In July 2014, Makoto Azuma stood on a stretch of barren Nevada desert and watched as a floral sculpture he created moments earlier was launched more than 100,000 feet into the earth’s stratosphere. “Sending flowers into space, into desolation where plants could never exist — our challenge was how to capture the beauty of that,” the Japanese botanical artist says of the project, which was documented through a series of photographs and entitled Exobiotanica. And as the arrangement soared away from (and toward) a region so deprived of water, Azuma found himself thinking of the ocean.
By the time he returned home to Tokyo, a mood board was already in the works for “Sephirothic Flower: Diving Into the Unknown,” an oceanic floral expedition set thousands of feet below sea level. Over the next three years, from the confines of his underground design studio, a stark configuration of concrete slabs and stainless steel surfaces in Aoyama, he and a 15-person team embarked on an exhaustive, scientific planning process. They spent months designing a steel-infused plastic structure that could withstand the force of the ocean while carrying the flowers and photographic equipment. And they navigated extensive amounts of red tape in order for the final project to take place in Japan’s Suruga Bay, where the underwater trenches can plummet as far as 7,000 feet into the Pacific.
For Azuma, whose work is deeply connected to the ephemeral nature of flowers and Shinto notions that both celebrate and mourn the fleeting beauty of life and death, the desire to send flowers into an abyss of absolute darkness represented a more extreme way to “give them a new sense of value, the opportunity to become something new,” he says. “There’s a depth to the darkness of the ocean that we couldn’t ever reproduce if we tried. And that became the essence of the project.”
Yet unlike previous experiments, which have involved setting flowers on fire and freezing them into blocks of ice that were left to melt on the designer Dries Van Noten’s spring/summer 2017 runway, releasing five different sculptures into the ocean over the course of three days ultimately required Azuma to surrender to nature in a greater way. “There was a feeling of letting go, of releasing them into a new dimension,” explains the Fukuoka native who got his start working part-time in a flower market while pursuing a career in music. “Cut flowers are cut from nature; you’re counting down to their death. But with this, it was like we were rewinding that process. There was a feeling that they were going back to nature, which felt very dramatic for me.”
In the photographs and video footage, eels and crustaceans can be seen interacting with the lush bouquets, which at times look as though they are flying. Perhaps most astounding for the artist, though, was the realization that the flowers had been virtually unharmed when they returned to the surface. “People think of flowers as being cute and pretty, but they are inherently strong. Like rocks and trees, they were here long before we were and against water pressure and wind they remain undaunted. They just stand right back up,” he declares.
The philosophical implications of that discovery were only just beginning to bubble up. As his team continued sifting through video footage and the studio’s silver bunny named U-Ko hopped around, Azuma ran his hands over his shaved head as if nurturing the ideas that had begun to germinate. “At extremely high speeds, how can flowers hold up? That would be fascinating to see. I wonder how it could be done.”
A version of this article appears in print on September 17, 2017, on Page ST3 of the New York edition with the headline: Botanical Art; Flowering the Waters.