Capturing the ephemeral beauty of flowers
On a Friday morning in Tokyo, a pageant of flowers is hustled from a black van into the chilly underbelly of Jardins des Fleurs, a flower shop in the city's chic Aoyama neighborhood.
Hundreds of blooms of every shape and color line the laboratory-like space. And there, 42-year-old artist Makoto Azuma, bleach-blond in a white lab coat, looks every bit the part of a mad scientist as he carefully arranges the new floral specimens. His is a world of stainless steel, concrete and an ever-present fog that emanates from the purring walk-in fridges.
Azuma is the mind behind AMKK, a Japanese floral art collective that has gained global renown for its experimental work with botany. Once, AMKK launched a 50-year-old bonsai tree into space, and in another instance sent a colorful bouquet of flowers into the deep sea.
Why? "To pursue a new kind of beauty," Azuma says from his Tokyo studio.
Couture floral arrangements
Azuma's floral palette comprises species with a dizzying range of provenance, appearance and nomenclature: Persian buttercup, hydrangea, cat's tail lily, dahlia, Chinese peony, witchgrass and the flamingo flower. Even the blue throatwort and crucifix orchid make cameos.
"When I create a piece, I like to include the roots and bulbs, stems and dead flowers that are not usually used in arrangements," he wrote in his book "Flora Magnifica: The Art of Flowers in Four Seasons," which was published earlier this year.
"My goal is to work with every aspect of a plant, every moment, in order to discover the beauty of life."
The first order of the day's business is to "wake up" specimens. With a pair of shears, Azuma cuts stems off every flower bunch and sprays them with water. He then begins assembling them into "botanical sculptures," where flowers with different lifespans and blooming patterns are combined with both surgical precision and a profound reverence.
"We understand how important it is to approach flowers with humility, because the act of killing flowers is so selfish," he says.
The shop fills orders for bouquets and larger arrangements for both Japanese and foreign clients, including the fashion designer Dries Van Noten. The collective's works have also been exhibited worldwide and on fashion week runways.
Photographer and AMKK co-founder, Shiinoki Shunsuke, has captured the extraordinary sculptures frozen in time. Blooms are often pictured against dramatic backdrops -- from deserts to the ocean.
"Flowers make you think about time," Azuma says. "They are living things, destined to one day decay, then disappear. Both the people who work with flowers and those who receive them can't help but be aware of this fact."
The fleetingness of a flower's life is at the root of Azuma's work. Indeed, it's a worldview that also informs "ikebana," the much-heralded Japanese art of flower arrangement. With origins in the sixth century, ikebana is the ultimate expression of minimalism and the Japanese appreciation for the beauty of transience.
While Azuma respects the aesthetics and philosophy behind ikebana, he says he's up to something different entirely.
There's a feeling of excess and exuberance to his sculptures, emphasizing their "wildness." These characteristics, he says, are ones the practice of ikebana seeks to tame.
Azuma says his works are not only an exploration of the relationship between humans and flowers, but also between Japan and nature. The country is prone to natural disasters, but its people have traditionally worshiped things in nature as gods.
"I never get tired of it," he says of his craft. "I keep thinking about flowers all the time. Flowers make me feel that way. I live with them. And I'm strongly linked to them."