In the Pursuit of Dreams: With Sumakshi Singh and Hermès India

Pages from a dream journal by Sumakshi Singh - Hermes, The Chanakya

In the Pursuit of Dreams: With Sumakshi Singh and Hermès India

Sumakshi Singh is an artist based in New Delhi who also enjoys working as an academic. She has taught at Art Institute of Chicago, Oxford University, Columbia University among others. Recently, Sumakshi designed the renowned windows for Hermès, India. In collaboration with Hermès, Sumakshi explored the theme "In Pursuit of Dreams". Platform talks to Sumakshi about her inspiration behind the work, and what keeps her driven. 

When did your fascination/ interest in art begin and what inspires the artist in you?
I knew I was going to be an artist since I was 2 years old. Lost in my paint-box I never really knew where the hours went, or if the fan was on, or if I’d eaten lunch yet. Through my childhood, it stayed (encouraged by my parents) as an intuitive love and an integral part of my way of processing the world within and the world around me. I actually loved math and physics (especially astrophysics) and seriously considered it as a career for a short while, but Art won out when I realized that it was such an amazing tool for self-discovery and transformation. Things started to appear in the paintings that my mind hadn’t even cognized and this secret communication - which bypassed my conscious mind - fascinated me. I saw that making art helped me access an inner authenticity; And as I worked on refining the artwork, I realized that in turn, the process was helping to refine my emotions, thoughts and consciousness. 

In short, I am challenged, extended, transformed, made more self-aware, my questions are processed or dissolved and I find myself constantly surprised by both- the process and the end result – this is tremendously inspiring. The external inspirations vary - other artists, tiny weeds found in cracks, peeling walls, personal memory, the history of a place, the physical nature of space and the space between “things”, metaphysics, the silence of meditation and the altering rhythms of breath, our ever-changing perceptions. I am inspired by how the same old thing, looked at anew- has the ability to generate so many new levels of understanding.

In the Pursuit of Dreams: With Sumakshi Singh and Hermès India

How did your association with Hermès come about?
A year ago I was invited to propose ideas revolving around the theme of ‘Dreams’ for the Hermès display windows at the Chanakya. This was the first time there was an artist collaboration being initiated by Hermès India. I was shown images of other Artist windows done worldwide to get an idea before I started conceptualising my ideas. I was delighted by the innovative displays and thought it would be an inspiring challenge. 

We continued conversations online for over a year and I made several hundred renderings that went back and forth - there were drawings on paper, Photoshop images, photographs of samples, videos of fireflies and fireworks and small 3d models. Adjustments to plant sizes were required, story lines needed to be more clear, the products in each window had to be grouped cohesively- integrated by colour/ by pattern/ by function. After months of 2d renderings, I finally started to arrange life-size mock elements in 3d space. This was the really fun part – I cut out staircases, canoes, swings, kites and bird silhouettes from paper and sun-board, used an embroidery hoop for a platter, built wire frames for sails and architectural elements, drew and cut out mountains out of pastel paper, back lit them and started to arrange and layer them. I felt immersed in a whole other world in my studio – everywhere you looked there were samples and strange elements propped up by make-shift supports. I went back and forth with the production house with drawings of armatures, objects, angles, supports and measurements. I conducted several tests on silk, cotton, satin, organza, thread, lace, paper, wood, acrylic and steel among other materials. I had to research several kinds of light and screens in collaboration with the production house-  to create a diffused the glow for the fireflies, a centrifugal movement of light in the fireworks, a warm glow for the backlit scarves and cool, gentle halos between the layers of mountains and terraces to add planar dimension. I tried about 15 different ways of making birds and trees…honestly the list goes on and there are about 20,000 images on my phone that are testimony to all the different experiments! 

We did 3 sets of mock sets ups of the windows- first in my studio, then in the production house to give the Hermès team a clear idea of what the windows would look like and to understand the challenges we might face during the actual install – so it was quite a process! The actual install happened all through the night, for a few nights, in the silent mall, with us squeezing ourselves in and out of the windows and using sign language to communicate!

With Hermès, you said you worked in collaboration with different people who shared different ideologies. How do you think collaborating impacts your work? Can you take us through the process of working with Hermès’ windows?
It has been a fun, inspiring and challenging ride! My immediate impulse was to create a Dreamscape of a weightless world, of objects in suspended animation, and ethereal plant forms that echo the insubstantiality of dreams; a world with different laws of physics – where time was arrested, objects were translucent and weakened gravity allowed forms to levitate; a landscape which was dreamlike not in a sub-conscious, surreal way but almost astral, meditative, silent and mirage-like with soft auras of light and flickering fireflies. In the meantime, Hermès sent me several presentations about the recommended do’s and don’ts of window displays – encouraging the use of natural materials, theatrical narratives, amplified three-dimensionality, bold and eye catching visual language and of course the emphasis on the products themselves. 

This was a real challenge for me, as my usual impulse in my art installations (created for museums and galleries) is to allow the invisible (negative space, the space between things, the unnoticed elements in our peripheral vision etc.) to slowly take over the visible. So these two sets of visual values seemed contradictory to me at first and I worked hard in collaboration with the Hermès team and the production house to find a narrative that would be able to respect the designed ‘object-ness’ of the products as well as the desire of my art work to resist ‘object-ness’ and dissolve into subtle insubstantiality.

In the Pursuit of Dreams: With Sumakshi Singh and Hermès India

Your installation with Hermès was titled “Pages from a Dream Journal”, while Hermès’ theme for the year was “In Pursuit of Dreams”. Since dreams also constantly evade us, we write a dream journal to record them, and to keep going back to them in order to make sense. Was there any particular reason for conceptualising the installation as a dream "journal"? 
I think your question points to the answer perfectly. “Pursuing Dreams” is a way of holding onto an intangible idea or desire – usually in order to manifest it. The Dream Journal is a symbol of this – a physical record of the ephemeral experience or idea. The open journal placed in window 2, seems to have pages flying out of it, that float all through the 4 windows (including miniature pages in the niche). All these levitating pages have artwork on them, that echo the elements that one sees in 3 dimension, in the windows- like the wood and organza boat with an Hermès scarf for a sail, A crane holding a flying Hermès Twilly, a swing in mid-air suspended by two Twillons, a backlit kite made of a Gavroche with swinging ties for Kite tails etc. So in a way the windows themselves are the physical manifestation of the dreams recorded in the journal.

Your work attempts to articulate space in a manner that the viewer is compelled to pay attention to the details we often overlook in the spaces we inhabit. Why such emphasis on space? 
Our world is fascinated by the particle, by form, by separateness, by boundaries, by definitions of “us’ and the “other”. Solid matter is treated as real, though physics shows us that over 99.9% of what we perceive as solid is actually just space. And I am more interested in that 99.9% - what is that insubstantial, unbroken ‘non-thing’ which is spinning, moving, vibrating to create the appearance of form? I am looking for the unitive space between and behind form, a place where circumferences cannot be found – and so my artwork often uses the form as a decoy, to really let the space become the protagonist. It is a way of reversing the addiction of the mind (to grasp at objects) and pay attention to the space in-between them, and within them instead.

In your installation, you’ve used products from Hermes as a part of the installation. Did you try constructing a narrative with these products, and how did you choose the products that are a part of the installation?
The narrative came from both ends - from what the products were going to be and from what the artwork needed – and then tied up somewhere in the middle. The products were finally chosen by them for each window.

You identify yourself both as a practicing artist and an academic. How do you think both these arenas complement each other?
Wonderfully! Being an active artist helps to keep the theory of academia grounded in actual practice. Being in academia helps to constantly articulate one’s art practice, expand it through research and receive new insights through conversations with students and peers.

Text Muskan Nagpal