Though people call him the punk florist, Azuma Makoto continues to reinvent the practice of floral sculpture far beyond this “punk,” boundary. By firing his work into the firmament, having a spandexed wrestler take down a human-sized bouquet, or thrusting his floral arrangements into the extremes of the elements, Makoto arranges the larger conversation of human cultural objects – here, the bouquet – into sharp juxtapositions of atmosphere and space

Words by Harrison Cook

Iced Flowers, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

“I think the four seasons (a sense of the season) are such important factors when it comes to [creating] my work,” Azuma Makoto says. “I luckily live and work in Japan where all four seasons are distinct, so it enables me to create seasonal work.”

Makoto’s studio looks more like a laboratory, all sleek stainless steel tables and clippers. Located in Aoyama, Tokyo, his flower shop JARDINS des FLEURS opened in 2002. Though Japan’s budding post-punk scene initially brought him to Tokyo in 1997, (he played a mean bass and chased that punk-star dream) his introduction to the possibility of flowers came when he took a job as a flower trader in the Ota Market. Makoto’s concept for the new form of floral design, he calls botanical sculpture, appeared in 2005. And three years later, in 2008, under the freshly created research Azuma Makoto Kaju Kenkyujo (or AMKK for short) institute, his floral sculptures grew under ambitious experimentation. Dazzling flower arrangements frozen in mammoth blocks of ice, burnt till cremation, submerged under water, open any viewer’s eyes to the endless pursuit, “of flowers which nobody has ever seen and flowers themselves could ever be imagined.”

Iced Flowers, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

“For flowers to be alive, the fact that flowers are not materials, they are living creatures which change every moment,” Makoto says. “There are countless kinds of flowers existing in the world, and each one of them lives with its own expression. Also, each flower has its unique beauty and dignity which is completely different from others at every moment from when it sprouts, shoots a bud, its flower blooms and decays. I meet new flowers and keep meeting and capturing new moments every day. As long as I keep touching these moments, my passion will never run out.”

By exaggerating the flowers’ container Makoto transforms the object. The habitat of closed systems as applied to ecology, environmentalism, and future sustainability is illustrated within his Paludarium TACHIKO & YASUTOSHI series. Here twin bonsai trees are kept in futuristic terrariums. One a glass cylinder, the other a glass rectangle, equipped with an active water drip and mist machine, both plants are encapsulated in their own miniature ecosystem. The elements of light, wind, rain and sound are simulated by fans, vents, and waterproof speakers, all to generate sustained growth. TACHIKO & YASUTOSHI are a reimaging of a 19th century “plant protection machine.” First displayed at a Paris exposition, it aided naturalists’ thirst for cataloguing and sampling exotic species of plants, which further bolstered the imperial plant trade. Now plants could live far from their original climates with minimal stress. Though in the Paludarium, the plant machines of the future, seem to counter this history of keeping, it seems within the gallery space, human’s scientific intervention aid the plant’s ability to live. In another form of juxtaposition, we can picture the distant future abject of natural habit, where machines must nourish plants for them to continue to exist.

Exobiotanica, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

“I deeply consider ecosystems and environmental issues because I deal with flowers and plants that live on earth,” Makoto says. “Even in Tokyo where I am based, it feels like the environment is constantly changing every year. I think the change will continue even further, and as a human being, I always have awareness of the problem. I have never directly expressed it through my work, but I would feel happy if my work becomes the start for people to turn their eyes toward nature and ecosystems which exist behind my works by looking at what I created.”

Exobiotanica, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

The forms of the containers are always ambitious. In 2014 and again in 2017, as part of his photo series EXOBIOTANICA I, II, Makoto sent a 50-year-old bonsai tree and several bouquets of flowers into the stratosphere; plants suspended on a steel-frame structure carried by industrial balloons. Launched from Love Lock Desert in Nevada, a medium-format camera documents the ascent into space, roughly 30,000-100,000 ft, until the plant hits the temperature snap, about -60°C. The sun’s rays change as the object gets closer and the structure eventually descends back towards Earth. But in the photograph’s brief suspension, Earth in the background, the bouquet in the foreground, the spatter of petals and leaves trick the eye into thinking confetti exists, floating in space. The bonsai tree, dubbed Shiki 1, conjures up images of the final scenes of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1998 film Laputa: Castle in the Sky, where the fabled floating city of Laputa sluffs off the human-made civilization as it floats skyward. When it reaches outer space nothing is left, nothing but the tree at the castle’s core.

 Flower & Man, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

In the Flower & Man series Makoto explores human’s relationship to flowers, life-sized bouquets of vivid flowers cropping up in the most unexpected of places: a skydiver jumps out of a plane with one in hand, a rickshaw runner pulls one on their cart all over Tokyo. But the most striking image is that of a professional wrestler hurling his body onto the bouquet, the arrangement sandwiched between him, petals flying everywhere until they are finally crushed as both man and flowers hit the canvas. It’s an extreme cultural collision. The macho wrestler embodies the force of entertainment-sized masculine ideals, which dominates a traditionally feminized object – a gorgeous bunch of flowers.

Flower & Man, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

“A flower is already a beautifully completed existence, so if a human wants to do editing of it, it is my opinion that I should create different beauty which is not something copied from nature,” Makoto said. “That is the respect to nature. That is why I create my work which purposely has roots uncovered to express breaking off its connection to soil or matching a flower with artificial materials. By doing so, it causes friction between natural beauty and artificial beauty, and I would like to pursue new beauty which makes plants’ beauty and their mystique stand out.”

Bringing an arrangement of flowers into a stadium of fans roaring at the bouquet’s dismantling speaks to a different future than the ones where humans’ seal off plants in futuristic pods for their own survival or launch flowers into space to fall back down, but all these examples weave together the “utmost limits”, of art. And what’s more punk than that?

Flower & Man, photo ©Azuma Makoto ©Shiinoki / AMKK

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