“Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I am now in quarantine. Since the first half of April, I have continued to work on ikebana at home and to post on social media. What I insist on with respect to my flower arrangement during this period is the use of containers which can be found practically in every household, such as empty bottles, glasses as well as other household objects. Similarly, regarding the flowers, I have taken to using those which can be bought at florists at a low price or wildflowers springing up by the roadside. My theme is the humble joy brought into being within an ordinary family environment,” said Yuji Ueno, a Japanese ikebana artist. Ueno’s interest in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, started when he randomly came across an exhibition by the celebrated ikebana artist Hiroshi Teshigahara at the age of 19. Teshigahara’s work shocked Ueno; they moved him deeply, and at the same time completely changed his long-standing imagination and understanding of ikebana. To Ueno, ikebana was no longer a solemn practice of floral arrangement, but a powerful and inspirational art form that can bring wonder and magic even to the most ordinary households.
Ever since then, Ueno has completely devoted himself to the practice of ikebana. He was no longer the young boy that hated school and wandered days and nights at the cinemas and art museums. He started going to traditional flower arrangement classes and experienced all of the ups and downs that come with learning. It has been over thirty years now since this all began. Ueno once said that he could not express himself through soft and delicate flowers. On the contrary, he resonates most with the small, yet energetic wildflowers that grow on the side of the road. For that, his work does not only include flowers, but also various tree trunks and branches with distinctive characteristics that can reveal the most honest and genuine side of nature.
“In any case, I think it is important not to be bound by any fixed concepts.” Ueno said that he only started to really understand flower arrangement, and was finally able to create something “presentable,” at the age of 40. His artwork does not only include plants and vessels. He also incorporates music, dance, and images to enhance live performances that allow audiences to witness the life and death of flowers. He would tie the flowers with ropes, beat them fiercely, and brutally destroy them. When the last petal falls and the flower dies, the desire to “live” was born. As Ueno once said, if you put the flowers aside, they won’t be happy. Only if they encounter time, space and other people, can they become a force of resistance that can move people’s hearts. In the time of pandemic when everyone is fighting hard against the virus, ikebana shows us the most humble way to deal with nature, and that we can find joy even in crisis.
U: Ueno Yuji
O： You have been doing ikebana for more than 30 years, what changes have you made in these years?
U： Within the first ten years or so since I began to learn ikebana, I mainly focused on the creation and expression performance of objects and installations based on the concept of ikebana using plants, without ever presenting ikebana works as my own expressions. Certainly, I have done flower arrangement as part of my training, and the images and philosophy that I have gained during the process have formed the core of my expressions.
Around the age of 30, I began to get the opportunity to gradually make public my ikebana creations. Around that time, I lost the motivation to continue working on ikebana. In the sense of confronting my starting point, I took on flower arrangement while beginning to regain my motivation. I have become used to approaching the uncomplicated act of flower arrangement in a serious manner. At 35, I quit the school I belonged to and became independent. A few years later, I became an instructor.
O：You have interated ikebana into music and performing arts, why do you have such an idea?
U： It was around 18 years ago, a gallery owner, who saw me working on an installation, recommended that I should do performances. Thanks to this encouragement, I made a resolve to start doing performances. When I began live performances, I had the chance to come in touch with performances as a form of artistic expressions and contemporary dance. Then I began to take an interest also in live performances as a form of expression. Concerning the expression of Ikebana, the passage of time is an essential element. It is because flowers are vivid. In addition, spectators are face-to-face with the creations right before their eyes. And this element applies to live performances in the exact same way. This awareness corresponds to an essential motivation of my beginning to pass on the concepts and philosophy of ikebana through performances.
O：Can you share your views on ikebana?
U： Ikebana is a form of culture. It is a form of entertainment allowing us to nourish our mind through arranging flowers. It is equivalent to the experience gained from drawing and singing. Ikebana is a style of flower design originally from Japan. Its origin can be traced back to around 600 years ago. Given its long history, each period has given birth to a popular style. The many creations which have dominated the visual images of ikebana correspond to a classical style from the past. In my view, the process of realizing ikebana in the modern world is based on a profound understanding, respect and acceptance of past events, and a perception and continuing realization of what should be done at present. In this sense, it is natural that my current ikebana creations are different from those in the past.
O：What do you think about the relationship between human beings and nature?
U：First of all, I would state that human beings are a part of nature. Generally speaking, I think nature refers to the existence which is beyond the control of human forces, and in nature, the most symbolic existence for human beings is plants. Like us human beings, plants are living things. Plants such as vegetables can serve as food and they also serve as a source of oxygen, and as a system for storing a suitable amount of water on the Earth’s surface, make it possible to maintain a stable temperature. We can consider that plants contribute to the survival of human beings. I am grateful for that. In addition, while accepting and confronting the inevitable existence of things beyond our control, including epidemics, earthquakes and foods, we need to learn to coexist with fear.
O：Since you have worked with different units such as hotels, musicians, and craftsmen in the past, do you have any unforgettable experience?
U：Improvised live performances are particularly exciting and stimulating. It is interesting to start without any prior decision, and to decide on what to do next on the spot. Musicians are very much suited to such improvised performances as all they need to proceed and to transform is to ensure a way to produce sound. Within the setting of live performances, there is also a kind of honesty in the fact that ikebana, among others, is far from being able to overtake musical expressions. Since I am able to come in touch with this genuine feeling, it is simply fantastic.
O：Are there any criteria to select materials for ikebana when you are in the forest or nature?
U：If I need to work on ikebana, I step into nature with the purpose of collecting materials which have vibrant personalities. You may consider it as a process equivalent to an audition for film or theater roles. I choose simply based on the sensitivity of a human being because they are creations resulting from human activities for human beings’ appreciation. It does not concern the point of view of botany or biology. What is important is whether one can have an emotional involvement.
O：What do you think about the quote “One Flower One World”, we can see and realize the world through a flower?
U：An ikebana creation is packed with various kinds of information. In this sense, it is possible to represent the nature of things, social situations and personal emotions. Ikebana is an action performed by human beings, and the same goes for other cultures such as films and theatre. Given music and dance, among others, can achieve such representations, it is just obvious that ikebana can do the same.
O： Is there anything you want to do or plan in the future?
U： I would like to continue to work on ikebana and contribute to world peace through ikebana. As for plans, at this stage, I do not have any new experience in sight. I always want to have new challenges.