Artist Sumakshi Singh shares her thoughts about the criss-crossing rivers of time and memory and why the poetry inherent in the act of embroidery is perhaps one way of navigating this space of unknowability
I am sitting in a room. In front of me, a wall, a massive wall of memories, is crowding for my attention, like a Sunday morning celebrity darshan. All I need to do is wave and close my eyes for them to disappear, knowing that when I do open my eyes, the ones that remain are the ones that stay with me for life. I have often wondered if the memories we hold (or the memories that hold us) are what constitute the choices we make, because memory itself is born out of choice, and as much as remembering is a gift of the universe, distortion is the gift of mankind. What then, of the memories that I discard? Where do they go? Have they simply closed their eyes to me?
As I experience Sumakshi Singh’s breathlessly light ‘groundless thread drawings’ (where once the embroidery is done, the fabric is taken away), I am transported to that room again. I am confronted with my memories, my choices, again. And it is strangely hypnotic, this ability that thread has, that embroidery has, that patterns have, of dancing with a grace that is fragile and a power that is rooted to the earth. Singh’s works are tangible experiences of deeply resonating truths that are somehow intertwined with the intangible ones that we carry. And as the lines blur, it doesn’t matter anymore that it is me sitting in another room, at a different time and place, a piece of cloth tightly grasped within a round wooden frame, as my needle and thread create soft, minuscule holes through which I can continuously lose and find myself, or that it is Singh herself, sitting in her studio, meditating with her needle and thread. ‘I am very conscious of this dance between the visible intent and the ‘behind the scenes’ mapping of the trajectory of the thread, the marking of time with each stitch, the story told by the continuous and discontinuous threads, a knot, a stutter in judgement or a colour cut short. In my experience, being fully present in the current, tangible action (the movement of the needle, the brush, the finger on the clay) is being in a flow, an almost hypnotic flow; and I often suspect that this flow being directed magnetically by the pattern/form awaiting manifestation. And I am constantly aware of the wonderful mysteriousness of this invisible thing waiting to reveal itself,’ says Singh. And when it does, at least for us the viewer, it is like the different threads of the ocean surrendering to the rhythm of the moon, knowing all the while what when the waters are calm again, the silver pattern of the moonbeam will remain. A choice made, a choice unmade; what remains is what leads you to the unknowability of what exists beyond.
Excerpts from the interview
What is your earliest memory of embroidering? And what is it about embroidering that truly speaks to you? That even 18 hours of embroidering for a work then becomes possible, that can even make ‘time elastic’?
With my mother, in our garden in Gomia, Bihar, doing a cross stitch pattern – I was probably five. My mother and grandmother were both wonderful embroiderers and took great pains to embellish even our everyday clothes, bedspreads and handkerchiefs to make them ‘special’. So I guess my association with embroidery is of nurturance, of a sweet, feminine kind. We spent many sunny, winter hours embroidering together in silence or in quiet conversation in the garden. John O'Donohue (Irish mystic and poet) talks of different rhythms of time we have layered within ourselves – most of us function on ‘surface time’ which tends to be over-structured, frantic, linear, goal/future focused, measured and then there are other experiences of time within us, other rhythms – when we are walking alone in nature, or meditating, or aware of our breath or embroidering.
Memories can often become problematic because of its unreliability, but it is also this unreliability, this changeability that is its strength, that gives it its definition. Given this nature of memory, how would you like your work to be remembered and therefore defined?
Actually, I am quite suspicious of definitions. To me, a defined thing is in danger of becoming a dead thing. We tend to put it in a box of the ‘known’; we close down its other possibilities, forget to re-evaluate and revisit it and lose out on discovering that possible fountain of fresh, new insights springing from ‘the same old place’. Memory is fascinating and seems so linked to desire. I have created archives of embroidered skeletons of plant forms from my mother’s previous gardens, which had been pressed, preserved and sent to me in letters. I am now working on ethereal, architectural skins made of fine thread, recreating (in exact, life-size dimensions) the architectural facades of homes I have lived in or had intimate connections with. I have mapped a 3D illusion of my deceased grandfather’s living room, titled Mapping the
Memory Mandala in erasable chalk pastel which disappeared as people walked through it... I am conscious of the desire to preserve a feeling of a place or person and am simultaneously aware of the poignant futility of that fixing action. (What is memory fixing itself to? A changing mind, a malleable story we tell ourselves about what happened to us?) And so, often, I allow the embroidered forms to unravel. There are so many threads to pick up a story by. Memory is a displacement (of an event, emotion, thing) in time and is coloured by the layers of new information, shifting thoughts, changing value systems and desires that have occurred within that time. It is complex and subtle, intangible and layered, contradictory and clear, sensual and factual – it is a living thing which is growing, dying and re-forming every day.