Determined to free plant life from its earthly bonds of soil and gravity, in 2014, artist and practitioner of ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) Azuma Makoto launched a 50-year-old white pine bonsai into space, followed by a curation of orchids, lilies and irises. All part of his innovative project, Exobiotanica, Azuma explained that he wanted to “explore how flowers and plants would bloom, decay and change outside of the earth” and see how their beauty may be magnified with the blue planet as their background. The contrast of the colours and the fragility of the flowers against the unforgiving black vacuum of space is also as striking as it is compelling.
Hailed as “Tokyo’s most daring florist” who turns his art into a form of rock ‘n’ roll, Azuma is famed for showcasing plants and petals in the most incongruous of settings—as well as sending bouquets into the stratosphere, he has sent them into the bowels of the seas. Even his Tokyo studio, Jardins des Fleurs, is subterranean; a high-tech, refrigerated concrete bunker-cum-laboratory patrolled by workers in white coats beneath stark, ultraviolet lighting.
“When you think of a flower shop, perhaps you think of a place on a street level selling flowers,” the artist tells GQ. “But this is intentionally underground, this space is all about making the best possible environment for flowers.”
The flowers, he believes must always be front and centre, “the star of the show”. “That’s why we don’t wear any colours that could clash or impeded the flower’s fabulous colours,” Azuma tells The Green Gallery. “In white, black or grey we are colourless. Everything in my studio, the people and the space, are dressed in these monochrome colours.”
There’s a certain poetry to his rock ‘n’ roll florist reputation having harboured dreams of singing from the stage of stadiums as a kid. Then struggling for finances and to find a life path, he took a part-time gig at a flower market and fell in love with the industry from there.
“With human hands, flowers move in a lively and dynamic way, as if they are living creatures,” he tells Surface. “They show us explosive beauty while transforming their shape in each environment.”
As well as exhibiting flowers in unusual environments, through his art botanical collective, Azuma Makota Flower Laboratory (AMKK), the florist has also worked with the likes of Hermès and Dries Van Noten—for whom he encased spectacular bouquets in giant blocks of ice for a fashion show. In 2018, Azuma crafted the headpiece worn by Rihanna on the cover of the UK’s Vogue. He has also published the book Encyclopaedia of Flowers, an examination of flower arrangements that includes more that 2,000 species.
Inspired by such artworks, Azuma says he can inject new ideas and techniques into his customers’ bouquets. The floral superstar still visits his local Ota flower market weekly to buy directly from wholesalers he’s worked with for so long. Being a master-craftsman, he uses a pair of handmade metal clippers tailored to fit his palm.
His work he describes as “living art”. He has a daughter named Sumire, which means ‘violet’, who was born in February when violets are in full bloom. Seasonal flowers, he believes, are best. They are evocative and full of scent. Flowers, he says, change every day. Each stage of that change must be embraced. Be celebrated. Examining flowers are like examining life, and no matter how much he looks, he never tires of them. A decade for a human is but a flower’s single day, and the purity of its beauty “touches people deep in their heart”. And their scent, says Azuma “is the scent of all my treasured memories”.
Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging, whose purpose, says Azuma, is to not see flowers as objects, “but as living things” whose voice must be heard.
Ikebana arrangements are often compared to sculptures, with great care given to the colours, textures, and positioning of each flower, stem, and branch within their vessel.
The art is believed to have been inspired by Buddhist practices in 6th-century Japan, though it would be nearly another 1,000 years before it was written about, in a text called Sendensho.
Traditional materials include bamboo grass, plum and peach branches, Japanese iris, cow lily and chrysanthemum.
The first modern school of ikebana was founded in 1912, called the Ohara School, and gradually introduced the use of Western flowers.
Artist and modern ikebana practitioner Toshiro Kawase mused that “the whole universe is contained within a single flower”.