Floral artist Azuma Makoto is famed for bold botanical sculptures that stem from the Japanese tradition of ikebana. Azuma had been an aspiring musician in Tokyo in the late ’90s when a stint working as a trader at the city’s Ota Market piqued his interest in flora. These days he takes plant life to outrageous new heights and has even launched a bonsai tree into space. He still plays guitar in a hardcore band, but he exposes his flowers to only the most soothing sounds. When we meet in his Jardins des Fleurs atelier in Tokyo’s Aoyama district, an assistant serves chilled green tea, but Azuma pulls out a beer instead.
Azuma Makoto: Today’s my day off. I got back from Taiwan yesterday and I was in Los Angeles before that. I’m exhausted.
Sophie Knight: Wow, you must be jet-lagged. How often do you travel?
AM: A lot! I try to be in Tokyo when I need to be, but last year I must only have been here about half the time.
SK: The flowers that you use, where do they come from?
AM: Mostly Japan, because of the perfectionist attitude here. So, while I travel overseas a lot, there’s a reason for me to be based here. Japan has the highest quality of flowers.
SK: You don’t get duds, I guess. Whereas overseas…
AM: …overseas it’s kind of wild.
SK: Talking of what’s specific to Japan, the conception of nature here seems to be different to that of the West. In Japan something can still be “nature” or “natural” even if humans have manipulated or interfered with it, but in the West there’s this Romantic-inspired perspective that sees only wilderness as true “nature” and sees plants in man-made situations as “artificial”. What does “nature” mean to you?
AM: I don’t agree with people who say, “This isn’t natural,” because I don’t believe in two distinct categories, “nature” versus “man-made”. Flowers or plants displayed in a hotel are nature, even though humans have put them there. Personally, I make new forms out of nature, but my work can still be considered natural.
SK: It also seems that in Japan the fields of nature and technology are not seen as opposites or as black-and-white categories. Artificial or technological things can have a soul, which probably comes from the idea in the Shinto religion that objects – which are called “inanimate” in the West – have a spirit.
AM: That’s right. In Japanese, we sometimes call trees goshinboku, which means the tree is a god. It’s not that I think about it consciously, but as I’m Japanese, I think I have that sense in my blood. The truth, though, is that humans are part of nature too, so really I think it’s about embracing a symbiotic relationship between nature and technology. It’s important for them to coexist. But because of the modern age, and the technology we have, humans need to think about plants and nature more deeply and bring them more into our lives.
SK: When you make your works, how do you see the flowers? Are they your friends, your children…or just your material?
AM: I feel like I become one with the flowers. As they’re living things, I take the utmost care to respect them. I am very careful not to misuse or waste them. If I did that they’d become just a material, which would be terrible. I try to care for each and every stem.
SK: When you’re tired or frustrated, do you think that’s communicated to the flowers?
AM: Yes. That’s why I only work with them when I’m feeling calm, and why I only work with them in the morning. I wake up around 5am and I start work at 6.30am. I’ve usually finished by midday. In the morning, flowers are more alive and vibrant. I don’t really want to work with flowers in the evening. Sometimes I have to, of course, for my clients’ events. But if I can, I only work with them in the morning.
SK: Do you have a ritual to get yourself in the mood before starting work?
AM: I walk to work, which takes 40 minutes. So I kind of prepare my mind, empty it out. Then when I get to work I make sure I can focus – there’s no phone in the atelier, so I don’t have any distractions.
SK: Do you listen to music?
AM: No, but I play natural sounds for the plants.
SK: Like birds tweeting?
AM: Yeah! Rainforest sounds. When I brought a recording to a client from Brazil and they listened to it, they were amazed. It’s made by Victor, a Japanese high-tech audio equipment company. They make music for psychiatric institutions and hospitals and so on. It has the full frequency of sounds – humans can only hear 30 per cent of frequencies, but the other 70 per cent still makes a difference to our emotional state, I think.
SK: Oh, like dogs and young children can hear more than adults and so on?
AM: Yes, but this music contains frequencies beyond what even they can hear. It keeps the water clean and makes the plants grow in this beautiful way. I grow them downstairs because there I can create the best conditions for plants. I have LED lights, a refrigerator and a greenhouse so I can control their environment. It’s like a wine cellar.
SK: Do you think plants have senses?
AM: I think they do – a deep code or symbolic language of their own. In the 20 years since I started this job, I feel I’ve become better at communicating with the flowers. I can feel how the flower itself wants to be manipulated.
SK: Really? Do you mean the flower kind of suggests: “Bend me this way”?
AM: It’s not quite as straightforward as that – more of a vague sense. And, as I continue to do this for the next 20 or 30 years, I hope to get better at it.
SK: Do you agree with Cleve Backster,8d who argued that plants have a special kind of telepathy, as discussed in The Secret Life of Plants?
AM: Ah, I read that book. I don’t think plants have nerves. But I think they have a soul. They have emotions. So if I don’t give 100 per cent of my attention and energy to them when I’m arranging them, I notice that they die more quickly. It isn’t scientific at all, but I feel it. I also think that you can have compatibility with some flowers and lack it with others.
SK: Which flowers don’t you like?
AM: It’s not really about a certain type or species. It’s about the specific flowers that come in.
SK: Ah okay. So not a racial thing, but something against specific individuals.
AM: [Laughs] Yes.
SK: Talking of a plant’s desires, the first time I saw your Shiki series with the pine that’s pulled up from its roots and put in unusual places, like 30,000 metres up in space, my first thought was “Poor thing!” It looked lonely, floating in space, and I felt it was a bit cruel.
AM: Well, in my work I deal with the burden of dealing with living things, and I confront that by turning them into works of art. I think that’s important. Rather than having that pine shrivel up and die, I think it’s better to shoot it into space.
SK: I guess, as long as you do it while thinking of the plant’s soul. You’re giving it all kinds of new experiences.
AM: [Laughs] Right! A lot of people say: “Oh the poor flowers” when they see my work, but then a lot of people let plants shrivel up and die on their balcony. I feel it’s much better to express 8f something with plants than to let them die without even looking at them.
SK: How do you hope to change people’s attitudes towards flowers or their perceptions of them?
AM: My job is to make people think: “I didn’t know flowers could be this beautiful.” So they might look a bit pitiful to some, but they make others lose their breath and go, “Wow”. Recently I froze some flowers in ice and some people said, “Oh, the poor flowers. You’ve killed them,” but, to me, they became even more beautiful by being put in ice.
SK: Why are people so sentimental about flowers?
AM: I think it’s about love. Humans have an ancient relationship with flowers. You can’t eat most flowers, but they’re food for the soul.
SK: Maybe because you’re constantly dealing with plants and understand them the best you’re the most aware of what’s tolerable for them. For example, there seem to be more vegetarians in urban areas, whereas farmers who raise animals are fine with the idea of eating them.
AM: That’s a good metaphor! Humans are the worst, scariest animal in the food chain, but we also have to live, and I want to express that in my work.
SK: When you started working in flowers, did you think it was a strange industry?
AM: Yes, I did. But people were so moved by the flowers. Customers would cry when we showed them their arrangements. I thought, “This is an amazing business.” There’s no other like it. When you eat, you give thanks for the meal, but no one cries. Also, from the moment you’re born, flowers accompany you through life. Flowers for the new child, flowers on your birthday, flowers for your wedding, flowers for your funeral – flowers are there the whole time.
SK: I guess flowers would go on existing even if people didn’t buy them, but in cities like Tokyo you’d never get to see them, other than maybe weeds in the pavement. Why do you think flowers have such symbolism?
AM: Because they’re living, they represent life. It’s not just that they’re beautiful; it’s that they start from a bud and then bloom and die, just like us. They contain a kind of painful sadness, a kind of pathos. One day in a cut flower’s life is ten years of a human life. Think about it. They last at most ten days, and within that is their entire life.
SK: I guess it’s important to make sure they have lots of experiences and see a lot inside that time, like that pine.
AM: [Laughs] Yep. Maybe this is a strange thing to bring up, but five years ago there was a massive earthquake in northern Japan. Tokyo shook a lot too. And flower sales shot up. My feeling is that until then people were more obsessed with material items but all of a sudden they wanted to express things with flowers instead, as a metaphor for life. I think that, in times of crisis, flowers become more emotionally necessary.
SK: What’s your feeling about flowers and the fashion industry?
AM: Flowers are an eternal motif in fashion. Everyone likes decorating spaces with them and using them in patterns for clothes.
SK: You’ve collaborated with Dries van Noten. Are you a fan of his aesthetic?
AM: Yeah, I’m a big fan. I like his use of colour. It’s very Japanese, quite Asian.
SK: Where’s your rabbit, the one I saw on Instagram?
AM: She’s under that cabinet. She’s very shy.
SK: She’s very small. Is she still a baby?
AM: No, she’s fully grown. She’s small because she’s a Netherland Dwarf.
SK: Do you feed her flowers?
AM: No. A lot of Japanese flowers are medicinal. She eats them but they don’t really agree with her. Maybe because she’s from the Netherlands. She eats leaves though.
Cleve began his career as an interrogation specialist with the CIA. The Backster School of Lie Detection is located in Port Orchard, Washington.
Azuma feels that wasting flowers is disrespectful. Any stems that are unused after a day’s work are preserved in glass bottles and sold.
Azumo Makoto cultivates his flowers with a soothing soundtrack of rainforest sounds, recorded in Nagano, Japan.
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