The most intractable mystery of the human experience is consciousness. As a consequence, the greatest dream is the expansion of consciousness. Seeing as every effort to inhabit the consciousness of another organism is destined for failure, the contemporary age of converging crises demands the most beautiful and brilliant failures. With every day, and with every headline of ecological doom, wildlife extinction, and planetary danger, we learn exactly to what extent our consciousness, our language, and the politics that emanates out of both, are inadequate. As the climate catastrophe threatens species and future ecology at rates faster than even most scientists predicted, is it possible to depict and discuss an ongoing event so large and frightening in ways that are not only coherent and urgent, but creative – creative of new possibilities, creative of solutions, creative of new consciousness?
Himali Singh Soin, an Indian poet and multidisciplinary artist, has an artistic mission no less ambitious than the creation of a “new language.” She believes that the new language can inspire a “new love.” Two of her most challenging and luminous pieces recently ended at the Art Institute of Chicago. we are opposite like that has the impetus of Singh Soin’s own travels to the Poles. In a terrain of melting ice, she felt a surprising kinship with the mud that was newly emergent. A “brown body in a white space,” she reflected on the terror of colonialism and the disappearance of the indigenous – that which once defined and dictated the landscape and its attendant culture.
A video production featuring historical artifacts, documentary narration, poetry, and theater, we are opposite like that gives a chronicle of ice and glaciers, informing observers that Victorian England once felt such terror over the movement of glaciers that they believed ice would conquer the United Kingdom, forcing them to inhabit the colonial territory of those they believed were uncultured and inferior. It soon becomes evident that we are learning the story not from a detached historian or scientific journalist, but the ice itself. In the we are opposite like that film, Singh Soin becomes an amalgamation character – not entirely anthropomorphic, while not exclusively ice. She appears almost as an alien mutation; half human and half ice – beautiful, charismatic, cold, frightened, and frightening. She struggles to find home; to embed herself in the community. As her ancestors melt and disappear, she wanders an odd, suddenly unfamiliar topography as a lone survivor, with only a testimony to offer.
The late Jim Harrison has a line in a poem in the collection, In Search of Small Gods, “Death steals everything except our stories.” Singh Soin’s ice-character is a small god. When I met her in a Chicago hotel lobby on the closing day of her exhibit, which will soon feature at galleries in Venice and London, she said, “Ice is a literal archivist. It is a librarian. We store things in the freezer to keep them preserved. So when I went to the Poles, I kept asking, ‘What are the myths and legends here?’ And because the two places I visited, Svalbard and Antarctica, had no indigenous people, everyone kept saying, ‘There are no myths and legends here.’ But I realized that there is an elder, and that elder is ice. Through telling the non-human story of ice – ice as a figure that is losing its language too fast to tell its story as it melts – there is actually an homage to the human stories that are losing their language, and that is indigenous life at the Poles.”
The Palestinian resistance poet, Mahmoud Darwish, said that “the poet’s job is to humanize the subject.” Singh Soin offers that “in telling non-human stories, in fact, we tell rigorously human stories.”
Darwish and Singh Soin mean not necessarily the act of giving non-human subjects anthropomorphic qualities, but imbuing a subject matter with humanistic values. “Telling these stories at the juncture of catastrophe,” Singh Soin said, “it is important to be able to read the catastrophe, or that fissure, as both a break, and an opening – an opening where hope gets in, or love gets in.” Singh Soin elaborated to review the experience of her ice-character, “Hers is a story of a melting landscape and disappearing world. On the one hand, she finds herself in a coal mine, and she feels deep affinity for the coal, because it is this blackness in a white landscape.”
“There is also this idea of the new love,” Singh Soin said before taking a pensive pause, “I don’t want to overexplain love, because love, for me, is the world that is unknowable. It is the not knowing that is part of making creative work. It is instinct. It is intuition. But it is also this deep toxicity that allows us to read into, and be part of, and then emerge as other in a landscape. The new love is a way of being and seeing with those who have always been erased. That is the work of putting a brown body in a white landscape, or listening to the chorus of people at nuclear sites who have been affected by the bomb or radiation.”
Singh Soin’s poetry and multidisciplinary art enters into a dialogic dance with history, politics, and science. Using an artful and playful sophistication of language and sense of aesthetics, Singh Soin does not erase or overwrite existing stories. She adds to them, and interacts with them. “Histories are mythologies,” Singh Soin told me, “They are incomplete, and they are written from the perspective of a certain kind of historian. So, my work enters at the point where the historian exits. My work enters in the speculative gap that is not simply a gap because someone oversaw something. It is a purposeful gap where a particular story has been erased, or retold, for the purposes of somebody else.”
Singh Soin’s artistic mission to enter into speculative gaps, and create new mythologies to complement already existing historical mythologies, is never more manifest than in her work that accompanied we are opposite like that at the Art Institute of Chicago. Static Range uses as its genesis the little-known story of the CIA collaborating with the Indian Intelligence Bureau to install a nuclear-powered spying device in the Himalayan Mountains to monitor the Chinese. A variety of myths have emerged out of those mountains. Local inhabitants of the region believe that the plutonium is responsible for floods and ice calving, while the effects of radiation on surrounding ecosystems and organisms is poisonous in reality, but in its full extent, mysterious.
Singh Soin’s father, a mountaineer, took a photo of one of the mountains. The Indian Telegraph Service used it to create a stamp bearing the same image. Singh Soin has produced a video of the stamp discoloring and disintegrating, using an emblem of the nation-state to speculate as to how an entire national community, with its governing bodies, can become infected by radiation, both its chemical quantities, and its psychospiritual qualities. With fascism recrudescent in India, Russia, and the United States, and neo-Nazi parties gaining support in Western Europe, work like Singh Soin’s helps to close the canyon in our understanding of how oppressive violence against the natural world is never entirely separate from political violence against citizens, immigrants, and dissidents. When I mentioned recent scientific reports sounding an alarm over the rising temperatures of the ocean, Singh Soin asked, “What do those currents also have to tell us about trade routes? About technology? About the history of people who moved with them?”
In using non-human stories to “rigorously tell human stories,” Singh Soin is asking us to reject Western classification of knowledge and existence, while also provoking us to consider how an assault against a mountain, or the destruction of ice, is tantamount to suicidal ideation.
With Static Range, she furthers her exploration and adoption of the “new language” and “new love.” The exhibit began with her writing a poem in the voice of the spying device to the mountain. It is also the voice of eros, for the device has fallen in love with the partner that it did not choose. In an arranged marriage, the spy begins the missive,
how does one move you. shift you, but also elicit emotion, make you cry because something was too beautiful or it hurt.
The spy becomes yet another small god, and begins to transmit to the mountain its belief about their erotic symbiosis:
from my vantage point, i am divine or sublime – i’m a different god, a radiant god, irradiant, iridescent, you, err. an error, encrypting me. the mountain embracing the god, a glitch in the story. at first, i fidget around the rocky parts of you that poke my metal sides, the crevasses that jab my antenna, but we eventually make kin with one another. an-other.
my atomic lightness balanced with your tectonic stability enables us to stay floating in space.
you are the omniscient narrator. the second and third person. the base and the peak. peak into the future and i will be omnipresent too, thrumming in the very veins of the world. in the venomous veins of this verse. worse.
I am the hex, the vertex. the all permeating, unreliable lover tarnished by air, contaminating your bones, depositions in your organs like foam bursting out from old machines, igniting the kind of passion that ends with a masterpiece obliterated. blotted script, illegible, overwritten. the death of the letter. i.
The spy supplicates to the mountain, calling her a “goddess” and “elder,” but soon makes it clear that he has become her eyes. When the spy details its observations, there are no reports of warfare, espionage, or the manufacture of weapons. There are only notes on the life that the mountain provides – the rivers, the sparrows, the villagers fetching water.
Singh Soin said that a letter from only the spy would be an “incomplete” correspondence. She wrote the mountain’s reply.
The mountain addresses the spy as “friend” and signs with “love” after her closing thoughts,
the coast is nuclear.
dis-mantling the language of the edifice, then building an alphabet for dismantlement.
forgive your own harm.
refer to it by name.
i have existed long before the line. have i not reason to lament what men have made of men? Poetry itself is speechless before you.
Singh Soin’s poetic voice is rich, as it closes yet another gap – the stylistic one between an aesthetic of clarity associated with traditional poetry, and that which is often on display in the essays of Jacques Derrida and in contemporary poetry – the postmodern manipulation of language. Her political urgency, and what she calls, her “unapologetic sincerity” rescues her poetry from the frivolous word games too prevalent in postmodern arts, while her linguistic acrobatics coalesce with the imaginative nature of her concepts to form a coherent idiom.
Static Range demands that its observers contemplate the nature of colonialism, war, government secrecy, and the victims of all forms that these practices of statecraft create. It does not collapse into a meaningless cacophony, nor does it affirm existentialist philosophies of meaninglessness.
Himali Singh Soin has said that she “insists on meaning.” When cries of “climate doom” have become popular, and when many people fail to break free of the chains of despair, Singh Soin creates with defiance – infusing into her work eroticism and love; friendship and healing. “If you look at some of the most devastated regions at the moment – Lebanon, Syria, and I would contend India, because of the rise of deep fascism there – if you look at Palestine – regions that have been affected by war for decades, those are simultaneously the places where you will find the most meaning, because what is left is only joy. So, the state of when you are able to find the moments of calm in total chaos, you are able to subside your mind from everything that is happening. Those are the moments where you find yourself so deeply rooted to the world, and to this wild thing that is existing. All you have is meaning.”
It would seem that another reason Singh Soin chooses to tell stories at “the juncture of catastrophe” is to locate herself, as a storyteller, where meaning is both under assault and at its most electric. She said that she views as “fabrication” the idea that “post-World War” the paintings and poems that came out show “fragmented minds dealing with the loss of meaning.” “No,” she counters, “These are minds desperate for meaning, and finding it, because that is the only thing that is there. We can look at [the climate crisis] as entropy, but who is to say that entropy is not full of narrative? That’s where love comes in.”
If it isn’t entirely intelligible how love and entropy comingle, or the wild thing of existing maintains its meaning when so many species are in danger of ceasing to exist, Singh Soin would have us lose our demand for conclusive answers, and ask that we not only accept the mystery, but live within it. “Meaning can be half a sentence,” she declared.
The first time that I walked through Static Range and sat to view we are opposite like that, I was overcome with emotion, but also unable to articulate the internal impetus for that emotion. Singh Soin created distorted facsimiles of the consciousness of ice and the Himalayan mountains, imprinted them into my mind, and enlarged my perception of the world in ways that I still cannot fully comprehend. The inability to fully comprehend is not an error, but an essential component of the work. It finds companion with Singh Soin’s ever abiding faith in translucency.
“I was first inspired by translucency visiting many Mediterranean countries where the windows are frosted,” Singh Soin said, “It is this desire to not shut out the other, but still hold them at bay, and keep the light in. This desire for proximity and distance both; translucency is the place between the shore and the abyss. It is the place where the fish come to breathe for awhile. It is also the dialogue between opacity and transparency. Opacity says we don’t need to be legible to the other. Conversely, the transparency society of today’s high rises and technological modernity says everything needs to be transparent. We need to have the complete right to information. I say meet me halfway at translucency. Meet me where we do the work, and we explain ourselves, but hold onto the not knowing. It is partial knowing and partial unknowing. We think of it through ice, salt, oil, film, skin. All of these materials in our world that are porous – where some things are filtered through, and some things are left out. What does it mean to move through the world with translucency?”
Singh Soin shared a story from Buddhism when Siddhartha overhead a musician on a boat instructing his student to tie the string on his sitar “not too tight, not too loose.” The insight of negotiation and moderation is one that the Buddha would broadly apply. The Buddha’s advice is not only a good description of Singh Soin’s poetic style, but also of the philosophy that emerges from Singh Soin’s work – not too much history, not too much mythology; not too much certainty, not too much mystery.
“Categorical scientific knowledge that named and tagged birds, plants, and other animals was a colonial endeavor to control the natural environment,” Singh Soin said. It is difficult for Western conceptions of knowledge to incorporate mystery and mythology, but Singh Soin offers a moderate position – another halfway meeting ground, another speculative gap: “There is a blur in perception, which is a misknowing, not a not knowing. We can adjust that. If the modern world recalibrated its way of knowing, not to disavow the scientific imperative, but to include poetry and indigenous knowledge, perhaps we could reconnect with the natural world.”
Himali Singh Soin obsesses over gaps, finding in the translucent space the nucleus of her own creativity. It is ironic then that her work is cohesive. There is no gap between her art, and the hope for recalibrating knowledge to reconnect with the natural world. Singh Soin’s poetry and art reintroduces ice and the mountain range to the human mind, brokering a friendship and mediating a partnership.
Jim Harrison described the “small gods” as those “spirits you sense in certain, often remote places.” In his poem bearing the name, “Small Gods,” he offers a prayer to the “god unknown.” Singh Soin went on her search to the remotest of places, identified and exorcised the spirit of the ice and the spirit of the Himalayas. She forms a dreamlike prayer – scattered on the wind somewhere between our waking world of science and policy and our imaginative world of hope and poetry – to gods known and unknown.