Interviews

Himali Singh Soin

The quantum entanglement of all mountains

Still from Himali Singh Soin’s An Affirmation, 2022.

“Static Range,” Himali Singh Soin’s solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, invites viewers into a toxic, lovelorn nuclear landscape. The show draws its inspiration from a tragically absurd episode in Cold War history involving a four-pound plutonium device that the CIA and Indian Intelligence Bureau misplaced in the Himalayas. Building on a long-term project that counters official history by animating the nonhuman subjectivities at its margins, Soin utilizes poetry, music, animation, an artists’ book, textiles, and ceramics to speculate on ecological grief and climate catastrophe, as well as to offer shelter and healing. “Static Range” is on view through May 15.

I’VE GROWN UP WITH MOUNTAINS, but they remain so mysterious to me. Like dreams, they’re irrational. They were once oceans and now hover over the world. Mountains don’t really have boundaries either. They thrust into rivers and lakes and meadows. They’re hard and wet, frozen and oleaginous. They’re a bit like us, ever-transforming, craving, skin and breath, always bracing to exist in another way.

In 1978, my father’s mountaineering expedition took a photograph of the patron mountain of the Indian Himalayas, Nanda Devi, which was later turned into a national stamp. Some years ago, I found this love letter that my mum had written to my dad, and it had the stamp of the mountain on it. That the mountain could now transmit messages was an enchanting conceit.

Nanda Devi means the goddess of happiness. Like all mountains, it is imprinted with dense layers of geopolitical strata. In 1965, during the height of the Cold War, the CIA collaborated with the Indian Intelligence Bureau to plant a nuclear-powered radio device at its summit in order to spy on Chinese nuclear missile tests. They were trying to see what the mountain saw. As if in an act of decolonial self-preservation, the mountain rustled up a storm. The men fled, and the device went missing.

Since then, the spy device’s invisible and uncontainable radioactivity may have leaked into the landscape’s periphery. Locals refer to Nanda Devi as a goddess and a witch alike. People have been falling ill around it, since its glacier trickles into the Ganges, a source of waterborne diseases due to India’s mishaps with modernity, but also a source of holy water for many who can’t afford not to believe.

Still from Himali Singh Soin’s Static Range, 2022.

At the height of the pandemic, when the epistolary form felt like it could hold desire over distances, I began writing a letter—from the spy device to the mountain. The language that emerged revealed a warm, corroding dependency between the mountain and the alien body it hosted. The animated film that accompanies the letter, Static Range, features my father’s stamp morphing amid what I call the nuclear sublime—a radiant, ir/reverent, and magnetic condition inspired by my research on the effects of radiation on celluloid. The soundscape, played by my partner, David Soin Tappeser, on Himalayan kettledrums, sounds like static and glitches layered with Uyghur rhythms, subliminally folding in this community’s suppression in the Xinjiang region that the device overlooked.

I reprised the concept as a stamp book, also titled Static Range. Each page contains four perforated, lickable stamps. I didn’t want any more words, just saliva. I wanted to be able to consume art by sending it away, by ripping it apart, eating it out. It’s tricky, trying to remain illegible to the structures of power that could put me in jail for this act, but that mutilated the mountain in the first place. After all, codes can be instrumentalized by spies and artists both.

Realizing that a letter must be requited, I made a second film, An Affirmation, in which the mountain responds to the atom. In it, a healer makes signs, as if transmitting long-term warning messages. Landscapes and bodies glow with cosmic energies (or nuclear radiation). The soundscape, also by Soin Tappeser, manipulates recordings of choirs performing near nuclear facilities in the Lake District, Chernobyl, and Fukushima until they echo the toll of emergency alarms. I wanted to aurally evoke the transnational entanglement of remote exclusion zones. Maybe all mountains, sacred and magnificent, are quantumly connected by decaying atoms.

When it came to holding these narratives together at the Art Institute, I was mesmerized by the healing, peaceful views of Mount Fuji in their collection. I chose three woodblock prints by Isoda Koryūsai, Shikō Munakata, and Kawase Hasui. Their images of Fuji, while haunted by the ghosts of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima, bring our attention back to the form of the mountain, the lines of the triangle, the base and the peak, the portal between soil and sky, the throat of the world, its vertiginous indifference, its memory gate.

Looking into the history of nuclear reactors and weaponry in Chicago, another shape struck me: the womblike vessel of the Fat Man bomb developed by the Manhattan Project. I had begun noticing how reactors looked like religious sites. So I made, as the nucleus of my show, a ceramic titled Body of Light, drawing on this form. The glazes are crystalline, so that they seem half-alive, proliferating. They were inspired by the colors of the Tibetan Buddhist “rainbow body,” a postmortem state during which the physical corpse dissolves into a luminous body of light. I wanted to hold the sacred in a tense state of existence with the violent, and the fragile and the impenetrable. The thing about glazing is you can’t control the outcome, whether the crystals will look like flowers or fungus. That’s the nuclear sublime.

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