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The secret life of flowers

Romance, blight, sex, death and a whiff of the wilderness beyond, it’s all in photographer Runa Kuru Kristjonsdottir and florist Holly Tong’s work, Volucris.

The high definition, 1650 x 1100 photograph that depicts a tangle of living and fading flowers merging with blackness is one of 115 works from around the world to be selected as finalists for the Venice-based, contemporary art competition, the Arte Laguna Prize.

Tong and Kuru gave the work its resonant Latin name. Volucris translates into English as a flying, or winged creature.

“We chose that name because the arrangement looked like a bird,” says Tong.

“A feathery, splayed bird on the wall.”

The creation of Volucris, and other works in their second collection of photographs, was inspired by the genre of still life painting that emerged during the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance in the 16th century. Among those works is Jan Brueghel the Elder’s (aka the “Flower Brueghel”) 1599 painting, Bouquet. In the work, a profusion of flowers near explodes out of a vase against a black background.

Delicately littering the table-top are a few fallen flowers (the end comes to us all), a ring and some coins (you can’t take it with you), a beetle (essential to the decomposition process) and a shell (possibly some kind of religious symbol).

“We’re definitely drawn to dark spaces in our images,” says Tong.

“Especially when some flowers seem to drift in or out of it and are sometimes nearly swallowed up by it.”

No time to stop and smell the flowersAs with old Flower Brueghel, another inspiration for the two Gisborne women was the flower’s short life. As the owner of Wild Garden Flowers, Tong’s speciality is to compose floral arrangements for weddings.

“I arrange the flowers and put them in the chiller. There’s no time to step back and appreciate them.”

Then the flowers are gone.

With no time to stop and photograph her work, she asked portrait and family photographer Kuru to come in and take a picture of the arrangements.

“We wanted to preserve them before they went,” says Kuru.

Then the idea of putting together a collection of photographs of the arrangements occurred to them.

Tong and Kuru’s first exhibition, held in 2017 at the Flagship Eatery, was of six images of flower arrangements Tong had made for weddings.

With 16th century Netherlands still lifes in mind, the duo’s work has evolved. They experimented with various coloured backgrounds but they didn’t capture the atmosphere and emotion they were after.

To enhance the feeling they wanted in the picture not every flower is in focus.

“Rather than make everything sharp I use a wide aperture to give depth of field,” says Kuru.

“Things that are close up in the image are vivid.”

“The darkness in the background comes through the flowers. Some are lighter so you have to look more closely.”

The odd odd flower was given attention.

“We would focus on that because it wasn’t perfect,” says Kuru.

“It had an imperfection.”

Although the two women will be at the opening of the Arte Laguna Prize exhibition at the Arsenale di Venezia on March 17, Tong had already made plans to spend six months in Italy. Kuru plans to spend time there too, on the way back to Iceland with her husband for an annual visit.

“We then go into the awards so maybe something is going to align so we can work on something while we’re there,” says Tong.

“Because —why not?”


A work from Gisborne duo, florist Holly Tong and photographer Runa Kuru’s second collection of striking images of flowers has made the finals in the Venice-based Arte Laguna Prize. 'Volucris' is one of 115 artworks from around the world to make the contemporary art competition’s finals. Picture supplied
Volucris (Latin for flying, or winged creature). The striking image is a finalist in the Venice-based, international art competition, the Arte Laguna Prize.Picture by Runa Kuru Kristjonsdottir and Holly Tong