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The Secret Life of Flowers

Posted on 18 Aug 2018

Flora Magnifica: Why floral designers display and disrupt nature.

BRISTLE 01.0035 24 September 2014 © 2018 Shunsuke Shiinoki. Taken from p.151 & 152 of 'Flora Magnifica'.

Flowers are a matter of life and death. While the likes of the Chelsea Flower Show present them in all their decorative, domesticated glory, deeper patterns of decay and renewal define them. Even humble flower shops offer them to us snipped from sustenance, with a time-bomb of rot beneath the bloom.

Traditional western schools of floral design disguise this reality with tidy lines, taming nature. Look east, however, and the Japanese eventually adopted Buddhist thinking. Choosing to keep straight lines in floral arrangements or to curve along natural contours was a philosophical quandary which took centuries to resolve. The resultant artform, Ikebana, calmed generals prior to battle. Daniel Ost, Belgium’s great contemporary floral designer, brought this philosophy west after being humbled in the gardens of Kyoto by, he told The New York Times, ‘the beauty of silence’.

WHOLE 02.0076 18 July 2013 © 2018 Shunsuke Shiinoki. Taken from p.108 & 109 of 'Flora Magnifica'.

British funeral wreaths and graveyard flowers share Ikebana’s sombre roots in 7th century altar offerings. Cultures can also cross in less expected ways. Flower arranger Makoto Azuma and photographer Shinsuke Shiinoki are an artistic duo whose compositions unite flowers in naturally impossible combinations. Their deeply shadowed backdrops and eye-popping colours resemble Dutch old masters shot through the psychedelic looking-glass. Their seasonal subtexts are also painterly. As Azuma notes in the pair’s latest art book, Flora Magnifica: ‘the flow of life continues even when the flower decays’.

Azuma and Shiinoki’s installations meanwhile leave piles of flowers inside containers, where they dissolve over time into putrid smears, making the point that life’s passage tends to end in ugly disappointment. This idea is the beauty of the artform for Ost. ‘The moment you start, it’s dying,’ he told The New York Times. ‘The moment you finish, you have to say goodbye.’

WHOLE 02.0034 2 July 2013 © 2018 Shunsuke Shiinoki. Taken from p. 76 & 77 of 'Flora Magnifica'.

‘The constant and cold selection of beauty alone is the reality that surrounds plants,’ Flora Magnifica also observes, another little-considered angle on an apparently innocuous subject. Few other aspects of nature are bred with such forensic ruthlessness for their appearance. Flower shops are like catwalks, where arbitrary fashions dictate which plants thrive, and which are deselected. Seventeenth century Holland’s infamous attack of tulip fever, during which fortunes rose and fell speculating on rare refinements of the species, shows how far such thinking can go.

Floral designers also distort and alter natural contexts. In doing so, they can suggest a secret dream-life of plants, lying disturbingly close to the animal kingdom. In Azuma and Shiinoki’s work, an Arctic poppy’s rouged lips pucker atop a long green neck; brown, mollusc shapes hang bat-like in the dark; fungi grow saurian scales; crinkled green leaves resemble corrugated cardboard; fecund pomegranates split, spilling seed, and a Yulan magnolia isn’t the only flower that is exactly vulva-like.

The deeper implications of the apparently innocuous art of floral design keep returning. There is a reason that British culture sometimes seems best expressed in our gardens, while the country we can’t cultivate waits outside the gate like our subconscious in downland, moor and heath.

Like the feminine curves and masculine thrusts with which landscapes resemble the human body, they make you reassess how separate we really are from the planet we presume to rule.

Nick Hasted @ theartsdesk

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