa's works radiate a palpable power and vibrancy, the source of which is the place itself. She never conceives an idea until she has visited a site and conducted extensive research into the area's past.

"For me the creative process of art-making is as meaningful as the work itself. I believe that art can provide a visual poetry to the environment as well as function as a catalyst to deconstruct and reinvent a new vision in our society. By revealing personal memories, collective histories, hidden myths, and contradictory issues of human nature, I try to explore social and personal facets that can galvanize public interaction."

Nagasawa's work is in great demand these days. In January she completed her portion of a $1 billion collaborative project with the city of Los Angeles, designing a Metro station in East L.A.'s commercial core. Without breaking stride, she picked up two new commissions this winter, codesigning McEnery Children's Park in San Jose and another children's park in Santa Monica.

Along with her artwork, Nagasawa teaches full-time at UCSC, where she has been a faculty member for the past two years. "I enjoy teaching," she says. "When you work with students there's a great dynamic of give and take."

Despite an unremitting workload, Nagasawa never seems to grow weary. In fact, she seems energized by the challenges. She is, as one colleague aptly described her, "a live-aholic."

--Barbara McKenna


Ushimado, Japan, 1988
earth, granite, olive seedling
17 x 43 x 46 feet


Tokoname, Japan, 1984
Noyaki (field firing)
earth, seawater, fire
7 x 17 x 5 feet


"I believe that art can provide a visual poetry to the environment as well as function as a atalyst to deconstruct and reinvent a new vision in our society."

Valencia, California, 1987
Earthwork Process 7
brick, mud, straw, manure, copper glaze, seawater, fire
24 x 16 x 16 feet


Nagoya, Japan, 1996
Mexico City, 1997

May 13th, 1996, 10 a.m., I called the Pentagon.
automobile, Geiger counter, sandbags, barbed wire, video projector, announced nuclear test data (from the U.S., Britain, France, China, and the former Soviet Union), binoculars


Tyborøn, Denmark, 1995
Bunker Motel/Emergency Womb
sandbags, sugar, plaster, steel, army cot


Aachen, Germany, 1994
sandbags, barbed wire, hourglass, water
14 x 13 x 13 feet


Pasadena, California, 1995
cast soap doll bodies, Japanese silk doll mask and body, porcelain enamel bucket, water, wood, baby powder scent, video projection, sound


Los Angeles, California, 1996
Banned, Censored, Challenged ("Banned in the USA")
glass, steel, magnifying glass, library card catalog