“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
How do we make sense of the brokenness – the messiness and imperfection – that characterise us as individuals, in all our flawed humanity? And how do we find meaning – beauty even – amid the chaos and conflict that is our broken world today? For artist Alpana Vij, it is to be found in the seemingly futile exercise of picking up a dying leaf, decayed and riddled with holes, and painstakingly soaking, cleaning, drying and pressing it, before gently stitching precious vintage gold thread through its cracks, celebrating its very brokenness and giving it new life.
I first met Alpana in 2017, when we were both about to graduate from LaSalle College of the Arts – her, with a Masters in Fine Arts and me, in Asian Art Histories. When I attended her class’ Graduation Show, I was immediately captivated and struck by her work, the sound of one hand clapping, an installation comprising 520 dried leaves, suspended individually from copper wires, hovering inches away from the floor. Like the Zen Buddhist koan from which it gets its name, the work invites the viewer to silent contemplation of life’s big existential questions – what is the true nature of reality? what is the meaning of life? The delicate copper wires from which the leaves were suspended responded to the slightest shift or movement in the surrounding air, co-opting the viewer into its activation and arousing a strong sense of connection to the work.
Alpana’s practice, which also encompasses painting, photography and video, is inspired by the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā, or emptiness – the transitory and ephemeral nature and interconnectedness of all phenomena. Her work with dead or decaying leaves in the sound of one hand clapping set her on a path of exploration of the artistic possibilities of this material, culminating in her ongoing series, What do I see when I see a fallen leaf?
“What do I see when I see a fallen leaf?”
I see the green … now just a distant memory. I see the tree upon which it lushly grew.
I see the soil that nourished that tree. The clouds … the sunlight … all of nature that came together to birth this now dying leaf. And soon it’ll mingle with the earth again and rise anew. So let me take a moment … to take it in my hands and gently repair the holes and cracks in gold thread … to celebrate the leaf … the sun … the stars … the rain … the earth … our fleeting and interconnected lives.
I ask to join the artist on one of her regular walks one morning – for it is here that her process begins. While I am a frequent walker myself, with Alpana, I find myself pausing when I otherwise wouldn’t have – to notice and look, really look, at a particular leaf on the ground, for instance – its shape, its colour, the beauty in its fragility and decay. With heightened awareness, a short walk on a route walked many times before suddenly offers fresh delight and an invitation to contemplation. Like Thoreau on his “solitary woodland walk”, we find that we “dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful”. Alpana explains that, for her, the journey she takes in making the works is as important, if not more so, than the final outcome: “The process of creating these works is meditative and grounding for me. I feel connected to the natural world and my place in it.”
In the three years since she started working on this series, Alpana has learnt much about the nature and properties of different varieties of leaves, the patterns of the holes made by different insects and where her favourite leaves can be found on the island. Friends have also started bringing her leaves as gifts from their travels! Not all leaves are suitable for creating her works – they have to be strong, yet flexible enough to be stitched on. Some leaves are too brittle and will fall apart at the slightest pressure.
The collected leaves are put through a process of soaking and cleaning, before being thoroughly dried and then pressed flat in presses that Alpana fashioned herself out of plywood and layers of corrugated board. It is crucial that the leaves are completely dry to prevent them from being susceptible to mold or rotting. The entire process can take up to four months – and it is only then that the leaves are ready to be stitched, with pure gold thread that Alpana sources from suppliers of vintage thread in Japan. To make this pure gold thread, craftsmen glue real gold leaf to Japanese washi paper, which is then cut into thin strips and wound by hand around silk thread or yarn. It is a dying art and the thread not always easy to come by.
In using gold thread to repair the cracks and holes in dead leaves, Alpana’s practice echoes the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, where a ceramic piece which is cracked or broken is repaired with lacquer resin mixed with gold powder, transforming it into something new, rare and perhaps even more beautiful than the original.
Alpana works with a specialty concrete company to create the bases on which the stitched leaves are set. The contrast between the fragile leaf, with its delicate gold stitches, and the robust solidity of the concrete serves to highlight the interplay of vulnerability and strength that often coexists in nature, reminding us that we are strong at our broken places.
Note: Want to have one of Alpana’s beautiful stitched leaf works for yourself? A limited selection of works from Alpana Vij’s ongoing series, What do I see when I see a fallen leaf? are available in Plural’s online shop, Shop Plural.