Kiku

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through November 18.

Metaphorically speaking, there’s something unsettling and sad about taking living beings, denying their natural beauty, and forcing them to conform to a standard not their own. But in this case, we’re talking about chrysanthemums (kiku in Japanese), not people, and the results are so extraordinary that even I can’t work myself into too much of a huff over thematic implications.

The botanical garden’s Kiku exhibit showcases traditional Japanese techniques of cultivating the colorful flowers. Plants are trained over a course of months to develop the blossoms for various established forms, supported by frameworks of wire, bamboo, and wood.

In the ozukuri style, for example, a single plant is trained to produce some two hundred fifty blossoms on a scaffold that positions the flowers evenly in the shape of a gentle dome. Kengai produces thousands of tiny blossoms in a cascade of color, arcing over a frame that takes the branches far from the roots. Ogiku creates a single immense blossom—more than half a foot in diameter—perched atop a long slim stem; together, ogiku of different colors create bright patterns on a long flat platform.

According to the garden’s literature, American horticulturists spent five years in cultural exchange with Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo to learn the traditional techniques in preparation for Kiku, the largest such exhibit ever seen outside Japan. In a small way, the exhibit serves a passport to Japan, a tantalizing glimpse at an unfamiliar but lovely artform.

The formality of it is breathtaking, even refreshing. In the United States, we tend to think of art as a vehicle for self-expression, but Kiku is a classic kind of art: evocative, yet rooted in tradition, seeking the perfection of its various, finely honed forms.

Kiku is well-suited for autumn, too. The crisp, cool air, with its promise of ice and bare branches to come, lends a wistfulness to the chrysanthemums’ elegance. Even their carefully composed beauty will wither when winter arrives, and Kiku seems to accept that, even to anticipate it: a rock garden draped in white chrysanthemums is meant to evoke a snow-covered mountain, and that nod to the transitory nature of the floral tableau makes it all the more striking. Perhaps the beauty of the kiku isn’t so divorced from nature after all.

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I didn’t have a camera with me, and I doubt I could have adequately captured the exhibit’s beauty anyway. For now, though, you can find photographs of the kiku on the New York Botanical Garden website.