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Floral formations
3/7/2013

Flower arranging has always been a real art. Albeit a courtly one. A noble festive banquet without some colorful sprays of flowers decorating the tables would have been quite inconceivable in early Modern times. Reputed artists created carefully composed bouquets and recorded this transient floral beauty in equally decorative paintings. When, in the course of the 19th century, Europeans started appreciating this art as being one in its own right, and the “Flowers of Evil” came to be eulogized as the epitome of the alienation of city dwellers, flower arrangements found themselves on the back foot. Ever since, although flowers continue to be given as gifts for birthdays, the bride’s bouquet is still thrown in the air for one lucky guest to catch, and flowers are still laid on graves, floristry has shared the fate of the “applied arts”. Meaning that it has been classed as a baser, “feminine” craft, one that exhausts itself when used and appeals to the senses without engaging the mind.

Construing sense and sensibility as opposites is something Makoto Azuma most certainly eschews. This may be because he sees himself in the tradition of Ikebana, a form of artistry held in high esteem in Japan for centuries now. Moreover, he feels at home in the fashion world, which is so fascinating less because it evokes a sense of eternity and more because it celebrates the moment that has been lost forever. Azuma was born in 1976 in Fukuoka and first tried his hand as a Rock musician before, in 2002, opening an haute couture flower store in Tokyo’s Ginza district. He called it “Jardins de Fleurs” and had soon made a real name for himself – with frozen Bonsai trees, woven blades of grass, and collaged cactuses. Haute couture in this case means that the store only creates items to order and does not, as in most flower shops, simply produce countless flowers arrangements, throwing away whatever it cannot sell. Azuma was soon collaborating with Colette in Paris, he has exhibited his arrangements at Fondation Cartier in Paris under the title of Nomadic Naights, clad the Aeron Chair by Herman Miller in green-as-grass Astroturf and unleashed one intoxicating color spray after another with his ads for Shiseido and Isetan.

He has now brought out a book with Lars Müller Publishers, which translates the glorious colors of his ‘botanical sculptures’, their fragility and marvelously diverse shapes, their passage from buds ready to burst to wilted stalks, from life to death, into sequences of images. The cover announces that Azuma seeks to offer nothing less than an “Encyclopedia of Flowers”, a comprehensive reference work of natura naturata – having joined forces with photographer Shunsuke Shiinoki, who was responsible for all the images, to do so. And they certainly haven’t promised too much.

In the chapter entitled “Whole” we can enjoy close-ups of a fern’s pinnate leaves rolled up, the lacquered surfaces of the lily and the dandelion’s ray blossom. What we see is the unadulterated contrasts of color and shape, as the photographs are cropped in such a way that not even one millimeter of their surroundings are revealed. How different the floral formations in the chapter called “Flock”. Arranged at varying heights, the blooms stand out from the deep black background in their radiant beauty. “Coexistence” is a chapter that basks in the harmonies of the monochrome, while in “Hybrid” the unique crossbreeds are presented as almost ornamental structures in the style of Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of yore.

The names of these sublime creatures that had to lose their lives to be eternalized in these images are only revealed in the end credits. Azuma doesn’t shy away from the dangers of disenchantment, neatly listing the Latin names of the photographed plants in the book’s index. As he discloses in the foreword, Azuma favors those flowers that have sprung from nature’s own soil over cultivated and classified varieties. Azuma’s credo: only wild flowers are beautiful enough to reach the heady heights of art. The idea to put such blooms in the limelight came to him when he saw the sea of plants at Ota Flower Market in Tokyo, cultivated en masse to gratify ever-changing popular tastes. But none of these manmade strains could ever supersede the elegance and grace of the blooms that grew untouched, in the seclusion of his childhood garden: “For me, flowers were something that bloomed in the wild unbeknown to anyone or growth by mothers in their backyards.” So artistic freedom only flourishes in our backyards now? Never let it be said that flower arrangement doesn’t stem from a courtly cultural form.

Makato Azuma, Shunsuke Shiinoke
Encyclopedia of Flowers
512 pages, 203 color illustrations
Soft cover in a transparent box
Lars Müller Publishers 2012,
ISBN 978-3-03778-313-9, English
EUR 58.00 SFr 75.00
www.lars-mueller-publishers.com

The blooms stand out from the deep black background, photo © Shunsuke Shiinoki

The blooms stand out from the deep black background, photo © Shunsuke Shiinoki

Azuma's works of art show their whole blaze of colour, photo © Shunsuke Shiinoki

Azuma's works of art show their whole blaze of colour, photo © Shunsuke Shiinoki

Azuma favors those flowers that have sprung from nature’s own soil, photo © Shunsuke Shiinoki

Azuma favors those flowers that have sprung from nature’s own soil, photo © Shunsuke Shiinoki