I insist on meaning: Himali Singh Soin on digital intimacy in the new world
“I want to insist on meaning, on narrative and story-telling,” says Himali Singh Soin. “I want to dispense with post-modernist fragmentation of meaning and existentialist ideas that come from white European men, who had the privilege to say ‘life has no meaning.” Soin’s ongoing Frieze Award-winning series We Are Opposite Like That is anchored by this call for restructuring. The multi-disciplinary, almanac-esque production cultivates a non-anthropocentric perspective to urge a more personal, worthwhile look at climate change.
The series champions the idea of inclusivity by democratising its narration through film, maps, recorded sounds, canvas prints, footage, poetry, choreography - a balance of textual and performative channels. The work which was conceived during Soin’s journey to the two polar circles also brings up very interesting questions about the next reality of art consumption. What does immersivity mean anymore in the age of digital art rooms?
Soin’s ongoing series could be key to navigating the pivot to virtual walkthroughs and 360-degree open-concept tours that have led to debates over the ethos of experiencing art. Raised by expeditionist parents (Soin’s father is the explorer Mandip Singh Soin), Soin has relentlessly worked towards exploring temporalities of landscapes and creating mythologies around them. “I like to call it the body ecologic,” she tells us. “The relationship between the body, fragile, vulnerable, prejudiced, and the landscape, always undergoing a process of loss.” The artist who is currently writer-in-residence at London’s Whitechapel Gallery spoke to us about the possibilities to come. Excerpts:
A lot of your work is about creating immersive environments. Can you share how you outline a visual experience?
I often begin with words but since I don't follow a linear way of story-telling, I hope the shape and sound of words themselves can create an experience. I love videos, not just in terms of moving images but also in terms of performance, as they inhabit different technologies, how words enter a body and become performative. And all these layers turn into this massive, immersive audio-visual environment.
My partner David Soin Tappeser is a jazz musician by training and makes much of experimental sound for my work; but the exciting thing about working with him is that he composes real sounds for real musicians. He writes glitches, static and scratches for violins or clarinets or different forms of percussion, replicating technologically produced sounds in an analogue environment. This also allows us to employ other musicians rather than rely solely on machines. And it's a nice way to write in subtle codes or secrets into a story.
How do you feel about virtual art consumption or digital art rooms?
I just wish I had a ritual for watching art, like a particular time of day when my head was clear and maybe even a room of one’s own. I love the newfound access to all this work, but I feel watching a work of art outside of your familiar surroundings allows the art to do what it was meant to do: time travel. You can dream of elsewhere, and tend to your feelings in a different way. I feel the same about doing yoga at a studio: space can guide you to a deep state of concentration, a state I think a good work of art deserves.
Futurism is a big part of your artistic curiosity, be it in gender, or the South Asian identity. What’s your take on it?
Futurism is not so much about what comes after, but about navigating the present, and understanding the complex entanglement of the material, spiritual, human and non-human world as a system, however arbitrary, that is constantly slipping in and out of loopholes and leaking into one another, trying to find different routes, different relations, ways of being that feel less exploitative and more tender.
How has the pandemic affected your creative process?
Much of my performance work has been conceived for real-life experience, and I’m now thinking of hybrid methods, of video-performances and one-on-one book readings. I’m thinking about digital intimacy, and how to recreate the sense of proximity and danger from live performances. Some of that, of course, can and should never be recreated, and in those instances, waiting too is a process I am learning to inhabit and let seep into the final piece.
Travel plays a big role in your art. How do you cope with not being able to travel as much amid the Covid crisis?
One of the best parts of travel is coming home, and I spent a large part of lockdown on my terrace in Delhi, from where I watched the news in horror, listened to music from Iran, roamed the streets of Prague with Kepler, did yoga with friends in New York, plotted a performance at Pompeii. My house is triangulated by a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Bahai temple. So even from a standstill, I wandered to places unknown to me, listened to the prayers of others.
Tell us a little about the story-telling in We Are Opposite Like That since you've worked with archive, poetry, maps, video, writing, performances….
When I went to the Arctic and Antarctic in 2017 I had only planned on making a book on two polar circles that would be historical research, scientific research but in the way I treat all my archives - it would have the intervention of fiction and poetry. While I was there I realised that the parts that I am exploring do not have any indigenous population inhabiting the territory. But there is an indigenous presence here, it’s non-human - it has accumulated stories and wisdom, and is dying. And that indigenous elder is the ice.
This is the premise that We Are Opposite Like That is built around, the performances and videos all grew around the most amazing imagery that I had collected so I could remember these landscapes. Once I started working I realized that there are so many mediums to work with. This multidisciplinary approach reflects also my belief that climate change cannot be combatted without the intervention of many disciplines, it can’t be policies alone. We need poetry, we need arts, we need mathematics, we need alchemy.