What happens when you mix two apparently contradictory artistic expressions like Baroque, the European period of the ‘more is more’ philosophy, and Ikebana, the exquisite Japanese art of flower arrangement? If you add other ingredients like mass-produced objects – ranging from sneakers to hammers and glassware –, a red brick acting as a sort of pedestal and even some sexual undertones, you end up with Baroque Ikebana, a photo series by Nicklas Hultman. The Swedish photographer and graphic designer explains to us some of the curious stories behind some of these very sensitive images, which celebrate the ordinary while turning it into something extraordinary.
Baroque Ikebana, as you explain, is “a celebration to the ordinary” where you combine everyday mass-produced objects like hammers, bricks, a showerhead, empty beer cans, rugs, or cleaning products. How did this idea come up?
The project started without me actually knowing it when I lived in Shanghai (China) for five years. I observed the heavy consumption of everyday products without people having recycling or sustainability in mind. When I later moved to Denmark, I saw the same consumption and the enormous use and waste of plastic – the only difference from China was that in Denmark, you had the opportunity to recycle if you wanted to. But still, it’s like brands aren’t responsible whatsoever about what they put out there, so I wanted to make a comment on that but not in a doomsday manner or by telling people what to do. Instead, I wanted to make something beautiful with the everyday trash/objects we take for granted.
Both informed by Dutch still lives and the Ikebana technique, these arrangements seem like altars to everyday life. Is it a sort of celebration? Do they hide a ritualistic intention?
Yes, it is definitely a celebration or ‘highlight’ of everyday objects. Both the baroque paintings and Ikebana arrangements are like sacred frozen moments. So yes, altars is a good description. I use a brick as a podium in all images, which puts everything on a pedestal, on a sort of altar. I combine certain objects because, for me, they stand out for some reason when they are next to something else. Like when there is a white, sparkling liquid pouring over an ancient religious book, or when fruits are embracing each other on a certain fabric. Or a specific plastic object connected to a certain structure in a fruit and so on. But I don’t want to tell the viewers what they see; I think it’s more important and interesting that the first impression of the work is personal, not dictated.
Both the Baroque paintings and Ikebana compositions are meant to be seen at one point in time – so are my images. The Dutch paintings depict the precise moment the artist wants you to see – the flowers are crisp, the butterfly is on the exact right position, the drops on the fruits and the daylight are in perfect harmony. And the Ikebana arrangement is the most beautiful when the Ikebana masters have made the final adjustment. My images are meant to be viewed digitally or printed, they are not real-life installations. They are also frozen moments that I alter to suit my point of view. All images are a combination of ten to twenty images that I combine to get the maximal visual effect – to enhance a certain fruit, a leaf, or a liquid that is pouring (seemingly by itself) over a glass.
The series’ title joints two seemingly opposite concepts: Baroque, the European artistic period that celebrated the ‘more is more’ and ‘horror vacui’ philosophy, full of pastel colours and golden decorations, and Ikebana, the delicate Japanese art of flower arrangement. Did you have this juxtaposition in mind when creating the series, or did the name come after seeing the final result?
I have always been very inspired by Dutch masters like Vermeer and Willem van Aelst. And all of the settings in Peter Greenaway’s films – all ‘more is more’, dark colours and a lot of details. When I lived in Shanghai, I participated in several Asian flower arrangement classes and went to a lot of flower exhibitions all over Asia. I have now lived in Denmark for almost a year, and I started to do this Baroque Ikebana project here. I didn’t actually think about the two references when I started doing this, it was all subconsciously. But when I started to analyse my work, I realized that what I have been inspired by all my life and in my time in Asia have morphed together without me thinking about it.
I get where you got the food and flowers from, but where did you source the rest of the materials? Did you find them on the street, searched in your friends’ houses or…?
Since the project is a comment on how we consume and how we handle what we consume, I use many man-made objects that I find on my daily walks with my dog. And this summer, my neighbours asked me to look after their house while they were on holiday – I had free access to their garden and shed. It was a pure goldmine of objects!
When looking at all the photos, I notice there are several references to sexuality, eroticism and fetish: a jockstrap, popper, white socks, a butt plug, leather handcuffs, or polaroids of naked men. Is part of the series dedicated to celebrating sex? Are they some sort of altars to sexual freedom? Maybe to the gods of lust?
I think sexuality and objects related, and it’s a beautiful thing – it’s something everyone can relate to or have an opinion about. It is often easier to care about others’ sexual preferences than about the environment, but I wouldn’t say that my images are sexual. That is up to the viewer to decide. They can be what you say, sure, but they can also be just purely beautiful.
I’d love to know the story behind at least one of your creations. There are several that I think must be curious enough, but I’ll let you choose. Is there any particular anecdote or funny story that you’d like to share with us? Maybe a couple of them?
Once a year, there is a big spring exhibition at Liljevalchs Gallery in Stockholm (Sweden) – it is one of the most important art events in Sweden every year. In 1999, my BFA project (textile art) was selected for that exhibition. It is a huge honour to be selected to show your work there, so I was thrilled when they accepted mine. I exhibited several everyday objects next to a crocheted replica of each. One of the objects was this blue toilet brush. It was sold, but when the show ended, the buyer didn't take the actual brush, just the crocheted replica, so I have kept the original ever since. Now, many years later, it is back in my work.
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I wanted to do a very ‘musk’ image, that had a lot of sexual undertones. But not just sex, sex; I wanted it to be connected to preparation around sex. So I used my hair trimmer and placed it next to Cow parsley, which immediately started to fall apart. I used a cock-ring to hold the raised ‘bush’. The stalk with the bush is entering/penetrating the glass that is filled with fizzy liquid. From my point of view, I think this is the most sexual image in the series.
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One of my best friends got married this summer and I wanted to do a specific image just for them, a wedding picture. Something that said togetherness, festivities, beauty and delicious food. So I started to look for objects that could be in that image. One weekend when we were out at our regular antique markets and I stuffed the trunk with things I bought, I saw this yellow towline. It was perfect. Nothing says ‘stay together’ like a thick rope with massive hooks on each side.
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This is a personal project you made for yourself. How do you feel this series fits within your overall work?
I have always worked with flowers as a material in some way. My mom was a florist, so I have always been surrounded by them. I think this project is a natural step for my work based on all the influences that I have gathered to this point. I love flowers and mass-produced objects. A while ago, a Japanese TV show contacted me and wanted to do a piece about the Baroque Ikebana project and how Japanese culture has travelled abroad and ‘the new Ikebana’. So early one Wednesday morning, an entire TV crew and a production company invaded my studio. It turned out to be a couple of hectic days. Super fun! They filmed me while I did four new images, which will be shown for the first time on Japanese TV later this December together with twenty-eight images that are exhibited here in Denmark at the moment.
Apart from my Baroque Ikebana images, I also do graphic design work for various clients, and I have several (new) clients that contacted me be based on this project. They want to collaborate or want me to use their products in my images. Some of these collaborations are in the making now – will be revealed later this year and early 2020. So you can say that this project has opened doors that I didn’t know existed.
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