A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
Spectacularly opulent and unconventional flower bouquets as works of art – that’s what Berlin’s Anatomie Fleur is all about. The two-year-old company, co-founded by Montrealer Jean-Christian Pullin and Parisian Amandine Cheveau, operates within a wonderfully porous border zone between botany, installation art and sensuous set design. Their unique take on floristry has already attracted the likes of jewellery designer Georg Hornemann, Converse X JW Anderson and, most recently, Art Basel (as in the original Swiss art fair). Pullin and Cheveau are not florists in the classic sense of the word – no client has ever reached out requesting an "uptight, bundled up and round bouquet," as Pullin cheekily puts it. Their poetic arrangements of bright-coloured poppies and carnations with man-sized branches, for instance, are meant to break away from decorative and domesticated traditions to evoke exuberant memories and big, bold ideas.
Not surprising when you consider the two initially bonded over their shared love for philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Pullin, for his part, has always sought inspiration from the contemporary art world. The half-Québécois, half-Guatemalan artist, who grew up between Montreal and Los Angeles, has also been working as an English tour guide at Berlin’s esteemed Boros Collection for some time. Phi Centre's Director of Public Relations Myriam Achard was the first to tip me off about this former World War II bunker-turned tropical fruit warehouse-turned techno club-turned art gallery (!) years ago, and I’d argue it shares a like-mindedness with Phi Centre's sister venue, DHC/ART – both are initiatives of art philanthropists who wanted to give back to their respective city. Pullin talks about his eyes lighting up with excitement every time he went to work to discuss the photographs of Wolfgang Tillmans or the sculptural and scientific pieces of Alicja Kwade.
When I drop by Anatomie Fleur’s Berlin headquarters on Karl-Marx-Allee (a monumental socialist boulevard built in the post-war GDR era) to meet with Pullin, the worldly, affable Canadian immediately proceeds to give me the lowdown on the gorgeous socialist mural that beckons the attention of visitors passing through his building lobby. "This is a propaganda story based on all the neighbourhoods of Berlin, showing the proletariat laughing, singing, getting married and so forth," he tells me with the ease and savvy of a professional whose tour guide instincts have become second nature. Over the course of a wide-ranging chat that took us from Anatomie's headquarters in the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg to the Boros bunker, where he had to make a floral delivery, Pullin generously discussed Germans' openness to novelty, staging floral arrangements inside the holy techno church of Berghain and the rumours of Stasi spying that might have taken place inside his building.
Let’s get something out of the way: people always draw parallels between Berlin and Montreal, claiming they’re like-spirited cities. Having lived in the German capital for a few years now, what do you make of the comparison?
It’s completely true. I feel like Berlin is an extension of Montreal. A lot of Montrealers are operating here. There’s a constant back-and-forth between these two very soulful cities, and you’ll even find Berlin’s historic East/West duality replicated to an extent in Montreal, between French and English Canadians. There never was a physical wall, but once upon a time, the divide was also quite strong.
You spent most of your childhood and teenage years in Los Angeles. What brought you back to Montreal?
It was in many ways an involuntary move. After studying theatre in L.A., I really aspired to break out as a TV actor. But at some point, I had to leave the U.S. because of visa issues, so I chose Vancouver, because all my Canadian actor friends had advised me to go there. But a string of unfortunate events – the 2007 economic crisis and the Hollywood writer’s strike – made it impossible for me to get anywhere. I became disinterested in acting and longed for a cultural life that was absent in Vancouver.
And Montreal became the logical next step?
It just made sense, because my brother was also living there. I remember visiting him, going out to venues like Blizzarts and thinking, 'wow, I have to move here, people are so crazy and provocative.' I was so intimidated by how cosmopolitan people were in comparison to Vancouver. I also remember seeing [fashion stylist] Cary Tauben with high heels and long hair in a club, and thinking it was all so cool! Also, and I know it’s a little silly to say now, but Xavier Dolan really romanticized Montreal for me. Specifically Les amours imaginaires, which glamourized the Mile End lifestyle. I thought to myself, 'I need to move to Montreal and have these experiences,' which I very quickly did once I moved there. I ended up staying for three years, loving the city and really flourishing in my social life, while perhaps putting my artistic pursuits on the backburner.
Where does your fascination for floristry stem from?
I’d say floristry is a language with a near-universal positive consensus. It’s very rare to find someone who doesn’t like flowers. They’re sensual and the colours put people at ease. Having flowers in a room relaxes people. That’s why galleries, offices and high-end restaurants like flowers – it makes the environment less serious. It triggers different memories for each person.
There’s also great beauty in their ephemeral quality, and how they evoke the passage of time and seasons.
Definitely. It’s about appreciating what’s there, because it won’t be there next week. Montreal is where I first became a very intense indoor gardener. I had around a hundred plants. I filled every surface I could in my apartment. Each one was very specific in terms of the attention it needed, and whenever I would leave and have someone plant-sit the apartment, I’d always return to 3 dead plants. As part of Anatomie Fleur, we did this performance piece last year entitled From 7 days to 7 minutes during Mass N°1 at Archivio Conz, about reducing the lifespan of flowers from days to minutes. We created a pathway that people had to cross over to get from one point of the exhibition to the next, and we made it impossible to walk through it without destroying the flower arrangements.
Did you have any intention to pursue floristry professionally when you first landed in Berlin?
Not at all, but I always had the intention of working in the arts. My uncle is a photographer, my mom’s an architect and my mom’s cousin is a museum curator, so I was always visiting exhibitions as a child. I really took a liking to it from a young age. It bothers me that the cultural fields are always deemed less important, and the public discourse around artists is one of distrust. You would never question a doctor’s diagnosis, but you would question a graphic designer for using a certain font. I’ve always held artists in very high regard, and in parallel to that, I’ve always appreciated the temporality of flowers.
You’ve been working for some time as an English tour guide for Berlin’s Boros Collection, a one-of-a-kind contemporary art experience set in a former bunker. What’s that been like?
I fell like the Boros Collection has really connected me to the city of Berlin. All the artists in the exhibition are Berlin-based or have been at some point, and I feel as though I now have a cultural understanding of the past, present and perhaps future of Berlin. Christian Boros is really an admirable person, because art truly is his passion, and he loves to share it with others. There’s a technical reason behind the tour, but it’s also part of the concept. Because it’s a former bunker, it’s not allowed under regulations to be visited without a guided tour. But it also allows way more interaction with artworks than is generally the case. If you’re wandering alone in an art gallery, you can walk right past any artwork that doesn’t immediately catch your attention. With this tour, you’re there for 90 minutes and you’ve given your attention over to someone else.
In Berlin, your early work with a local florist is what trigged your interest in floral stylings of a purely non-decorative, totally tripped out nature?
Absolutely. The people I was working with at the time had an approach to flowers that was more lifestyle and interior design, whereas I wanted to be punk. I wanted to be a little fucked-up, provocative and wild with my flowers. I began looking at others doing this around the world and being inspired by people like Mark Colle in Antwerp, Debeaulieu in Paris, and Simone Gooch in London. I was impressed by how they were able to take something traditional and decorative, almost domesticated, and turn it into something so different. The first person I saw do something really subversive was Mark Colle, who talked about how his floral arrangements were inspired by John Waters. That was so wild to me. Then I really started paying attention to his floral arrangements and seeing John Waters in them: they were kitschy, trashy and saturated with colours. So when I saw this opportunity to use flowers to communicate with people, I was mind-blown.
Are you inspired by other schools of thought regarding flower arrangements – for instance, the Japanese Ikebana tradition?
For sure. I really appreciate all the subtleties at play in Ikebana, specifically. One tradition I really like is when you invite a guest over to your house, you point all the new buds in the direction of the guest, implying that the relationship still has room to grow. You always do this as a form of courtesy, while the fully open blooms are pointing in your direction. The Japanese have such a refinement and elegance in this respect, and that’s something I feel we lack in Western culture – a certain seriousness and appreciation for the intangible things.
After a chance encounter with your future Anatomie Fleur partner Amandine Cheveau at a dinner party in Berlin, the project you both co-founded required a merging of two very distinct artistic sensibilities. Tell me about that.
We spent much time in the beginning pulling together what we loved and what sparked our interests. That’s how the visual identity of Anatomie came together: classic beauty but punk and modern with a twist. My aesthetic really comes from my upbringing, being in Los Angeles and always being drawn to bright, flashy, saturated colours, whereas Amandine is the opposite: melancholic, romantic and dark. Since we’ve become partners, they’ve merged into one, and we hilariously now pick the same things and like the same colours. In the beginning, there would be tension when it came to flower selection. Now it’s all harmony, and that can only come with trust. What Amandine and I are driven by a desire to propose a very romantic and sensory experience that’s about more than aesthetics. We want to bring back this baroque idea of lushness and abundance.
How did you come to count artists like Richie Hawtin, Danish design brand Normann Copenhagen and companies such as Audi/Berghain among your clients?
At some point, I had developed enough of a network in Berlin that I could start tapping into my contacts. We got the ball rolling and that’s how we secured the Audi project, which was a small studio set design for a movie shoot at [legendary techno club] Berghain – and Sven Marquardt, the famed bouncer, was even in the movie. After we completed that work, they asked us to handle the floral arrangements for the film’s premiere, and we had to fast track our paperwork and open our business to book that gig! We’re really lucky everything fell into place.
Anatomie has been based out of this Strausberger Platz space for one year now. Tell me about this building.
Architect Hermann Henselmann built two towers in 1953. One was called Haus Berlin and the other, where Anatomie Fleur is located, Haus Des Kindes (house of the child). Both were meant to exemplify the excellence of socialism. Next to the apartments were a puppet theatre, a kindergarten, a children's shop and a children’s café on the top floor, which included the note: "adults only when accompanied by children." The German movie The Lives of Others, about Stasi spying, actually takes place near Strausberger Platz. As the elite would live on Stalin Allee (now Karl-Marx Allee), mostly everyone was under surveillance. It is rumoured that there were spying stations inside our building, but I have never had this proven.
You’ve said the German capital is a wonderful space for experiments, that it makes it easy for you and Amandine to take risks. Can you expand on that?
I always talk about this with Amandine: Anatomie Fleur would have been impossible in Paris, London or New York. We started it with zero money; we just promoted what we were doing. Not only is it financially viable to start your own project here, but Germans are extremely open to new ideas. It’s an intellectual curiosity about what someone is doing; they appreciate newness and quality work. For instance, when German clients come to us, they know they’ll have something completely unique. The difference would be that in New York, for instance, the client would be more likely to want what everyone else has. In Germany, it’s rather, 'I want you because you’re different.' Of course, that changes over time, but that’s the sentiment at the core. More and more, people are contacting us, having read something in the media or seen one of our installations. That’s really nice.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding