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Azuma Makoto’s Provocative Botanical Sculptures, in “Flower Punk”

Azuma Makoto’s Provocative Botanical Sculptures, in “Flower Punk”

Who is the most audacious floral sculptor alive? If you guessed Jeff Koons , whose “Puppy” requires some thirty-eight-thousand flowers to build , you’re wrong. The correct answer is Azuma Makoto, the Japanese botanical artist who is the star of “Flower Punk,” Alison Klayman’s delightful, and unexpectedly moving, documentary film. Koons’s terrier may rise more than forty feet in the air, but Azuma’s work is literally stratospheric: in 2014, he launched an avant-ikebana arrangement of orchids, lilies, hydrangeas, and irises into the atmosphere. He has also submerged his designs more than a thousand metres below the surface of the sea, an odyssey that took three years to get right. Archival footage of both projects appears in Klayman’s half-hour-long portrait, which reveals more than a florist-provocateur—like many punks, at heart Azuma is a poet, whose true subject is the fleeting nature of life. As Klayman described Azuma to me in a recent e-mail, “He’s struggling with how to draw out the most vitality and beauty in something that is always moving towards death and decay.” This is the great conundrum conveyed by floral art through the ages, from the collars woven of olive leaves, cornflowers, and poppies buried in King Tutankhamun’s tomb, to the soon-to-wilt blooms in the lush still-life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.

Azuma, who grew up in a country village in Fukuoka Prefecture, was a punk before he was a florist. In the nineties, he left home for Tokyo with teen dreams of making it big with the band in which he played bass. Now in his mid-forties, he still looks the part of a boyish musician, with his bleached-blond hair, mad-scientist lab coat, and angsty resting face. He found his true calling by accident when, strapped for cash, he spotted a sign advertising jobs at a neighborhood florist. His enthusiasm for his new work was contagious, and soon his bandmate and high-school friend Shiinoki Shunsuke—who is now a botanical photographer and Azuma’s business partner—had a gig washing buckets. In 2002, the pair opened their own shop. In their first two years, the business was so unsuccessful that it inspired an inadvertent Zen koan: Is it a store if it has zero customers? Around this time, Azuma, always more artist than florist, was trying to exhibit his edgy arrangements in Tokyo galleries, with little success. So, true to punk’s D.I.Y. ethos, he started to put on his own shows. Glistening slabs of raw meat festooned with blood-red flowers became a Grand Guignol hanging garden; an unpotted bonsai tree floating inside a tank was the animate cousin of a Koons basketball; the stems of abundant white lilies were replaced with shiny industrial hardware, like so many horticultural cyborgs. As the artist reminisces about his early projects to Klayman in the film, “Looking back, those works were very bold—bold and a little absurd.” His experimental approach caught the eye of the fashion world, and commissions followed; he has since created eye-catching installations for such high-profile clients as Fendi, Hermès, […]

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