This article originally appeared in the NYTimes Style section
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.
FILM DIRECTOR PEDRO ALMODÓVAR HAS SPENT HIS DECADES-LONG CAREER TELLING THE STORIES OF POWERFUL, COMPLICATED WOMEN. IN THE MIDST OF A RETROSPECTIVE OF HIS WORK AT THE MOMA, HE TALKS TO US ABOUT THE POWER OF NUNS, MOTHERS AND HIS MAJOR NEW FILM JULIETA.
They are cleavage-flashing, gun-wielding, fierce enough to fight bulls -- and for nearly four decades, audiences have fallen hard for them: Pedro Almodóvar's female protagonists. "I am a great admirer of women," says the Oscar-winning Spanish director, whose oeuvre brilliantly combines the camp of John Waters with the voyeuristic suspense of Alfred Hitchcock and is the subject of a major retrospective at the MoMA this month. "I actually believe the reason we've survived is that in moments of crisis, women take charge." And while the woman at the heart of his newest film, Julieta, isn't entirely unlike his other leading ladies, she exists in a film so strikingly different than anything Almodóvar has ever done -- a cinematic world devoid of drag queens, transgender twists, porn stars and psychotic plastic surgeons -- that it's almost impossible to draw comparisons. "It is a dark film," Almodóvar, 67, explains of the grief-stricken drama about the titular mother, who finds herself abandoned by her daughter. "But it is also a film full of light. Many of the most tragic moments in the film occur under some luminous situation." To experience Almodóvar speaking about the process of making this film, though, is to be at once overtaken by his own inner light.
You have used red as an important narrative element throughout your films. How do you experience color in your day-to-day life?
Some people are afraid of color; I embrace it in my life. My house is an experiment of colors. For me, one of my essential colors is red. Red is a color that I love very much, but it is a color that you have to be careful to use because it's a color with a capacity to transform or mutate the color that is right next to it. It's also a very good color for nighttime because it guides the spectator's gaze within a frame.
Your newest film begins with a red garment draped across Julieta.
It was very important in this movie to start with something red — something that looks like car paint, but you slowly discover that behind the fabric of the dress is a heart that is beating. I tried to send the most simple message, but also make it cinematic. This protagonist is going to experience everything important in life — love, she will create a life, she will suffer, she will be a victim — and red is wonderful to send a kind of subliminal message.
There is a breathtaking scene in the film where the younger Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte, transitions seamlessly into the older Julieta, played by Emma Suarez, after a bath when the towel is lifted from her head. Why have two women play the protagonist?
The idea for this came immediately in the first draft — I knew I wanted Julieta divided into at least two actresses; I thought of using three but it felt too risky. I wanted the moment [when their timelines come together] to be simple, something that felt organic, because there are all kind of effects you can now use. In this instance, something like drying your hair with a towel so you don't catch a cold becomes an intimate transition for the audience. You never know what the result is going to be [with something like this]. There is actually this time period when you finish shooting and you really have no idea what film you've made — you don't know at all what kind of reaction it will create in the spectator. But I am so pleased you mention this sequence, because it is something people have said since the beginning touched them. And the entire movie could have fallen apart if that moment didn't work.
How do you know when a muse has just walked into your life? Is there some unifying characteristic?
Yes, so… I do a lot of readings. At first my actors do a very spontaneous reading, and then we move forward with a little more guidance by me. But the moment that I actually know the actress will be the one is when there is something that she spontaneously understands about the character that I've written. The actress will go deeper and deeper into her character, until there comes a point when she inhabits the character to such a point that she does something that even surprises me as a writer. It's really a wonderful thing to experience.
For many of the great directors, Hitchcock being one example, I've read about actors asking them, "Why am I doing this scene in this particular way," and the director responds, "Because you have a contract, and because you have to do it." I have all the respect for Hitchcock, but I work in exactly the opposite way. I think that actors are very generous, but they are also very vulnerable, and so when I work with actors I really try to generate an intimate space where I sort of have to be everything — psychiatrist, brother, father, friend — because I do think they are quite exposed, and I feel the responsibility to take care of them.
How have women shaped the person you've become? Is there one woman who has influenced you most powerfully?
My mother. I was surrounded by women when I was a child, so my formation — my education — was through them. The fathers were out for the whole day and came home only in the night. Fathers, at least in the culture that I was educated in, represented authority, but you would stay the whole day with the mother or with neighbors. In the fifties, nobody had money for a nanny… that was something that didn't exist. I remember women on the patio: talking, singing, working, washing. They would talk about everything that happened in the little village. Life was what I could see in these women in the fifties. They were very strong women with an incredible capacity to fight, but they also had no prejudices at all — they were much more modern than the time period, much more modern than men.
When I went to Madrid, I was seventeen or eighteen, and I met a girl who I lived with for almost the entire 1970s. She was also very strong, very modern. In the place that we lived together, I shot my first movies, Laberinto de Pasiones and Pepi, Luci, Bom. When I write, I am conscious about their influence — I mix my mother, the women of that period and the girl [that I lived with in Madrid]. The omnipotent women that I write represent freedom, the mix of these two.
How do you define feminism?
Feminism for me is to recognize the power and the ability that the woman has in any aspect of her life. I think if men really were conscious of and recognized the power that women around them have, only then would you see the scales even out a bit.
Take, for example, the Catholic Church. I am not Catholic. I think the Catholic Church has good things and bad things, but I can't even conceive how over all these centuries the Catholic Church cannot recognize the fact that women are just as capable as men to perform two of the sacred rights of Catholicism: consecration and confession. In this case, I could refer to the current Pope, recognizing that nuns are perfectly capable of consecration and giving pardon. We have to solve these kinds of things to set an example.
This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Paper.
MEET MAKOTO AZUMA, THE OUTRAGEOUS FLORIST TO DRIES VAN NOTEN—AND MAN WHO LAUNCHED A BONSAI INTO SPACE
WE SAT DOWN WITH THE JAPANESE FLORIST WHO FREEZES FLOWERS (OR LIGHTS THEM ON FIRE) TO DISCUSS LIFE, DEATH, AND, OF COURSE, DONALD TRUMP.
Makoto Azuma is standing in his subterranean botanical laboratory in Tokyo trying to explain how he’s able to talk with flowers. “I listen to their voices,” Azuma explains. “Like humans, they wake up in the morning, so it’s best to handle them then.” Among the flowers in front of him: an electric blue delphinium, a blossom that looks like a hot pink pinecone, and a shrimp-colored dahlia that are placed in individual vases, spaced as precisely as handbags in a Prada boutique. Although the flowers aren’t much for banter, he says, there is a telepathic meeting of the hearts that transpires when he begins his work with the stems before sunrise. “There is a feeling that happens, not particular words,” explains the artist, who possesses the kind-hearted demeanor of Bob Ross and the aesthetic edge of Raf Simons. When a florist “has half-heartedly bundled flowers or is thoughtless with them... I feel the flowers’ sadness scream.”
In many ways, he has transcended the role of a traditional florist. Since co-founding floral atelier Jardins des Fleurs in 2002 with photographer Shunsuke Shiinoki, the 40-year-old has constructed conceptually radical botanical sculptures with hundreds of thousands of flowers, which have been set aflame in caves, frozen into massive blocks of ice, and used to line the runways of designers like Dries Van Noten. There are YouTube videos where you can watch Azuma grotesquely stab flowers into glossy hunks of raw marbled meat, or simply stare at a Renoir-style tapestry of blooms as they wilt at high speed. In 2014, Azuma made international headlines when he launched a bonsai into space.
His work is beautiful and bizarre and emotionally provocative, each project part of a genre he has taken to calling “living art.” Through both simple and violent approaches to flora, Azuma is able to communicate mono no aware, a hard-to-translate Japanese concept that makes his brow furrow as he tries to explain its significance. His work, he says, represents an “attraction to things that fade,” but that the emotions tied to evanescence are two-fold: the transiency of precious things gives way to sadness, but there is also beauty in the realization that we were able to witness those things at all.
His subterranean studio space in Aoyama, a chic enclave in Tokyo, has been designed to heighten both his and the flowers’ ability to emote. There are chalkboards covered with diagrams and indecipherable equations. Every wall is concrete; every single surface, stainless steel. “When you think of a flower shop, perhaps you think of a place on a street level selling flowers,” he says. “But this is intentionally underground, this space is all about making the best possible environment for flowers.” Though he likens it to a wine cellar, the setup is more Jurassic Park-meets-Willy Wonka. A bunny named U-ko hops around the studio.
Born the youngest of two children to a chef and homemaker in the countryside of Fukoka, Azuma dreamt of becoming a rock musician when he first moved to Tokyo—only that path didn’t quite pan out. “When I struggled to get by, I took a part-time job at a flower market, and that’s how it all started.” The concept of impermanence still plays a central role in all of his work. Sound, music, and flowers, he says, “are always things that people are really conscious of. They’re ephemeral … and I’m attracted to that.” So I asked him about the end of the world.
GQ Style: Your work, through its juxtapositions, often brings to mind the notion of climate change. Is that something you think about? Are you hopeful for the future?
Makoto: I prefer not to say that directly—rather, I want people to come to their own awareness of flowers and plants. Instead of sending a direct message, I want people to realize it on their own. It’s in that place that’s hidden. In Japan, the environment is changing, the vegetation and the flowers are changing. Summer flowers bloom in the spring, flowers that should bloom in the winter suddenly bloom in the summer. This is really happening.
How does working and living in Tokyo influence your relationship to flora?
Tokyo is the easiest place to do my work. The reason for that is that the market is very large, the quality of the flowers is very high—for us our work is very visual, yet people here are very picky about flowers. About one-third of my work is in Europe, but the flowers are most beautiful in Tokyo.
How did you come up with the idea to send a floral arrangement and bonsai into outer space?
I wanted to take flowers and plants into an impossible environment where they could never exist. And seeing this very striking visual visualization—this juxtaposition—really makes you think. This incredible project was all done in this cheap-looking space, and it has the massive effect of people getting more interested in and more deeply aware of flowers. For me, this is a very important project. People who were never interested in flowers before will now see this and become interested.
Is there a flower that fascinates you the most?
Recently I’ve been really into sprouting bulbs (球根芽). [They have] such a grotesque shape beyond words, and yet they bloom so beautifully. That incongruity produces gorgeous flowers.
The thing with flowers is that they are always changing every day. A day for a flower is ten years for a human. It’s a way to look at life. No matter how much I look at a flower, I never get tired of it.
Is there a flower that you think is overrated?
Roses, and the like. But the thing with roses is that because of human intervention, genetic modification, they become exactly what humans want them to be. But I don’t really like that so much—it’s not so interesting to me. Flowers reflect the places they are from. They have connections to places for example, having different colors depending on where they grow. There is absolutely meaning in the fact that a flower from a certain place smells a certain way. Of course, it’s important to have familiarity, and it’s important as a product for sale, but I don’t think it’s good to do too much of that.
What flower you would recommend a guy give a loved one as a gift?
Well, generally you would say a rose, right? That’s the standard answer. But for me, I think that maybe a seasonal flower would be good. Summer flowers in the summer, winter flowers in the winter. I think it would be a good idea to change the flower you give based on that situation.
Of course, people are happy to receive flowers, but the flower fades away. Seasonal flowers are at its freshest right at that moment—the scent reminds you of the season, and reminds you of how happy you felt to receive it. It becomes a memory. It comes from the season, and then reminds you of that season. Seasonal flowers generally have a scent, and that scent carries memory. That kind of story is very deep. I named my daughter Sumire [which means "violet"]. She was born in February. In the season of violets, I gave her that name. That holds deep meaning for me. So roses are one thing, but seasonal flowers are best.
In September, you created ice blocks filled with elaborate flowers for the Dries Van Noten Spring-Summer '17 show. How did the two of you meet?
I have a lot of opportunities to work in Paris, and he loves flowers. He has a very large garden, and a great interest in flowers. He found me, and said he would like to work with me. Now he’s a friend. I really respect his creativity, and we have a great relationship. He’s just like me in the sense that flowers are not just beautiful to him—he looks at the whole picture, as they wilt, as they bloom. He sees the beauty in all of it.
Do you have any advice for those who don’t have a green thumb?
Flowers are living things. So you have to treat them properly. Open your heart to them. In Japan, in ikebana [the Japanese art of flower arranging, or the “way of flowers”] they say you listen to the voice of the flower, so to speak. It’s important to live as such. The point is not to see flowers as objects, but as living things. Listen to the plant’s voice. Be conscious of it.
Should they start talking to their flowers?
There was actually research on that subject in the 1970s. And in fact, they found it to have an effect, especially researching how the plants develop their roots. I’m not a scientist, but as someone who always works with flowers, I believe that to be true. I think it has an effect. I’ve seen that flowers I’ve worked with more intimately have stayed fresh longer.
Courtesy of Azuma Makoto
If you were to send President Trump a flower, which would it be?
Tulips would be good. A red tulip. In the language of flowers, it represents compassion. I’d send him about a thousand red tulips. He needs compassion. He really ought to give flowers a try. I think his attitude toward a lot of things would probably change. Of course, I understand “money is money” and all that, but when working with flowers, it enriches your heart, it enriches a person. I think it would be very valuable for him to think about living things. He’s already 70, though. Maybe it’ll be the end for him soon.
This article originally appeared on gq.com