Cloudy with a chance of flowers

Philipp Von Arx’s installations at the Swiss embassy in Delhi seal the 75-year old Indo-Swiss relationship with a sea of flowers, and fabulistic artistry.
Floral installation at Wildegg Castle, Switzerland
Floral installation at Wildegg Castle, Switzerland

Flower clouds are hanging low in the Embassy of Switzerland. They have descended through the atrium, seeped into the interior corridor and out onto the lawn. Ambassadors and guests sip their beverages and nip Swiss cheese under these vibrant fluffy formations. There is no cause for concern, for even if these clouds burst, it would only be a rain of flowers.

The ‘clouds’ had been imagined by Swiss floral artist Philipp Von Arx months ago. He finally gave them shape as installations at the Swiss Art Night: SwitzerlandIndia in Bloom, a celebration of 75 years of bilateral ties and friendship between India and Switzerland, held at the Swiss embassy on Friday.

Floral artist Philipp Von Arx
Floral artist Philipp Von Arx

Suspended from bamboo frames, the installations use an assortment of flowers- carnations, anthuriums, heliconias, gladioli and marigolds starkly contrasting colours, shapes and sizes, sourced from across India, to form the clouds. Monstera, date and palm leaves bring in the green and also add to their wonderful weirdness of shape. For instance, the flower clouds hovering in the atrium evoke giant floral fish or porcupines- much like the times one has looked up at the sky and, with a childish joy, discerned figures in the clouds. “This isn’t realism,” says Von Arx. “It is fantasy.”

‘I have flowers in my blood’

This sense of the fantastic has been the mainstay of the artist’s work; the medium is his inspiration. Born in Zurich to a family that had been in the flower business since the 1800s, Von Arx naturally took to them. “I have flowers in my blood,” he says with a laugh. As a young boy he used to put together little bouquets and sell them on the street.

It is not the first time the artist has crafted a cloud of flowers though. For a Scent Fest held at the Wildegg Castle in Switzerland last year, Von Arx set up a long winding cloud-like structure, made of Gypsophila (also called Baby’s Breath) that came in through one of the windows of the tower room and floated inside, like an aroma. What is new about the Embassy installation is that here he has used flowers he has not worked with before. And as he says, “No two clouds are ever the same.”

“Marigolds are a rare find in Switzerland,” he says of the densely-petalled flower found in abundance in India, especially in the south. “For this installation, we used over 300 kilos of marigold. That is, around 30,000 marigolds.” Von Arx and the embassy team have ensured that none of it goes to waste after the guests leave the party. HelpUsGreen, a social enterprise based out of Kanpur, will repurpose all the flowers on display into essential oils and incense.  

Nebuliser sprinklers installed inside the cloud structures spray mists of water that sparkle in the pink lighting, creating a sense of the ethereal. They also serve the practical purpose of keeping the flowers and foliage fresh. But not for long. “I had started working on the idea for this installation in May. It took months of planning, a week to set it up and it is only for an evening,” says the artist. “Flowers dry up. They are temporary. You cannot keep these in a museum. You see them once, and you never see them again.”

With the team of florists at the embassy, Photo: Sundeep Bali
With the team of florists at the embassy, Photo: Sundeep Bali

Swiss freestyle

Von Arx has worked with his team of floral designers, Flowers to Arts, and Indian floral artists Shreeram Kulkarni and Adarsh Suresh, as well as bamboo artist Sagar Singh to bring together Indian flowers and Swiss design. “In India, floral arrangements are usually very symmetrical. For every flower on one side, there would be a corresponding one on the other,” he says of flower designs in Indian weddings and other ceremonies. “In Switzerland, we tend to freestyle.” Von Arx’s practice is marked by this fluidity as well, by its sense of movement. His works, whether it is representations of clouds or scents, are attempts at giving shape to the ever-changing, the vanishing.

The flowers and the bamboo have transformed the embassy into something of a tropical getaway. The installations stand out against the white walls and the minimalist architecture of the building. It is a carnival of colours and forms. “People who have liked what I do have often asked me to repeat my designs at different locations. I can never do that, even if I wanted to. Flowers are not factory-made products, their sizes and shapes vary, from time to time and place to place.”

Von Arx has held floral expositions and conducted seminars across the globe.He says he always picks up something from the different cultures he interacts with, and mixes them all up in his art. “Flowers are a language every-body understands,”he says.

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