Azuma Makoto Turns Shrooms and Heavy Metals Into Art
About two years ago, a Tokyo florist named Azuma Makoto started work on an unusual art project. With some wire, he suspended a 50-year-old Japanese white pine bonsai within a cube-shaped metal frame. The bonsai came from Azuma’s personal collection, and he designed the frame to dangle beneath a helium balloon that would carry the little tree into the stratosphere. Then he did the same with a lavish bouquet of flowers. Volunteers from JP Aerospace in California helped Azuma rig the unlikely satellites with GPS sensors and GoPro cameras to record the voyage. At dawn one morning in July, 2014, the tree rose from the playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert into the sky.
The bonsai and the bouquet never returned, but footage of the mission, called “Exobiotanica,” did. The images show a wizened tree and a Mother’s Day-worthy bouquet juxtaposed against the edge of our planet. They’re awe-inspiring. They’re currently appearing at a gallery in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, along with two bonsai suspended in their own steel frames. These trees won’t be sent aloft; Makoto built them for his capsule show at Chamber, an experimental exhibition space more than once described as a “cabinet of curiosities.” Indeed, the rest of Makoto’s show backs up that description: He’s included a bicycle and a sofa covered in astroturf, an array of glass boxes shaped like seeds, and a smattering of fungi dipped in precious metals. The exhibit will be up through April 30.
The gilded polypores are Makoto’s newest work. He’s spent the past few years foraging for them in the woods in Japan. Polypores grow on tree trunks and branches. When you remove them from bark, like Makoto did, they harden. He’s collected more than 1,500 of the wrinkled fungi, which look like fossilized mushrooms, “always thinking to use them for a sculpture,” he told me through a translator. Six of them, each gilded in gold, platinum, or copper leaf, are on display at Chamber.
“Exobiotanica” pitted two opposing ideas—space and botany—against each other. The “Polypore” series does the same: Polypores feed off moisture and shade, and come from the densest part of the forest. Metals might come from the ground, but we’ve long disassociated them from anything organic. Gold, platinum, and copper convey wealth and status. “The idea is human meets nature,” Azuma says of the expensive-looking fungi. The same theme plays out in the “Botanical” series or astroturf-covered items. In this way, Makoto is a bonafide Surrealist. His pieces are the spiritual grandchildren of Meret Oppenheim’s “Object” from 1936, in which the artist covered a teacup, saucer, and spoon with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. Each is a visual pun that toys with our assumptions about how everyday objects work by rendering them a bit useless. In Makoto’s world, that’s how these objects become all the more delightful.
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