Azuma’s Azaleas

Japanese Florist Makoto Azuma works out of his Tokyo studio to create more than just arrangements.

Iced Flowers

“Flowers and plants are already perfect,” says Makoto Azuma, the world’s most sought-after flower artist and botanical sculptor. “Everyone acknowledges their beauty. It symbolizes beauty and life.”

Azuma had been speaking about his groundbreaking Exobiotanica project from 2014, which involved launching a bouquet of Mother’s Day flowers and a Japanese white pine bonsai tree nearly 100,000 feet into space from the Nevada desert.

“I want to take that even further by adding my touch, creating a breathtaking existence, transforming it into life itself.”

A hybrid artist-scientist, Azuma has made a name for himself around the globe by arranging these vibrant florals into areas that generally do not support life: the vacuum of outer space, the depths of the ocean, blistering deserts, inside giant blocks of ice, within the lick of blazing fires. “By arranging flowers in a space where they cannot exist, I am weaving in a new aspect of beauty, extracting it and guiding it,” Azuma said in a 2017 Great Big Story interview. “This is my purpose.”

Using flowers as a metaphor for the beauty of life isn’t new, and it hadn’t always been Azuma’s purpose. Growing up in the Japanese city of Fukuoka, Azuma always wanted to be a rock star. He moved to bustling Tokyo at the age of 21, landing a job as a trader at one of the city’s largest flower markets until his music career took off. The music career never materialized, but Azuma’s interest in—and obsession with—flowers and plants took root.

Some 20 years later, Azuma is co-owner of the exclusive Tokyo floral purveyor, Jardins des Fleurs, and half of the dynamic duo at AMKK Studio, along with acclaimed photographer Shunsuke Shiinok. The plant-focused laboratory-cum-art studio produces impactful works like Exobiotanica and 2016’s Iced Flowers, a first-of-its-kind collaboration with Belgian fashion designer. For Van Noten’s spring and summer women’s wear show in Paris, Azuma froze vivid bouquets of flowers in crystalline blocks of ice that were then placed in strategic, impactful places along the runway. More recently, on the cover and inside the pages of British Vogue’s September 2018 issue, Azuma’s immense custom floral headpieces graced the visage of pop chanteuse and beauty icon Rihanna. Working with renowned fashion brands, international celebrities, and aerospace engineers, Azuma has become the preeminent rock star of florists.

“Both music and flowers are momentary,” Azuma told Vogue about the connection between his first and current loves. “[They are] only in the world for a short amount of time.” Azuma reveres the life cycle of plants, from the moment of opportunity that happens when a seed germinates to the utter finality of death and decomposition. But he is determined to make sure his influence on the flowers themselves, as well as on the people he touches, lasts for much longer than the lifespan of a blossom.

Photographs and videos are but two ways to freeze that transitory beauty in time and to extend the impact of his work. In two bold marriages of botany with music, Azuma collaborated with Atlanta-based soul-punk band Algiers on the music video for “Blood,” filmed in a desert with a giant date palm tree suspended with a crane over the cracked landscape, and with Danish punk rock band Iceage on its video for “Under the Sun,” in which the band broods on a stage bejeweled with colorful blossoms that the lead singer then throws into the audience, rock star style.

And like music, flowers prove time and again their transcendent necessity. “Flowers are needed for many situations,” Azuma says. “They soothe the soul, encourage people, make people smile regardless of culture, race, sex, language. The work of a florist is to tie humans and flowers together, beautifully. That is why I am deeply happy with my work.”

As it is the universality of flowers that resonates most with Azuma and how he approaches his artistry, it is the specificity of his home culture that undergirds the passion and skill he expresses through his relationship with flowering plants. The Japanese people have built a relationship with flowers and, in particular, flower arranging, which goes back some 1,500 years. The word for flower arranging in Japanese is ikebana—literally, “living flowers”—which speaks to the idea that even when plants are cut and removed from their roots, they remain vital, interactive life forms. “I listen to their voices,” Azuma explained to GQ. “There is a feeling that happens, not particular words.”

Unabashed and unafraid to experiment with plants and projects, Azuma fashioned a custom arrangement for digital culture magazine Maekan last year involving irises in the magazine’s signature shade of blue, combined with “unexpected connections” and resulting in a work of floral art called Damned Ikebana.

“There’s more to ikebana than flower arrangements,” Azuma said of the piece. “It’s an act of expressing and appreciating life’s beauty. It engages an inner dialogue that allows someone to reflect on their feelings, making the most of what nature has given them.” The seasonal focus of most modern ikebana arrangements—flowers are selected and organized together according to the current growing season—alludes to the transitory nature of all life, and to Azuma’s dedication to the health, well-being, and development of his floral charges. The light, sound, and overall ambiance within both Jardins des Fleurs and AMKK Studio are optimized for the maximal benefit of the flowers. Azuma told GQ, “[If someone] has half-heartedly bundled flowers or is thoughtless with them, I feel the flowers’ sadness scream.”

Almost clinical in his seriousness and dedication to the sciences of botany, horticulture, and floriculture, Azuma’s studio is underground, made of steel and concrete, and provides the perfect environment for plants—and plans—to flourish. Here, Azuma tests the full spectrum of flowers against differing conditions of heat, light, moisture, and other elemental and external pressures, including music, with the aim of discovering just how resilient his blossoms are; these tests help determine which flowers will be sent into space, which will be frozen, which will be set afire, and so on.

Botanical Space Flight

Exobiotanica 2—Botanical Space Flight (2017), from the Lovelock Desert in Nevada.

Shiki Two

Shiki 2.

Roses, azaleas, hydrangeas, orchids, ferns, pine trees, and death cap mushrooms merit equal treatment and respect in Azuma’s world. While bonsais appear frequently in his work, often hovering midair in an equally unlikely environment, he favors no one flower or plant over another, not even purebreds over cultivars or hybrids. “I love all flowers equally as a life,” he says. “Actually, I often use both natural forms of the plant or flower with man-made items.” Azuma enjoys the interplay between the organic and synthetic worlds, pairing tiny trees and atmospheric balloons, blooming bouquets and shark cages, or floral fascinators and evening gowns. “I strive to present in my work the natural state of beauty of varying plants and flowers, so I am constantly thinking how to add even greater value to my work by adding in human elements.”

Rihanna’s British Vogue cover was simply one more project in a line of high-end partnerships featuring this complementary paradigm of natural and unnatural, supernatural, or preternatural. Azuma has created botanical sculptures and artworks as part of museum installations and promotional campaigns for design houses and luxury goods makers from around the world. He conceived of the haunting bonsai tree surrounded by leather handbags for Hermès’ traveling exhibition “Leather Forever,” which debuted at the Tokyo National Museum. For Boucheron, he put together a garden-themed installation showcasing a flower-inspired collection of high jewelry. And at Fendi’s giant emporium in Tokyo’s Ginza district, he suspended a “fur tree” from the ceiling of a pop-up boutique, the tree’s foliage being made of actual fur balls.

But he is not starstruck. “Regardless of how much of a top-level brand it is, if the request doesn’t take into account or accept in its vision plants and flowers as living objects, I will not move forward with the collaboration,” Azuma explains. “Top fashion brands, however, do tend to have a consciousness of and respect towards artisans and craftsmanship—this resonates with me very well, so I have found these collaborations to be very exciting and motivating for me.”

Bottled Flower Series

Bottle Flower series (2011).

Azuma has more creative partnerships with luxury fashion and jewelry brands coming his way, as well as travel to places on the other side of the earth, far from his beginnings as a would-be rocker in Fukuoka; last year in London, he honored flower sellers from Japan’s Edo period with 30 “flower messengers” roaming around the tony Kensington district. This year, he’ll be participating in the South American Contemporary Art Biennial, BienalSur, in Buenos Aires and plans to incorporate more video and moving images into his installations. The continued expansion of his mission beyond the boundaries of Tokyo or even Japan only reinforce Azuma’s firm belief in flowers as an elemental power that transcends borders and backgrounds.

“Flowers are essential to our lives,” Azuma says, emphasizing the importance of his primary artistic medium amid the priorities of human life and reflecting the very diversity of humanity itself. “From the moment of birth, weddings, anniversaries, to funerals, they accompany us from birth to death. I’ve visited many countries in all over the world, and I found every country has a local flower market. Every one of them has its own beauty and is attractive.”

[© Photos courtesy of Shiinoki/AMKK]

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