For the most part it is a daunting task to summarize a city by a single characteristic. In the case of Tokyo however, there is one trait that permeates everything: density. Tokyo’s charm lies in its ability to create space where there is no space. It is a playful attitude towards an environment that is ruled by concrete. Once you turn away from the big intersections, you will find yourself in a maze of little streets, tiny shops and residential houses. Minami Aoyama is one of these sacred areas. Not far from Omotesando Dori with its juxtaposition of architectural masterpieces, you will find a place dedicated to the pure beauty of nature: JARDINS des FLEURS. This is the studio of flower artist Azuma Makoto. While the name may evoke romantic associations with Southern France, upon entry it becomes instantly clear that Azuma-san breaks with this notion radically.
JARDINS des FLEURS is a laboratory filled with objects that you would expect to see next to an operating table rather than a flower bouquet. But what first appears as a sterile studio slowly reveals itself as a place designed for requirements of his working material: lighting, humidity and temperature are optimized and there is music playing that is hardly noticeable to the human senses; composed for the wellbeing of the flowers.
“The beauty of flowers comes with changing the context”, he explains, referring to his apparatus-like sculptures where he augments the flower by using industrial materials and devices. And his list of clients attests to his approach. Having collaborated with only the most notable fashion brands and holding an exhibition with Dries Van Noten at the museum for Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris, he still finds time to travel to the most remote places in order to find unknown plants. We enjoyed listening to his latest travel adventures in the heart of the Amazonas while sipping tea in his little sanctuary, forgetting about the concrete jungle surrounding us for a moment.
In the context of fine arts flower are often seen as something decorative, something traditional. Was that a perspective you had to overcome?
As you probably know Japan has a famous tradition of flower art called Ikebana and so a lot of people think in a very conservative way about flowers. I never thought about it in this way though. It is not that I wanted to overcome this but whatever I did it just happened to overcome it.
So you see yourself somehow relating to Ikebana as a genuine Japanese tradition?
Since I was little I was surrounded by flowers, the flowers my mum had in the house were all very Japanese. It is not really that I think about it, it’s more in my blood than it is in my head I guess. I can‘t say it doesn‘t affect me, but I never think about it in a conscious way.
Was there a certain point when you realized that you wanted to work with flowers?
Absolutely. I got into this job because I started to work in a flower market. For me it was just very interesting to be surrounded by all these living objects and to create something with these objects. I was playing in a rock band and I saw a lot of similarities between music and flowers, especially in regards to their temporary qualities.
Every flower is very different, even if it is all red roses. They all have individual characteristics and you create a piece of work by gathering them into one. And it’s the same with music, if you play in anger, in a calm manner, play it here or play it there, the music changes even if it’s the same chord. Making music is creating a piece of work by layering this process, so I guess it is very similar to flowers.
Many artists work with a variety of materials, they go from oil to ink and so on. Can you imagine working with something else other than flowers?
I am only interested in flowers. I’m not really interested in painting. I guess I am not interested in things that will leave something behind. Flowers are not forever, they last for a certain amount of time and that thought feeds my creativity. It’s very different from, for example, catching a moment in a photograph. It is more about meeting this particular flower with this particular feeling and the fact that I meet this flower in a particular moment, that is what fascinates me and that is why I think I use flowers as my medium of choice.
You are also doing a lot of client work. Can you give us an insight into how you would approach a client like Dries van Noten who you are collaborating with at the moment?
Working with a client first of all means having a lot of meetings. It is a collaboration so we have to talk a lot and communicate our ideas. Of course I need to know the brand image well. The client is asking me to work with them because they believe that I am able to capture their image well. So I interpret it for myself, but there are things I cannot compromise on. That is why we have to talk a lot. Basically I only work with brands that I personally really like. We have to fit really well.
Where do you draw your inspiration from in a concrete jungle like Tokyo?
Tokyo seems like a concrete jungle, that’s true, but at the same time this is only the center, if you drive only one hour away you can find beautiful scenery. I try to escape the city a lot. I also go abroad a lot. For me Tokyo is really more like a work place, not a place where I find inspiration.
Do you travel a lot to find flowers?
Yes I travel a lot these days so I get to discover many kinds of plants and flowers. The reason why I have my base in Tokyo is because Tokyo has the best flower market in the world. If I need a certain flower from abroad I can always ask them and I can have it here in Japan. Of course they can’t bring everything so on my trip to the Amazonas I did the artwork and took pictures over there.
When you go abroad do you follow a certain idea or do you just explore the place, open to whatever you encounter?
I do both but I prefer to go with an empty mind and just deal with the situation over there. For me this makes more sense than planning and researching everything. Usually I have a local who accompanies me and shows me around.
One of the artworks that I liked most are your flower sculptures with the technical elements attached. They become something very different – like an apparatus. Where does this fascination for combining flowers with materials like steel come from?
Flowers and plants are very natural things. Since we as humans use that to create an artwork, I really wanted to include something man-made in contrast. I feel like if I combine it with a man-made object, the flowers become even more beautiful. This combination really draws the attention to the beauty of nature and this is what I want to show.
If you could choose a place to realize a sculpture somewhere in Tokyo where would that be?
Tokyo is not really fun for me anymore. I went to Mexico recently and I visited UNA – Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico – which is a huge university and they have this Piazza. When I saw this place I really thought, I want to do something here. I haven‘t had that for a long time. Our work here is not only about creating something and then giving it to somebody, the story continues and that’s the fun part about working with flowers. We are selling time in a way, the changing process is part of it along with the question of time. So I kind of feel like I give time and moments to my clients.
Are you interested in art in general where works are built for eternity?
No not really, I really feel like flowers are the most beautiful piece of art you can have, especially in our modern society. We don’t really need things to ‘stay’ I think. We have so many things and we want so many things. I am very tired of being surrounded by so many things.
You grew up in Fukuoka what does this city mean to you?
Fukuoka is an amazing place, you have a lot of nature and nice weather. I mean, of course the place where you grow up influences you a lot, and in my case I am sure my surroundings in Fukuoka shaped the way I see flowers and how I treat them.
Do you still get surprised by flowers?
I think it is impossible to get to know anywhere near all the flowers in the world. I met this guy when I was in Amazonas, he was 70 years old and had been studying flowers for 40 years and he said he only knows approximately 30% of the Amazonas plants. I was shocked! The wild plants in Amazonas really shocked me and surprised me a lot. I always try to explore new things that I don‘t know. This is very much my approach.
Photography: Gui Martinez
Interview: Antonia Märzhäuser
Translation: Saka Matsushita