[October 9 2021]
photography by ALEPH MOLINARI
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM and ALEPH MOLINARI
portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
to pay tribute to the omni-presence of flowers in everyday mexican life, we visited the studio of alberto arango and ramiro guerrero, aka flores cosmos, known for their stellar floral installations and botanical sculptures. this portfolio — a collaboration between the artist duo, aleph molinari, and kinbaku artist mike urueta — illustrates how we are ultimately bound to nature
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell us about the inspiration behind your company’s name, Flores Cosmos. What’s the link between flowers and the cosmos?
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Initially, we were looking for a name relating to the universe. As a kid, I dreamt of becoming an astronaut, so everything related to outer space had a huge impact on me. We thought about The Big Bang or Explosion, and when we came up with Cosmos, it was like, “Fuck, yeah!” But we wanted to be more specific and relate it to flowers.
ALBERTO ARANGO — And our process of falling in love had a lot to do with MDMA and music. During those nights, when everyone was high, Ramiro would pierce open glow sticks and splash the fluorescent liquid all over the room. He didn’t care if it was toxic. And then suddenly, we were all surrounded by stars. It was the most beautiful experience.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — The name also made sense because it allowed us to work with concepts such as life and death, light and darkness — with anything, really, because “cosmos” encapsulates everything.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Do you see flowers as stars that form constellations, with each arrangement, in a sense, becoming a cosmos?
RAMIRO GUERRERO — They’re like stars. If the universe shows light through the stars, then here on Earth, flowers show light. Like stars, flowers express something about what’s around them. I think it’s related.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But is it also that flowers are mysterious, like the cosmos?
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes. It’s so incredible that flowers exist — these perfect, incredible, crazy shapes that amaze us all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And we’re constantly amazed. You never get used to it. Last time we met, you spoke about the different ways in which flowers are integrated into everyday life in Mexico. In France, for example, flowers are mainly used for decoration or to celebrate love. It’s very conventional. What is unique to Mexico in the way that people live with flowers?
RAMIRO GUERRERO — In Mexico, there is the Day of the Dead. We celebrate death, and we celebrate it with flowers.
ALBERTO ARANGO — But that’s just one or two days of the year. There are flowers in every ceremony. I love that when you work with flowers, and people ask you to send flowers, they usually convey positive feelings like gratefulness, love, or friendship.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But do you have a richer biodiversity here than anywhere else?
ALBERTO ARANGO — I think so. There are a lot of varieties in Mexico because the geography ranges from desert to jungle to forest. Here, it’s very raw. We have Japanese friends, floral artists, who come to Mexico and find that the flower market in Japan is more complete, yet what they find in Mexico is rawness. You can find in the markets things that were torn from trees in the jungle.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Plus, you have the cacti.
ALBERTO ARANGO — Exactly.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Mexicans must have a remote collective memory linked to flowers. I remember, as a kid, the women in my family always had flowers around. Flowers are a part of everyday life, and flowers are cheap in Mexico so people from all social levels can buy them. You even see it in the small towns: people walking with flowers. There’s a tradition.
ALBERTO ARANGO — It’s also very connected to death in Mexico, taking flowers to the tombs of loved ones. I think about this when I see people buying flowers in the market.
ALEPH MOLINARI — In a sense, it’s a kind of vanitas or a memento mori that shows the passing of time and the cycle of temporality. In your arrangements, you challenge the notion of beauty by including a dead trunk, a shelf mushroom, or even a skull. You have an irreverent, darker aesthetic. How is the element of death present in your work?
ALBERTO ARANGO — I think we try to convey the idea of impermanence and the passing of time in the most beautiful way possible. Every arrangement will die, so we have to make it and deliver it right away in perfect condition. In the days following, it will start to decay and slowly vanish. It’s a process of decay, and it’s part of the beauty.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this impermanence is a deliberate part of your work?
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes, because we’re very aware of it. Some people might keep their arrangements for a long time. The arrangements change: some parts bloom, others decay, and then finally fall apart and rot.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the smell changes, too.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Yes. But there are usually elements — like a dried leaf, a mushroom, or thorns — that people can keep as mementos once the arrangement is dead.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the most spectacular flower installation you’ve done? Is there one of cosmic proportions that expresses your ambition with flowers?
RAMIRO GUERRERO — The installation we did for the FLORA International Flower Festival in Córdoba, Spain.
ALBERTO ARANGO — It was a five-meter-high [16-foot-high] tower … or obelisk … or phallus. You can read it however you want. It had four sides covered in plants and flowers from all over the world. There were so many layers. It was held in the summer, and the installation was located inside a patio.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Córdoba is the hottest city. When it’s hot there, you can hardly breathe.
ALBERTO ARANGO — It was so hot, but when you entered this patio, it was fresh and smelled beautiful. There was also a soundtrack playing a crazy frequency. People would go there to relax and look at the flowers. It was a beautiful experience. But ambitions change — they evolve. I think we would probably do something different today.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Speaking of that, how do you feel about the ecological aspect of the arrangements? Do you work with wild species, plants that are not as exploited and overharvested?
RAMIRO GUERRERO — We do sometimes. I look at my profession as a profession, and as a florist, that means I need to cut flowers. Alberto thinks more about the environmental impact of the work than I do. He will say: “That flower is an endangered species” or “I don’t want to use that plant because there are not many left in the world.” Maybe I’m more selfish about this because ultimately my work focuses more on aesthetics than on ecology or the environment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you complement each other.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Exactly. Alberto turns the work into something more balanced. Because, if it was up to me, I would cut every flower around to do something spectacular.
ALEPH MOLINARI — The great thing about Mexico is that you have all these tropical species. It must be complicated to have a strictly sustainable approach because you’re engaging with all these varieties. When you can’t use a flower because of ecological concerns, how do you substitute it?ALBERTO ARANGO — Yeah, some flowers are difficult to substitute. If you think about flowers as raw materials, about their color and texture, some are irreplaceable. But nothing is an absolute or a must. Sometimes you have to make concessions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Of course. And when you’re an artist, you can’t always be politically correct. If you just obey the rules, you can’t transgress. And while these ecological rules are important, they also have to be flexible. Art is an exception. Of course, the industrial process of growing flowers is a problem. It’s intensive in its use of land, water, and chemicals. That’s the real structural problem, not you guys. The industry is the problem. Plus, industrial flowers are all the same. It’s depressing.
ALEPH MOLINARI — Roses, especially. They have been genetically modified to become the most sterile ideal of beauty, distant from any creative thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly. What’s beautiful for a French person like me, walking in the streets of Mexico City, is that it’s a garden, a fucked-up garden.
ALBERTO ARANGO — [Laughs] An abandoned garden, in a way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s an abandoned garden, but there’s beauty in the plants trying to grow everywhere, the roots of a tree breaking through the sidewalks, cacti covered in dust. No one cares here. But at the end of the day, it’s like, “Wow.” You even see butterflies in the city.
ALBERTO ARANGO — A lot of people say to me, “I can’t believe how green Mexico City is.” I guess that’s true for some areas.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, of course, we’re talking about the privileged areas like Condesa and Roma.
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes, but there are green urban patches that extend all the way to San Rafael and Coyoacán in the south of the city. And then there are patches of gray, like the ones you see around the airport.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s this presence of nature in the city. Is there something specifically Mexican about your approach to floral arrangements? There’s the connection with death, as you said.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — And the flower markets, where we get our material to work with. The flower market is our daily inspiration and a unique Mexican experience, where you can find flowers from all over the country and hear people talking in indigenous languages. That gives it a feeling of authenticity and history.
ALBERTO ARANGO — The market is an important part of flower culture. That’s where we all converge: the producers, growers, and buyers. It’s where everyone finds each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does your work with flowers connect you to a whole spectrum of people? People with one dollar to their name and the well-off…
ALBERTO ARANGO — I think about that a lot. Many of our clients are wealthy. And the people from here and the people from there just don’t connect. They’re isolated. It’s nice when you go to people’s places with flowers: they open their doors, you go into their bedrooms, and you arrange the flowers. It’s very intimate. And then we go to the fields of the people who grow the flowers, and we’re invited into their homes, where we stay for a couple of days. It’s a nurturing experience.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very social. You could say that where people don’t communicate because of social inequality, flowers create a secret connection.
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s like a secret currency, one that connects different strata of society that would otherwise be isolated from each other.
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes. Same with food. I feel so connected to chefs, for example. I mean, we’re not alchemists in the sense of the fire, but I do feel connected to chefs in their use of raw fresh materials, and in creating an ephemeral work that conveys feelings.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — And we love working with photographers because they are the ones who help us perpetuate our work. Since what we do is ephemeral, photography is the only way that we can preserve an ephemeral work made of flowers.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It freezes time.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Exactly. It gives us an emotional connection to the work because we can go back to what we did every time through photography. It’s very cool.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of art, there are a lot of artworks and books in your home, about floral arrangement but also art. I see
here a book by Wolfgang Tillmans. When you started, were there certain artists or artistic movements that influenced you?
ALBERTO ARANGO — I would say Daniël Ost, the Belgian floral artist.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He was your mentor?
ALBERTO ARANGO — Not really our mentor. In the beginning, we would see his work and be so inspired. It’s hard to understand how his technique is so perfect. We met him many years later in Córdoba.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — He was very important for us because he went to Spain to see our work at FLORA. The festival was a competition, and he was one of the judges. It was really special for me. I remember I was actually crying because there was this icon watching our installation and taking notes on it. He said our work was spiritual.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Beautiful.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — And, of course, punk was another great influence in what we do. To be transgressive. Like, “Yes, I’m going to cut and carve a cactus and then put flowers in it.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s violence in it…
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes, it’s violent.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — It’s what pushes me to combine things that are not expected. We love thorns, but sometimes people don’t like them in their homes.
ALEPH MOLINARI — But they’re so beautiful — and religious.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Yes, they’re beautiful. I like them and don’t care if people don’t. It’s my work. If you call me, you have to deal with this. Of course, music is another great influence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, music as well.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Music sometimes sets the tone for an arrangement.
ALBERTO ARANGO — In the beginning, we would title our arrangements.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — Like the “Ziggy Stardust” or like a floral arrangement we did in homage to Genesis P-Orridge, where we made the Psychic TV cross with flowers and put it on a t-shirt.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And what about contemporary artists?
ALBERTO ARANGO — Another huge inspiration for us is Azuma Makoto, the Japanese floral artist.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — We met him in Tokyo and quickly became friends. He’s been a true mentor to us, and we have collaborated with him since. Some years ago, he launched flowers into space and invited us to see the launch in the Nevada Desert. It was incredible.
ALBERTO ARANGO — Crazy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, he put plants in a rocket?
ALBERTO ARANGO — Not a rocket. It was a huge balloon that went straight into the stratosphere where it burst and fell back to Earth. It was so nice to see so many people gather around a flower arrangement.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — And the photos he got of the flowers floating in space were fantastic.
ALEPH MOLINARI — He took flowers to the bottom of the ocean as well. He places plants in places where they could never exist, a form of ecological critique. His work is very sharp. He also worked with Dries Van Noten, placing flowers in ice blocks.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — It has been amazing to know him. He has been a huge influence on our work.
ALEPH MOLINARI — And he also has that aspect of punk — he started out with a punk band.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — He still has his punk band.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, there’s a connection between Tokyo and Mexico?
ALBERTO ARANGO — When Japan opened diplomatic relations in the late 1800s, Mexico became one of its first allies. You know the purple jacarandas?
ALEPH MOLINARI — The jacarandas in Mexico were a gift from the Japanese. They initially gave Mexico the cherry blossoms, but they didn’t take off because they need the cold of the winter.
ALBERTO ARANGO — It was Tatsugoro Matsumoto, a Japanese landscaper and floral artist, who suggested substituting the original cherry blossoms with a Brazilian varietal, the jacaranda. So, that’s how jacarandas were introduced to Mexico. Matsumoto completely transformed the landscape of the city.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s beautiful.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — We also collaborated with an amazing Mexican fashion designer, Carla Fernández. She invited us to do some botanical pieces for an exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Thanks to her, our work was exhibited for the first time at a museum of modern art.
ALBERTO ARANGO — First in Arizona and then in Savannah, Georgia, where we made a cotton hat with a red amaranth coming down from it, symbolizing the blood of slaves who worked on the cotton plantations in the South. It was an important collaboration for us.
RAMIRO GUERRERO — We also worked with Mario Testino just before the pandemic. It was so much fun because we proposed a lot of ideas to him, and he shot three flower arrangements. He did a complex shoot, but the one photo he published is the one he took with his phone. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’ve been working together on Flores Cosmos since the beginning?
ALBERTO ARANGO — Yes, it’s our child. Actually, more like a 13-year-old teenager now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s been 13 years already? Wow.
ALBERTO ARANGO — And 17 years together as a couple.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You like flowers that die quickly, but you guys keep the love alive! [Laughs]
RAMIRO GUERRERO — It’s an expression of the love we feel for each other. In the end, it’s love that keeps our project alive. All our arrangements are made with four hands. We understand each other at the moment of creating. It’s like making music: when the other person is better at doing something, you let them do their thing.
ALBERTO ARANGO AND RAMIRO GUERRERO OF FLORES COSMOS, MEXICO CITY
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