Based in Shanghai, Swedish-born visual artist Nicklas Hultman's current project "Floriography" puts the language of flowers to the forefront; once expressions of clandestine communication dating back to the Victorian era.
C-P: Hey Nicklas, you’re currently based out of Shanghai. How’d you end up over there and what do you make out of the local art scene?
N.H: My friend Linda Spåman always talked about China with warmth and love so when my husband got the opportunity to work here I tagged along. It is a truly unique and challenging experience - there are almost no resemblance to the Nordic (or Western) culture that I am used to. I don’t speak Chinese and most Chinese people don’t speak English. So I use Google translate and make small drawings in a note book I always carry with me. So far it has worked splendidly. The art scene is as everything in Shanghai, spectacular. Everything that is shown at the bigger shows are very advanced and surprisingly political. There are a couple of galleries and museums I frequently go to, all shows are being displayed for 1 month, after that something new comes up, so when you have done the route you can start from the beginning – like a Greek mythological story of art.
C-P: A recurring angle through much of your work as a visual artist and graphic designer alludes to a long-standing passion for flowers and plants. Can you date your floral affinity back to certain or few early childhood memories?
N.H: I especially have two flower related memories that seems to always be with me. The first one is from when I was a child and me and my family was visiting my grandparents in Møn, Denmark. My grandfather was a potter and painter. Every time we came to visit them he gave me clay and a lot of painting material. On warm summer days I used to sit in the rose garden and paint, and then my grandfather would come out and teach me the basics in painting – how to build an image, not to overdo and that it is not a bad thing to end up with something you didn’t intend to do.
The second memory is when my mother told me to leave the flowers alone on the playground outside our home. Of course I didn’t… I kept picking them. So it ended up with my mother (who was a florist) telling me to pick more stalk so we could place them in vases. I think my first art-flower-love was Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflower and later it was Mapplethorpe’s erotic black and white tulip still lifes.
C-P: It brings me to this let’s say, delectable, project you’ve been working on for a while; a floral lexicon; Floriography, offering the various meanings of flowers. Tell me more about the work behind realizing this project.
N.H: The project started one year ago when I stumbled on a situation where everyone was totally in limbo and didn’t understand each other. I wondered if there was anything that could transcend boarders, religion and prejudice. If there was any language that didn’t care about the color of your skin or who you sleep with. I found the flower language. Almost all cultures have it and it dates a loooong way back. But it really took off during the Victorian Era (1819-1901).
It then developed into a language for people in love to communicate without anyone else to know about it. It was very common with love affairs and that was of course something you didn’t talk about in public. But you could always give or send someone flowers. Then the language developed in several different directions; different countries and culture have different symbolic meanings. But regardless of culture they have similarities. So I started to gather all the information I could find on blogs, books, forums and florists around the world. My project was first intended to be large scale images with a small folder of meanings. It has now grown into several images and a 200 page book.
C-P: What flower from Floriography would you ascribe to yourself and which would you find to be criminally underrated?
N.H: I must say it is the Lotus flower. When growing up in the Nordic countries you almost never see it. But since I moved to Shanghai I see it everywhere – it is also very common in Asian art. It is the most complex and simple flower at the same time. All its stages, from bud to withering and almost dead, are all completely visually different from each other. The Asian symbolic meaning of the Lotus is that it stands for the endeavor to evolve in life. It grows in muddy water and strive up towards the sun and when it blooms it is perfectly clean and symmetrically perfect.
Another, I think it is the Orchid. In Sweden the Orchid has turned into a rather cheap plant that you can buy at gas stations, but here in China it is very symbolic and everyone treats them with a lot of respect. There are so many variations of it, large- scale and super small plants with teeny tiny flowers – they are actually rather amazing.
C-P: In terms of flowers in art, obviously so much comes to mind instantly. There’s late Japanese visual artist Tetsumi Kudo for me but also several of Alex Katz’s endearing floral paintings. What stands out as notable floral-oriented art for you?
N.H: There is a lot of different floral art, and I think that since it is a very fragile material to work with it is interesting when someone bends that impression and does something that is not so “romantic”. The first artist that comes to mind is of course Robert Mapplethorpe. He did some erotic flower still life images combined with male nudes. Was it pornography or was it a flower study?
Today I am really impressed by the Japanese artist Azuma Makoto. He and his team have a really refreshing point of view on flowers. For one project he did flower arrangements and attached them to a helium balloon and sent it out in space with a camera – amazing images. Another time he made big arrangements and froze them into big ice monoliths. I also really like “Putnam & Putnam” – two florists based in New York doing amazing creations. Classical but with a modern twist.
C-P: Lastly what’s in store for you in 2016?
N.H: I am going to exhibit this flower project in three places here in China this spring. One group exhibition and one solo show here in Shanghai. And later this spring I got invited to show it on a big Art Garden Festival in Beijing, China. This autumn I will do collaboration with a store in Gothenburg that will have a flower theme. Aside from that I have a lot of smaller projects that I continuously come back to which are given the same amount of time and dedication. My favorite right now is a vase to be used when the stalk no longer can hold a flower up. We will see how it turns out.
All images courtesy of Nicklas Hultman
1) Floriography; Flower sign, spread
2) Nicklas Hultman, portrait
3) Floriography; book cover
4) Floriography; Lotus (left), Sunflower (right), posters
5) Floriography; Hydrangea, spread
6) Floriography; Cylamen, poster
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