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Flowers for Praying - Base Point of Makoto Azuma
Written by Satoshi KOGANEZAWA   
Published: May 28 2009

    On March 9, 2009, I visited AMKK (Makoto Azuma, Kaki Kenkyujo) and JARDINS des FLEURS, which had moved to Minami-Aoyama on January 11, 2009. My aim was to interview Makoto Azuma, who had held exhibitions at AMPG twenty-four times and had just finished his photographic exhibition entitled “AMPG vol.24+1”.

     In AMKK, each of the spaces on the first level and on the first basement level is separate but features the colour silver, which gives me a solid image. The first basement floor is used as a flower shop. In the center of the floor, there is a huge refrigerator which is used for storing plants. On the wall, there are three blackboards which are used for writing ideas and noting the progress of Azuma’s activities. Therefore, this flower shop evokes for me a completely different image from that of ordinary flower shops. Using Azuma’s phrase, it is something like a butcher’s shop. Considering that the office and flower shop, which were located at Azabu-juban before moving, had a sedate image because of the antique building and furniture, the image of this new shop is very different from that of the previous one. The new shop seems to reflect Azuma’s consistent concept of looking on plants as living matter in which “blood” circulates, or which are “flesh” rather than “beautiful” substances or “pretty” things. I interviewed Azuma, who will soon hold his solo exhibition entitled “AMPG vol.25” at Mitsubishi-Jisho Art Gallery ARTIUM in Fukuoka, which is his hometown, about his two years at AMPG and his future activities.


fig. 1 Makoto Azuma "rolling" at AMPG (Feb., 2009)

    First, I would like to refer to his photographic exhibition entitled “AMPG vol.24+1 - Makoto Azuma and other 26 photographers”, which was held for only three days, from March 2, 2009 to March 4, 2009, immediately after the last AMPG exhibition entitled “rolling” [fig. 1] closed on March 1, 2009. In fact, “rolling” is the title of his work which was created using pine trees that were made to revolve at high speed. Azuma has asked photographers to take pictures of his works since he opened his private gallery in April 2007 and in this exhibition displays pictures of his works. The pictures were previously shown in a set of AMPG exhibitions and were taken by 26 photographers.*1

    We could find many photos which had been taken by well-known photographers. Nonetheless, what was notable in this exhibition was the form of display. Until the last minute of this exhibition, I could not find anything in the back space of the gallery where “rolling” was located, with only its front side on display. As there were partitions in the back space, I thought that the staff were preparing for a photographic exhibition within the space. Nevertheless, when I visited on the opening day, March 2, there was still nothing on the wall. In the center of the space, there was a potted plant and some black thing on a white table, but I could not find anything other than these things and chairs in this exhibition hall. Therefore, I was very surprised to hear that the black thing was the subject of the exhibition. Azuma used acrylic panels to resemble papers, and he pasted photos and negatives on each of them and tied these panels together to make them look like a photo album. Thus, only one viewer at a time could look at this album. Also, this thick album gave us a heavy image which perhaps can be conveyed by saying the pages had to be “hefted” rather than “flipped over”. Did Azuma get this idea from the time when he was developing a plan of this exhibition?

“Originally, I planned to create an exhibit by wrapping it up using acrylic-like things and dropping it on the floor. I wanted viewers to see it one at a time, taking time to see what I had produced which were the result of my two years experience at AMPG, rather than have a number of viewers see it at the same time. Indeed, there were very many visitors and I felt responsible for causing inconveniencing them, but there were no complaints about this display method. Some viewers told me that it was a fresh idea. People who take photographs for a living seemed to particularly enjoy this form of display and said that it seemed to reflect my ideal. I was happy about that. Anyhow, what I wanted to do through this exhibition was a little bit different from “conveying” something, but I feel that ultimately I succeeded at least in showing or treating my experience without causing annoyance.”*2

    Indeed, the form of display of this exhibition was completely different from that of ordinary photographic exhibitions, but, considering the nature of AMPG itself and its significance, it can be said that this was the perfect way of displaying the exhibits shown in this exhibition. And, as mentioned by Azuma, the display method was derived from the display style of AMPG where his works had been shown to viewers with great care. Azuma continued as follows:

“You need not look on a photographic exhibition as a sophisticated thing. Indeed, I myself do not visit photo exhibitions so often, but I feel that, in most photographic exhibitions, framed pictures are displayed with great care. Indeed, such exhibitions can be said to be worth visiting, but it was important for me to leave what I had obtained by holding exhibitions in AMPG on 24 occasions, in the minds of the viewers as memories rather than records. If I had shown my works by putting them in frames or hanging them on the wall, the memories of my works would have vanished from the viewers’ minds. I wanted to increase the value of the art works. Taking time to look at works one by one, at one’s own pace, looking at them while touching them with one’s hands, and seeing works in the form of photos – that was exactly what I hoped viewers would do in this exhibition.”

    Considering that the contents of photo album are printed photos, what viewers were doing in this exhibition may be similar to purchasing a photo album and looking at it on one’s desk at home. However, the photo album which was displayed in this exhibition was completely different from framed photos which are displayed in art museums and galleries in such a way that we cannot touch them, though they have in common the fact that they are unique items. Also, since there were various kinds of photographs which had been taken by many photographers, viewers could discover many different aspects. Therefore, in this exhibition, there was no hierarchy between photographers and viewers, and the photos played a role only as a time machine which would be used to remind viewers of Azuma’s works. Turning over the pages, viewers would remember that they had visited before.

fig. 2 Makoto Azuma "LEAF MAN" at AMPG (May, 2008)

fig. 3 Makoto Azuma "Botanical Sculpture #1 Assemblage" at AMPG (Feb., 2008)

fig. 4 Makoto Azuma "Botanical Sculpture #2 holding" at AMPG (Aug., 2008)

fig. 5 Makoto Azuma "Damned Ikebana" at AMPG (May, 2007)

fig. 6 Makoto Azuma "The other side of Crazy RED" at AMPG (July, 2007)


    The “LEAF MAN” (AMPG, May 2008, fig. 2) - this was the first work of Azuma’s that I saw. Since then, though for less than one year, I have been looking at his works and now I notice a significant change.

    In AMPG, Azuma tried to show new aspects of various plants experimentally by using plants as the materials of his works. Let me give some examples. The series of “Shiki” (April 2007, March 2008, October 2008), which was created by using pine trees with a clear rule and concept, the series of “Botanical Sculpture” (February 2008, August 2008, fig. 3&4), which was made up by combining plants using bands and clips, “Damned Ikebana” (May 2007, fig. 5), which was created by combining waste materials, “The other side of Crazy RED” (July 2007, fig. 6), which was a red space, in which Azuma arranged flowers every morning during the exhibition term, and “The Catcher in the Datura” (October 2007, fig. 7), which was created in the form of a huge cage, in which Azuma imprisoned Datura which he had grown in his own field in Moriya, Ibaraki Prefecture. However, since creating the work entitled “Punk tank garden” (November 2008, fig. 8), Azuma’s motivation has changed. It seems that he has started to express his physical feelings rather than his thoughts. Azuma’s garden, which is a collection of his favorite potted plants, is a perfect symbol of what he is trying to achieve and is his starting point. There is no flower which is blown up or stored in vacuum packaging in his garden. I am afraid of being misunderstood if I say that that he no longer learns by his mistakes, but I would like to point out that he has been extending his consciousness, and uses his new insights in his creative activities.

“As you, Mr. Koganezawa, wrote in the article entitled ‘About the experience in AMPG’ in KLONSNET, “the experience” is an extremely important motif of my works. Looking at artworks and feeling something from them while holding your hands behind your back, is one way of enjoying artworks. Nevertheless, I want viewers to gain certain experiences from my works. Therefore, I asked viewers to eat candy while looking at my work entitled “umechan”. I am sure this work gives different images to viewers who look at it with candy in their mouths than to those who see it without eating. Such a way of thinking can also be applied to music. If we have memories involving music or have experienced something with music in the background and we listen to that music afterwards, we will remember the past experience. Flowers have similar symbolism. Therefore, I wanted to try to express such a symbolic image of flowers directly to viewers. While I have been showing my works at AMPG, the form of display has become more and more straightforward. And when I found that my display style could not be accomplished by using a curved ball, screw ball, or fork ball, I noticed that what I wanted to express through my works were “experiences”. Previously, I created works by arranging plants, but I have decided to try a different way to express my experience more clearly than before.

For example, the work entitled “hand vase” depicts a part of my daily life. Through this work, I wanted to convey to viewers, who have never given flowers as a present to someone, how we feel when we are presented with flowers. Arranging flowers has been part of my daily routine, and I ultimately hoped to show viewers this aspect of my life. Needless to say, at first, my concept was only an experimental one, but I gradually felt I was developing a clear and concrete concept of expressing essential things (including human feelings) through my works. You know, Japanese apricot flowers usually give us a nostalgic image. Why? Since they start to bloom one month earlier than cherry blossoms which give us the image of celebration , Japanese apricot flowers give us a more modest and sensitive image. So I tried to convey this image of Japanese apricot flowers through my works from a broad perspective. Lastly, my concept became universal and simple and was completed in the form of an artwork, “umechan”. I am satisfied with this work in terms of succeeding in conveying my concept strongly to viewers through it, though this creation was derived from my simple, wild guess.”

    A set of works created by Azuma, including “Punk tank garden” (November 2008), “Desolate” (December 2008, fig. 9), “hand vase” (January 2009, fig. 10), “umechan (January 2009, fig. 11) and “rolling” (February 2009), directly reflect Azuma’s inspiration or emotional responsiveness to plants. In “Desolate”, we found a single red gladiolus flower among the white ones in a huge refrigerator. That red flower represented Azuma’s memory and the scene within his brain. In “hand vase”, hands of dummies were used to resemble vases, and by this Azuma expressed our subtleties of emotion when we give flowers as a present. The Japanese apricot flowers which were depicted in the work, “umechan”, still remain in my heart because of their beauty. Through this work, Azuma simply showed viewers Japanese apricot flowers which gradually bloomed during the short exhibition term, from the end of January to the beginning of February, and he asked them to look at this work with candy in their mouths. In the work entitled “rolling”, pine trees revolved at high speed, accompanied by a deep bass sound, probably from the associated machinery.

fig. 7 Makoto Azuma "The Catcher in the Datura" at AMPG (Oct., 2007)

fig. 8 Makoto Azuma "Punk tank garden" at AMPG (Nov., 2008)

fig. 9 Makoto Azuma "Desolate" at AMPG (Dec., 2008)

fig. 10 Makoto Azuma "hand vase" at AMPG (Jan., 2009)

fig. 11 Makoto Azuma "umechan" at AMPG (Feb., 2009)

fig. 12 Makoto Azuma "Rip a go go (for Yukio Nakagawa)" at AMPG (Jun., 2008)

    Not long ago, Azuma could have been classified as an avant-garde flower arrangement artist, such as Sofu Teshigahara (1900 - 1979) and Yukio Nakagawa (1918 -). Although I have heard that Azuma said something negative about Teshigahara, he is sympathetic to the concept of Nakagawa’s works, as he expressed his respect for Nakagawa in his work, “Rip a go go” (June 2008, fig. 12), which was shown in AMPG. It seems that this experimental and avant-garde work links to an enthusiastic period at the beginning of the Showa Era in which Teshigahara and Yukio Nakagawa were active. Nevertheless, today, Azuma seems not to be classified in this way. Why? In the 60s, about half a century ago, avant-garde artists (including flower arrangement artists) often created works to try to answer a serious question, “What is art?”, and ultimately they reached a negative answer - denial of art itself/anti-art. Azuma’s works cannot be said to be connected with such a vague question or with artworks which were created to try to answer that question, since he creates works to express life itself rather than to settle issues of art.

“It is little difficult to express in words, but early people seem not to have understood the meaning of ‘nothing’. Artworks are the excreta of the people who created those works. Can you understand? In other words, artists create their works by digesting something and egesting it as waste material. Almost all of the old-time artists, including avant-garde flower arrangement artists and avant-garde artists, seem not to have recognized this, though today’s artists can be said to understand it. Pursuing the meaning of works too seriously or being too sensitive to the scale of works will strengthen the nature of artworks as the excreta of artists, whether you like it or not. Can you grasp this? Probably, our generation may understand what I would like to say. They seem to recognize that artworks, such as songs, paintings, sculptures and my creations which were displayed at AMPG, are like the excreta of their creators. In other words, they are created as a result of digesting something. Therefore, artworks (here, I call them “excreta” because this word seems to be easy to understand) can also be said to be linked to the human body. Accordingly, it is nonsense to expect state-of-the-art or current fashion in artworks. Or, ultimately, it should also be nonsense to put a price on them, though it is difficult for us to follow this ideal since we have to earn our living by selling something. This is what I wanted to convey through my works. I wanted to express realistically the essence of artworks as the excreta of artists. I need not to fill up blank spaces in creating my works nor be apotheosized by viewers who look at my creations. As I write in my blog, artworks mean neither a starting point nor an ending of something.”

    All of Azuma’s works which were shown at AMPG, were created using living plants. Therefore, basically viewers could see them only in the exhibition site and they could only exist afterwards as memories. Also, the atmosphere and the scent of Kiyosumi-shirakawa, which viewers experienced while walking along the street to reach the gallery, would, without them realizing it, mix with the image of Azuma’s works which they held in their mind when looking at them. Therefore, Azuma’s works may be noted down in each viewer’s personal history, since the impressions of his works are different for individual viewers. Is this not the essential aspect of art? If artworks can be recorded or stored, they may be transmitted from one generation to the next. Besides the recorded works, however, there are other things which we should keep in our mind. On the one hand, the history of art can be described on a chronological basis, without extraneous personal information. On the other hand, there are a number of personal histories, namely, a number of works which each viewer wants to keep in their mind. Nobody can possess Azuma’s works. That is the reason we wish to keep them in our mind.


    In 2009, Azuma is going to participate in Shinro Ohtake’s project which will be held in Naoshima at the beginning of summer. After completing this project, he plans to start his project, AMGG (Makoto Azuma Guerrilla Gallery). AMGG is described as a movable gallery, in which Azuma shows viewers works created by using local plants, while traveling all over the world with a box-shaped tent which is two and a half meters in length. The first place will be Iceland, where he plans to use a local plant, moss, as a material of his works.

“I have been cultivating plants in my own field because I like to touch plants with my own hands. And recently I feel like creating works in places which we are not familiar with. Considering that I have been focusing on creating works by using plants for many years, it may be necessary for me to take this one step further, though I do not want to get into trouble. For example, it will be significant for me to visit Iceland to obtain moss to use in my works. If I can create a work in Iceland by using moss, it will give me a great opportunity to show that I am familiar with plants. However, there is a strong possibility that I will fail to create anything using moss in Iceland. Nonetheless, what is important for me is how to create something in a harsh natural environment. In such places, I will not be able to create works easily while saying, “This is nice” or “That is good”.

    In 2010, Azuma plans to publish a large-sized (B3) art collection book, which will have 300 pages. He said, “It is not a magazine, so I have to enhance the quality of the photographs which are to be inserted in the book. I would like to complete this book even if it costs me my life”. I suppose he will do as he says. Needless to say, flowers are still blooming all over the world even though AMPG has closed. I am sure that Azuma will continue to arrange flowers as long as he lives. And also we can live with flowers as long as we have hope. In this sense, the closure of AMPG does not mean the end of Azuma’s creative activities.

    Lastly, I would like to introduce Azuma’s statement, which seems to represent the relationship between Azuma and flowers clearly.

“It may be no exaggeration to say that arranging flowers is similar to praying. I am not religious but I feel this to be true. As I get older, this feeling seems to become stronger. It seems to be similar to the “Han-nya shingyo” idea of the Buddhists. As I have got older, I recognize more strongly the feeling conveyed by “Han-nya shingyo”. Also, I become more attracted to the idea of doing the same thing every day, which is similar to “walking” or, for me, “arranging flowers”. If I do not arrange flowers every day, I become emotionally upset. For me, it is an extremely joyful thing to arrange flowers in my daily life, though there are no customs such as chanting a Buddhist sutra or reading the Bible in my life.

Such awareness is not the same as being a workaholic, as addiction can suddenly disappear from one’s daily life. I am always conscious of arranging flowers in my everyday life. Isn’t this similar to praying? A prayer is always in one’s mind and it is a repeated activity - like eating, taking a leak or moving the bowels - rather than a special activity to provide emotional support. Therefore, arranging flowers is the same as praying. In fact, I feel relaxed while working with flowers. And my prayer, which is in my body for always, will be absolutely reflected in my work.”

(Translated by Nozomi Nakayama)

Originally, Naoki Ishikawa was chosen as an exhibitor for this photo exhibition to present his photograph of “umechan” (January 2009), but he was unable to exhibit the photograph. Therefore, a photograph which had been taken by Azuma himself was added to the exhibits. Excluding Azuma, the exhibitors are the following 25 artists: Seiji Shibuya, Daido Moriyama, Anders Edstrom, Mika Ninagawa, Mikiya Takimoto, Mie Morimoto, Yayoi Arimoto, Masayuki Shioda, Sakiko Nomura, Shingo Wakagi, Hiroji Kubota, Miguel Rio Branco, Akio Tomari, Elliott Erwitt, Naoki Honjo, Chris Steele-Perkins, Miyako Ishiuchi, Great The Kabukityo, Shunsuke Shiinoki, Ishii (Kotobamo), Panda Kanno, Yukikazu Ito, Shinro Ohtake, Jonas Bendiksen and M.HASUI.
This statement is a quote from the interview with Makoto Azuma which was conducted at AMKK in Minami-Aoyama on March 9, 2009. The other statements of Azuma were extracts from this interview, if not otherwise specified.
Last Updated on October 11 2016

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