Tokyo artist transforms bonsai trees into 'exobiotanica' by launching them into space
[Image via Kristof Vrancken / Z33, Creative Commons licensed]

Azuma Makoto has created a completely unprecedented set of landscape images that show organic life on the edge of space.

Working with JP Aerospace, the Tokyo artist has sent a bonsai tree, orchids, lilies and other plants into the stratosphere, suspended in a balloon.

The resulting images beautifully state the mystery of life on Earth. Makoto claims that by putting them on the borders of space, beyond their earthly home, he has transformed them into "exobiotanica", extraterrestrial plant life. But to me, these images dramatise the startling nature of planet Earth itself.

Until liveable atmospheres and chemical indicators of organic life are detected on planets beyond the solar system – which may happen soon as astronomy becomes ever more refined – we don't know of any other planet that is alive. The richness of Earth's living forms is gorgeously apparent in Makoto's arrangements of brightly-coloured flowers taken up from the ground that is their home to be seen against the darkness of space.

Ever since William Anders of Apollo 8 took a photograph of the blue planet rising over the moon in 1968, that iconic shot known as Earthrise, the image of Earth from space has deepened humanity's sense of our planet as a quasi-living thing. It is surely no coincidence that James Lovelock announced the Gaia hypothesis, which understands Earth that way, in 1973, in the wake of the Apollo missions and their new view of Earth.

Yet long before anyone actually saw the Earth from space, artists in China, Japan and Europe intuited that all life here is mysteriously intertwined: that the planet resembles a spaceship nurturing its passengers. Great landscape pictures, from Fan Kuan's Travellers Among Mountains and Streams (painted in around 1000AD) to Rubens' The Rainbow Landscape (painted about 1636) and Hokusai's 35 Views of Mount Fuji (created as coloured woodblock prints from about 1830 to 1835), again and again imagine life as an abundant interlinked system between sky and Earth.

Makoto's pictures take such visions of landscape to a new extreme, for plants are seen here high above their home, with Earth as a glistening backdrop and the infinity of space surrounding fragile bursts of colour and beauty. If plants were taken further, would they evolve into extraterrestrials? And what makes this one planet, orbiting an average star among billions of other stars, in a universe of mind-boggling vastness and – as far as we know – lifelessness, so special?

Flowers in the upper stratosphere are images of our unique, fortunate yet gravely responsible place in the history of space and time. © Guardian News and Media 2014

[Image via Kristof Vrancken / Z33, Creative Commons licensed]