Neither in heaven nor in hell can I envision the existence of flowers. Once they step over the boundaries of this mortal life, they fade away.
The Egyptians were the earliest people to make use of flowers in rituals. They were especially fond of a type of blue water lilies. Every morning, when the first ray of sunshine is casted upon the land, blue water lilies stretch out their petals in relief, showing the bright yellow sepals within. After midday, like a film on rewind, they clasp and return to their bud form, to sink into deep slumber under the water. From this pattern of daily repetition, the Egyptians saw creation and regeneration.
The “Bearer of divine offerings of Amun”, being Egyptian shrine gardeners of the highest class, took care of the blue water lilies everyday. They used the lilies to make psychedelic holy wines, or tied up their petals with reed stems to make a bouquet for an impending funeral. One may say, this was mankind’s earliest “ikebana“. And yet, nowadays in Egypt, not even a trace of blue water lilies can be seen.
In the summer of 2013, a kind of indigo flower named monochoria korsakowii bloomed on the shores of Minamisoma city, Fukushima, Japan. The expansion of cities has caused this kind of flower to disappear from the area for a long time. Yet two and a half years after the 2011 tsunami, once the people had left, they were awakened. In a land of utter devastation, they burned silently like ghostly fire.
Having heard this story, Ikebana practitioner Atsunobu Katagiri prepared lightly and entered into the “circle”, that is, the evacuation zone spanning the 20 to 30 kilometres from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. There was dead silence in what he saw, with an eerie atmosphere. Only a fisherman’s house was left by the shore, and the flowers planted in its garden had spread into the house. In that instant, he felt the transference between life and death. He picked a few flowers, and because there were no vases around, he used a water boot left by the fisherman, and completed his first ikebana work in Fukushima.
That was in 2013, close to the end of the year. From that winter onwards until 31 July the following year, Atsunobu Katagiri lived in a temporary house inside the circle. He picked flowers as he encountered them, collected everyday life objects people left behind to be his vases, such as shoes, helmets, toys, pianos, etc, and completed ikebana creations in the ruins.
As he walked about, radioactive substances in the air entered his lungs through his breathing. Perhaps for this reason, time inside his body gradually came to overlap with time in the ruins. He started using entire environments as a sort of vase that is neither natural nor entirely man-made. For instance, a rusty car in the middle of the road and the wild grass around it, for a moment, existed for the flowers chosen by the kadoka.
Atsunobu Katagiri was born in 1973 in Osaka, Japan into an ikebana family. Due to his father’s accident, at 24 he succeeded his father as master of the Misasagi ikebana school. That year, amidst the perplexity of facing death right on, he was also skirting the entrance to the world of ikebana. By chance, on a bookshelf at home, he flipped open a page showing the work of ikebana master Yukio Nakagawa.
To be exact, it was not even a flower, but a carnation that was turned into a red flower paste. At that instant, he felt as if his heart was struck and he resonated strongly with what Yukio Nakagawa said, “What we call Rikka is really a flower tiptoeing for the dance to its death.”
The oldest ikebana school in Japan, Ikenobō was established during wartime. In an era of incessant wars and bloody vengeance, ikebana was born by engendering spaces that induce bodily and mental peace through the Rikka form. One question that Yukio Nakagawa contemplated all through his life was that if he was born in an era when ikebana was just established, with no traditions to follow, how would he have arranged his flowers. This question influenced Atsunobu Katagiri too. If he was really to commit to ikebana, he thought, what was it that he wanted to pursue.
In the Minamisoma City Museum, Atsunobu Katagiri was slowly edging closer to his answer. During life within the ring, he would take the flowers he collected to the museum, which houses antiques from across different eras in Japan, and photograph the flowers there. He would borrow earthenware from the Jōmon period to create an encounter between plants and ancient temporality.
A soil as thick as one centimetre takes almost 100 years’ time to form. The ancient earthenware collected by the museum is a testimony to past lives. When Atsunobu Katagiri arranged his flowers with these objects, gratitude welled up in his heart like bubbles. Earthenware from the Jōmon period was mostly tableware. To contain food with objects made of clay is an act of taking past lives to rejuvenate life at present.
It was also at that moment that he realised that people nowadays are accustomed to seeing ikebana as the art of floral arrangement. What he sought, however, was to facilitate the encounter between present lives and past lives. Such was also the reason why he named this photography book “Sacrifice”.
Walking about inside the circle, Atsunobu Katagiri realised that the so-called radioactive waste management is to dig up the top 10 centimetres of soil, store them in a container, and transfer them en masse to other places for deep burial. If we talk about soil as a gift to the future from lives past, wandering inside the circle, he witnessed thousands of years of lives wasted. Is this what our generation of humans shall pass on to future generations? He thought and reflected.
To ancient Egyptians, or in terms of Japanese ikebana, flowers are the bridge and symbol connecting life and death. Perhaps, flowers are objects closest to the threshold in the mortal realm. But still, they are earthly delight that belongs to our realm only, to be indulged only on the land.