Sagarika Sundaram

Sagarika Sundaram (b. 1986, Kolkata, India) creates sculpture, relief works and installation using raw natural fiber and dyes. Drawing extensively on natural imagery, the work meditates on the impossibility of separating the human from the natural and the interior from the exterior, suggesting the intertwined nature of reality.
January 30, 2024
Play Video
Tell us about your practice.
At the heart of my work is an attention to the creative principle. Concentric rings, spirals, a hybrid flower-womb-maw recur as abstract, sculptural gestures, recalling botany but also human biology, offering multivalent interpretations around birth, growth, and nonlinear notions of time. The fabric is fleshy, often cut open like a membrane, a wound, revealing a form hidden within a form. I’m interested in the psychological tension between inside and outside, surface and structure. Philosophically, the work relates to the impossibility of separating the human from the natural, the interior from the exterior, suggesting the intertwined nature of reality.  
The work consists of multi-layered wall-based and free-standing works made from raw, hand-dyed fiber that unite a painter’s sense of color, a sculptor’s perception of space, and a dancer’s feeling for movement. The scale of the work, as they climb from floors to walls and into the air, discloses the intense investment of labor that goes into their making, using ancient felt-making techniques, harkening back to the early days when such work was wrought entirely by hand. Wools and dyes from as far as the Himalayas and as near as the Hudson Valley form the raw materials that drive their construction. 
This collision of worlds—between the local and global, the ancient and modern, and the human and natural—speaks to my heritage, growing up between India and Dubai, and to the harmonious marriage of labor, materials, and form that underlie thousands of years of textile tradition.
You’ve said that everything starts in a sketchbook first – how do you think about the balance between preparation and letting the work surprise you?
I don’t always start in a sketchbook. I begin with what is around me, what’s on my table at that moment. Groupings of wool leftover from an older work. Or a shade of fiber that I dyed some months previously. It’s about locating an interesting place to start. And that changes all the time. 
The work is the outcome of a series of calculations, exact and approximate, that come together in union. The textile is built backward, similar to glass painting. Some kinds of fiber give me a line, others give me a ground, some absorb or reflect light, and I’m layering one over the other to form rhythms and relationships, all the while trying to break the formation of any one pattern, so visually there is no beginning or end. The eye has to keep moving. At this stage, it’s important to work in a state where I feel present and connected to the work. When concerned with breaking the surface of the work, that’s when I’m more precise, incorporating layers and folds. I move to paper models to figure out structural relationships and how gravity will affect the way the fold cuts away and hangs. That said, I have approached this part of the work organically too. So there is no one way forward, but rather a series of pathways that one can elect, mix, and match. With each work, I develop new pathways.
Working in a state of half-blindness, holding the composition like a puzzle backward in my head, I never really know what the work looks like in totality until it is felted together with soap and water, flipped over, dry, and I have all the layers fully cut open and the work is hanging up. Walking into the unknown is a thrill and keeps me moving forward. 
Research seems to play a heavy part in your work – in terms of understanding techniques and the history of the materials and the methods. Can you tell us about your research process, and how does that translate into the making process?
My process is inherently generative, each artwork starts with a question that leads to another one. For example, what if the surface of the work splits in half? What if it opens into nested half-circles, with another nest of cords at its navel? What if folds open in an asymmetrical composition, cascading against or with gravity? What if the work employs only three colors? If I use all the colors I have at hand, can the work still be un-harmoniously harmonious? Shall I irreverently cut open a seemingly perfect surface?
Drawing from felt’s historical use in the context of architecture, a number of my works are large-scale and invite the viewer to physically walk through the work, or around it, being touched by the work in the process. Here I’m thinking about the relationship between space, the built environment, and the body. I’m particularly interested in the principles of sacred architecture.
I draw from a sense of societal injustice, for instance, when I make units of cloth that open up into multiple panels. Here, I’m drawing from the history of woven double-cloth, in which two sets of warp threads are woven separately but simultaneously, to make double the width or length from one unit of cloth. Women who wove double-cloth were burned at the stake because rather than understanding it as mathematics, such ingenuity was seen as witchcraft. Many of my works are built to open into up to six times their original width and house a complex internal skeletal system. 
You recently published your first catalog (congrats!) – what was that process like? What’s something that surprised you doing it?
My first degree was in graphic design, rooted in the analog; typography studies began with calligraphy exercises using a bamboo stylus with a hand-carved nib. Book-making is an old love, so it was very exciting when Palo Gallery offered to make a catalog. Combined with Nature Morte’s support, we were able to be ambitious and create an artist’s book. 
The project was the perfect opportunity to assemble a team of people I have wanted to work with for a while. It was a highly collaborative process between the two editors Andrew Gardner Vyjayanthi Rao, and our designer, Sthuthi Ramesh. Photographer Anita Goes visited my studio three times to document my studio process. Forewords by gallerists Paul Henkel and Peter Nagy introduce the book. Essays by Gardner and Rao accompany a third text, a conversation with the writers and the esteemed Indian classical musician, Bahauddin Dagar, that was recorded in my studio. The opportunity to be in conversation with Dagar, an artistic elder, was invaluable. The relationships he drew between my work, music, and Indian miniature painting, continually enrich my approach. I’m very proud of what we created with this book. In four months we created something that typically takes one or two years. The book and the relationships it engendered will outlive the show. I am very grateful it exists. 
What has been inspiring you lately?
I’ve been in India for the past two months on a research trip of sorts, poking my fingers in unlikely places, in an intuitive and unstructured way. I’m looking for approaches to abstraction outside the West, historic and contemporary, and across media – in painting and sculpture, but also across architecture, music, dance, poetry, and other art forms. We have ancient, unbroken, living artistic traditions in India that are continually being reinvented, and so I’ve been attending classical music concerts by a younger generation of performers to understand where these older forms are at present. Very little is documented in India, and so I love speaking to an older generation of artists and intellectuals. They are oral historians of sorts, walking-talking archives, aunties, and uncles who become friends. They tend to be generous with their time and knowledge. In these spaces, I’m just asking questions, and listening. 
What are you investigating these days? Is there anything we can look forward to seeing in future works?
I can only discover what’s next when I sit down to begin the work. It’s all about what happens in that moment. 

Stay in the loop