INTERVIEW BY MATT MULLEN
Artist and botanical sculptor Azuma Makoto doesn’t care if flowers die—he lights them on fire, drags them underwater, drops them out of airplanes, and launches them into space. But that’s not to say he doesn’t respect them. In an interview with Matt Mullen, the Japanese star shifts perspectives on their ephemeral beauty—and staying power.
Azuma Makoto, the artist and botanical sculptor known for his breathtakingly beautiful and daring floral arrangements, started out in the Tokyo music scene playing bass in a rock band. But eventually, he was drawn to the siren song of flowers: first, with a job as a trader in a flower market, then, by opening his own shop, Jardins des Fleurs, in 2001. Now a star of the flower world in Japan and beyond, Makoto channels punk-rock bravado and showmanship into botanical sculptures that eschew convention.
This is not to say that he has anything but utmost respect for his materials. The 43-year old pushes plants to the extreme—lighting them on fire, dragging them deep underwater, dropping them out of airplanes, and launching them into space—as a way of highlighting not only their beauty and grace but also their strength and resilience. With large swaths of the Amazon rainforest routinely on fire (home to an estimated 80,000 plant species) and the oceans steadily toxifying, that resilience is in fact already being tested.
Unlike the centuries-old Japanese tradition of ikebana, which prizes precision and negative space, Makoto’s floral arrangements are maximalist, sometimes literally explosive. In his Flower Man series, for example, towering arrangements fill a room; in a series of photographs, we watch people burst out from inside them. Makoto travels the world installing such joyful sculptures in public spaces and galleries, and his arrangements have unsurprisingly caught the eye of the fashion world: Rihanna wore floral headpieces designed by Makoto on a September cover of British Vogue and Dries Van Noten once lined his runway with massive arrangements entombed in ice.
Makoto speaks with Atmos on how the climate crisis (indirectly) inspires his work, his thoughts on finding beauty in death and decay, and the power of flowers.
Do you think it’s possible for man and nature to ever live in harmony?
In Japan, you can find fossils of flowers in ancient Jōmon-period tombs that date back 10,000 years. People back then treated plants as something holy. It’s not something that can be explained by reason but more like a feeling hidden inside us. In my work, I try to tie humans and flowers together. I’m trying to bring back that sense of reverence for nature in contemporary life.
That being said, humans already live with flowers in an important way—they’re with us from the moment of birth, to weddings, anniversaries, and funerals; people celebrate with flowers in festivals, and also the flower is an eternal motif in fashion and art. They embody beauty, strength, vitality, and the ephemeral. I only see the need for flowers in the world increasing, not going away.
How inspired or motivated are you by the climate crisis?
I don’t want my work to speak to environmental or sustainability issues directly; I want people to figure things out by themselves. But it’s definitely there.
I think my In Bloom project, which is about bringing flowers to environments where they don’t normally survive, like space or deep sea, is what I’d call “conscious” art. People can think about nature and the environment though that work. It’s always my wish for people to imagine using their five senses.
How do you define the difference between flower arrangement and botanical sculptures?
I never studied ikebana or any other styles of flower art—I learned flowers by myself, alongside playing music in bands. So my approach to working with flowers and plants is totally different than most other artists. I realized that there are many things music and flowers have in common—for example, both are fleeting. Just like every rose has different characters, a sound differs depending on the player’s state of mind and the environment where that sound lives. Combining all these elements together to express something is basically the same process in both music and flower art. That’s one of the reasons why I became completely absorbed with this practice.
Where does inspiration come from for you?
All my inspiration and passion comes from the flowers themselves. There are countless flowers in this world, and each one brings with it something different. Plus, there are different stages of life in flower: sprouts, buds, followed by the appearance of stems and blooms. And then it all decays. Each moment is beautiful and precious in a different way. My mission is to bring out every flower’s hidden potential.
Is there beauty in death and decay?
Yes. Time is a very important element to me. Nothing is permanent in this world; life and death exist next to each other. I think there is beauty to be found in that. The life cycle of a flower is so short it’s practically just a moment.
What are some of the challenges of working with living materials? What is most rewarding about it?
I love finding and highlighting the inner beauty of living things. I love when the light and humidity conditions come together. Everything has to come together when we’re preparing flowers to be photographed or exhibited. The goal is always to implant the flowers into people’s minds in the best way possible.
A lot of your work places plants in unconventional places—like outer space. What do you think is revealed about flowers and plants when they’re placed somewhere surprising?
Their strength. I always try to look for ways to bring out different sides to flowers and plants and display their uniqueness to those who have never seen it before. And even I’m surprised by their endless possibilities.
If you were a flower, what flower would you be?
I don’t like to think about what if.
Nature is a delicate balance of expansion and collapse, flourish and famine, growth and decay. Have human beings permanently disrupted this cycle, throwing the wheel off its axis, or are we just paving way for the next species to thrive? Is it still possible for us to return to a point of flourishing without collapse? Explore these questions with the Extinction Rebellion, the women warriors of the Amazon, and more of our heroes on the frontlines of conservation. Featuring contributions from Sylvia Earle, Elizabeth L. Cline, Ben Toms, Sam Rock, Stefanie Moshammer, Liliana Merizalde, Kristin-Lee Moolman, Gareth McConnell, Pieter Hugo, Simon Armitage, and more.