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When urban chaos blooms into paper and steel flowers

Artist Sachin George Sebastian harnesses the everyday messiness of city life into eloquent forms in his new show at Delhi's Vadehra Art Gallery

A work by Sachin George Sebastian
A work by Sachin George Sebastian (Vadehra Art Gallery)

Sachin George Sebastian’s solo exhibition at New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, titled Once, there was a seed, takes the viewer into a masterclass of seeing. In a socially distanced world, those who look at this body of work online can discern a vibrant chaos of flora and fauna sprouting out of the walls. Whorls of flowers unspool into a mad tangle of tendrils, germinating in a frenzy out of paper and metal. Then there are wooden boxes, inside which lie tiny insects, like pristine zoological specimens in mini vitrines. But all these are optical illusions—and also not.

If you are physically present in the gallery, or are zooming in on your screen, you may begin to discover layer upon layer that have gone into the making of these seemingly jumbled-up forms. Sebastian has earlier spoken of reckoning with the “absurdity of nothingness” in his interviews and artistic statements—describing it as the existential quest that drives his work. “I’m interested in understanding the ways in which people change the texture of a city,” says the Bengaluru-based artist, “because our day-to-day lives hardly seem to make any sense on their own.”

A work by Sachin George Sebastian
A work by Sachin George Sebastian (Vadehra Art Gallery)

In his mission to find structure and balance in the arbitrary, Sebastian records urban contours obsessively—be it a tangle of wires or the colour of bricks on a wall. Then he prints out the photographs, cuts them into shapes, and assembles the collages painstakingly. If you look carefully, you may be able to find traces of urban mayhem cohering into his floral bursts, leading to an ironic fusion of the animate and the inert.

“Working with paper has always been an intensely tactile experience for me, but I wanted to explore if the shift to a different material can impact the meaning of my work,” Sebastian says, referring to his metallic installations. “I wanted to create fluidity out of the rigidity of stainless steel, bending it with my hands, and working with it like I’d do with paper.” On his Instagram feed, he has been posting the stories behind the making of some of these works. There is a lovely anecdote about bonding with a nishigandha sapling during the lockdown, which inspired one work. Sebastian would stay up late into the night, hoping to see this nocturnal plant come to bloom, but the elusive flowers gave him the miss, always.

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It’s tender details like these that deepen our connection with Sebastian’s work, which may otherwise seem almost jarring at times, as do our encounters with empty spaces in his wooden boxes, inside which the tiny insects nestle. “In all the crowded mess of city life, people are not used to seeing emptiness or noting the small and delicate,” Sebastian says, referring to the solitary creatures lying meditatively still with nothing around them, provoking our eyes to focus. Made out of fragments of cityscapes like the floral work, these installations literally demonstrate that there’s always more to life than meets our careless eyes. What better medium than art to remind us of this truth?

Once, there was a seed is on at Vadehra Art Gallery till 14 May.

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