Himali Singh Soin

Himali Singh Soin’s expeditionary practice begins with a journey on land, with poetry at its center, and then spirals outwards into performance, music, and moving image. She uses metaphors from the natural environment to construct speculative cosmologies that reveal non-linear entanglements between human and non-human life. Her method moves between a myriad of technologies of knowing, from scientific to intuitional, indigenous, and alchemical processes. After five years of research in the North and South Poles, she has begun a series departing from the Third Pole: the Himalayas.

At Amant, she will research Mount Meru, a real and mythological mountain that is considered the centre of the universe in ancient texts, spiritual depictions, pop culture, literature, and geology. In 1986, her father made the first Indian ascent of Meru while her mother was pregnant with her. This personal, umbilical urge will propel the narrative, leading to a new, liberator expedition.

Himali Singh Soin was born in New Delhi, and lives between London and New Delhi. Her art has been shown at Khoj (Delhi), Serpentine Gallery (London), Gropius Bau (Berlin), DesertX (CA), the Dhaka Art Summit and the Shanghai Biennale, among others. She was the recipient of the Frieze Artist Award 2019. Her almanac from the poles, we are opposite like that, was published in 2020, and her prayer talisman from unsung Himalayan deities, ancestors of the blue moon, in 2021. Her latest stamp booklet from a nuclear mountain in the Himalayas, Static Range, was released in 2022. Her first solo show in the US is open at The Art Institute of Chicago till May 15 2023.

Image: Himali Singh Soin, we are opposite like that, 2020


Meet the Residents Himali Singh Soin

We start Spring 2023 Meet the Residents with Himali Singh Soin, who walks us through her research about, around, and beyond Mount Meru and explains how the gaps in the archive are prompts for creation.
Time remaining:

Sarah Demeuse: This is Meet the Residents, a series of interviews with Amant artists and residents, in which we speak and digress about research, the impact of context on artistic process, serendipity, and making community. Amant is a nonprofit arts organization and residency in North Brooklyn. Our studios are at 306 Maujer, where we host four artists for three months. One cohort in fall and another one in spring. My name is Sarah Demeuse. I’m your host and Amant’s head of publications. This is our Spring 2023 season.

Today, I’m with Himali Singh Soin. Himali, thanks we are here having tea on your couch in the studio. It’s a beautiful spring day. And, of course, you’ve been here a while. We’ve had many conversations already. But, it would just be nice to understand where you were beforehand, where you came from, and yeah.

Himali Singh Soin: Thank you. And welcome. I was actually in the Coachella Valley before I came to New York, because we installed a salt pillar
in the middle of the desert, which was quite a beautiful experience.

Sarah Demeuse: Do you have a regular place from where you’re based? Or do you move along with the projects? How does that go?

Himali Singh Soin: So technically, my studio is in London and I have artworks stored there. But, a lot of friends who are curators say that my practice is expeditionary and not exhibitionary and I really like that, because it does involve a lot of field work and a lot of research. So just before being in London, I was actually on the salt pans between India and Pakistan on the border, researching salt.

Sarah Demeuse: For the Coachella project?

Himali Singh Soin: For that project.

Sarah Demeuse: I wonder where New York fits into the expeditionary, because as a landscape, I’d be interested to understand New York as a landscape for you. But, I suspect it’s more with an archival intent that you came here. How does that balance out?

Himali Singh Soin: Well, interestingly, in the first week, I was talking to my friend who was the science historian on some of my previous polar work, and we were talking about how Manhattan was beneath the Laurentide Ice Sheet. And in fact, it was beneath glaciers. So that links to what I’ve been doing for the last seven years, which is looking at glaciers and glacial movements. So, it has a deep connection to the ice, interestingly. And that’s when we make those land acknowledgements of Lenape land or whatever. You also understand those different histories of what seems like pure concrete right now.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah.

Himali Singh Soin: But Manhattan, I’m here, because New Yorkers between the ‘70s and the '90s took a great fascination to Himalayan art. So some of the most incredible archives are in Manhattan. And I began with the Rubin Museum, and now I’m going to the American Museum of Natural History, and finding these incredible cosmic Buddhist mandalas.

Sarah Demeuse: And, those are the ones that you have enlarged and printed out in the studio. And as you said, they function like mental notes for you.

Himali Singh Soin: Yeah. And in fact, because I spend so much time with them, as portals and maps, I feel like I also wonder into the city with these as a lens. So I’m having this very fractal portal-like experience of New York, where things are reflecting each other and becoming microcosms and macrocosms of each other.

Sarah Demeuse: So, I have a question.

Himali Singh Soin: Yeah.

Sarah Demeuse: Does that often happen when you are deep into research that there’s an overlay between things, and your time becomes a multi-layered time or your space becomes a space that is a portal?

Himali Singh Soin: Does that happen to you?

Sarah Demeuse: Maybe I walk around with phrases or certain thoughts or characters, yes. But, what you described with the mandala and the portal seems to be a bit more intense.

Himali Singh Soin: Yeah, I mean, I like to look for patterns when things leak into each other. This happens quite a lot. When I was writing my bird opera, which had everything to do with the north and south pole, I was working on a simultaneous project on a nuclear device in the Himalayas. And when I went to look for the bird in Wales, I found it breeding on a nuclear site. So these are the bizarre… But it’s of course the single consciousness that’s making those patterns.

Sarah Demeuse: And so far in your archival research, I mean, you have several printouts here of fantastic works or artifacts, not even sure how to classify these cultural products, cultural signifiers. You have many of them.

Himali Singh Soin: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Demeuse: I wonder what your experience has been of planning to go to an archive and then actually being in there. I assume that it’s never straightforward that you intend to see something and then see that, but you actually find maybe adjacent elements, so they’re more interesting. I wonder how that element of surprise or deviation comes into your research.

Himali Singh Soin: Well, since I brought up the bird opera, I’ll say, that the bird, the Arctic town in particular taught me a lot about deviation.

Sarah Demeuse: Mm-hmm.

Himali Singh Soin: And the pleasure of being swung by the wind and finding yourself somewhere else and still making your way back home. It doesn’t move in a straight line. It makes a lot of tangents. So maybe I won’t walk to them, but I’ll point to them.

Sarah Demeuse: Sounds good. Yeah.

Himali Singh Soin: So, that’s a more traditional depiction of Mount Meru. Mount Meru is according to Tibetan Buddhism, the center of the universe. It also functions in gen cosmology, and in Hindu cosmology, and Taoist cosmology. It’s depicted often as a pillar surrounded by these continents. And, where the blue is on the east side is where we are. That’s the ocean and the sea. And it’s this central pillar that in every lifetime we have to make a pilgrimage there. So that’s what I went to look for. And then I was surprised, it’s not a mountain, it’s a pillar. And I was looking for a mountain. Also, the way that it’s depicted in pop culture, it’s always this inaccessible summit and this accessible base. And, the reason I also got interested in this was because when my mom was pregnant with me, my dad climbed, what’s called, Mount Meru in India. And then, I started seeing all these portals and these umbilical cords everywhere. And if we look at that diagram there, you can see that it says, “Crown. Face. Throat.” And then, “Mount Meru.” And then, there’s the base. So, it’s this world realm. And in that world, this central chest area is Mount Meru.

Sarah Demeuse: Right.

Himali Singh Soin: So, it’s these realms. It’s from the space from the crown to the root, to the base. So then, I found this scroll, which is a depiction of Mount Meru from different cross sections. And you see it as the world, and then you see it as the city, and then you see it as the body. Now, when I got to the body, I realized, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Because I remembered seeing these diagrams, which are then medical charts, which I hadn’t asked the archives to take out for me. But there it is. There’s the mountain.

Sarah Demeuse: Finally. Mm-hmm.

Himali Singh Soin: Finally. And then, if you look at that scroll, if you look at the same place where the mountain is, there are these circular, almost chakra-like portals, and they have these four rivers coming out of them, veins or arteries on the body.

Sarah Demeuse: Right.

Himali Singh Soin: But in Mount Meru, it’s always depicted as that there’s four rivers coming out of it. And then, I remembered the mercator map, which is on top, which is the first map of the North Pole. And there, you have these four rivers coming out of it with this black mountain in the middle, that could also be Mount Meru. So I started realizing that Mount Meru is possibly… While it’s the center and it’s the pillar, it’s also movable, and it seems to manifest everywhere. The Tibetans think it’s in Tibet, it’s Mount Kailash, where I’ve also been. There’s the one that my dad climbed in India. There’s one in Tanzania. There’s one in Korea. Here’s a depiction of it in the North Pole, perhaps it’s inside of us. Maybe it’s the city itself, which then made me think that Tibetans in exile cannot actually return to a physical mountain. So this is a moving mountain. So they create new sacred mountains where they go. And, the way that you climb, you don’t climb, you really circuit the mountain. You do it with pilgrimage guides that are these texts written on palm leaves that guide you to see both the natural landscape as it is. So there’s a rock, there’s a stone, this is the leaf, and there’s the water. And then, it’s a process called co-seeing, where you see the metaphorical spiritual quality of that. So perhaps that is the rock that created the flame that killed the demon. Or, this is the water that healed the prince in the scripture. So you start to see the landscape double. All of this, I didn’t know before I came here.

Sarah Demeuse: Mm-hmm.

Himali Singh Soin: These are the excavations, but the pilgrimage texts are super beautiful. So, my first call is to recreate a pilgrimage text. For a contemporary experience, you’re walking down New York, and what if you had a guidebook, it’s maybe in the form of poetry, maybe some music, and you can listen to me, guide you. But where you’re really going is to the inner landscape through the outer landscape. And then, the way that the texts are written, they’re ancient texts, but they’re begging for something like augmented reality. They’re seen. This is a reality, and then here’s an extension of reality.

Sarah Demeuse: Right.

Himali Singh Soin: And I’m not super into… I’m super skeptical of all of this technology.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. I mean, we just happen to live in a time period where layering of realities visually is now achievable through technology, but it’s a practice that has been existing since forever. Yeah. I am fascinated by the idea that there is already something that exists knowing that people will move around, and that your landscape is never a static thing. So, it’s allowing for spirituality to be present everywhere. That’s very, very timely, I guess, too.

Himali Singh Soin: Yeah. Is it? I don’t know. Something about desiring this very analog experience. So I want to create this very earthy, almost with palm leaves book. And then, how do I then recreate that as an AR experience, where the landscape itself gives you triggers to listen to poetry and music?

Sarah Demeuse: When you say triggers, what does that mean?

Himali Singh Soin: So, for example, the thing that would separate an AR experience from simply a sound work is that you’re actually walking down Grand Avenue and you see every time the metro arrives or whatever, it sparks a new piece.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah.

Himali Singh Soin: In my case, I love to think about what indigenous cybernetics looks like, or a more DIY feminist AR, and not something super… The aesthetic so far that I’ve noticed is very masculine.

Sarah Demeuse: And super smooth too.

Himali Singh Soin: And super smooth. I wonder if light can trigger something, or wind can trigger something. I don’t think that’s actually programmable at the moment, but I would love to think about how the elements of the earth itself could spark a new idea. And I guess as more and more people lose their sense of home, then to create these pilgrimages become more important. And, whether their homes are contested spaces. In the case of Tibet, it’s militarized by a Chinese occupation, and that has exacerbated climate change. So those mountains are literally melting.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, exactly. The landscape is also not a static thing. So, how to interiorize something that is always transforming. So, you’re in the archive, you’re seeing all these amazing relations. You’re thinking about the text that might come along. How does your process go? Are there moments where you say, “I do not need any more archive and I need to just walk”? Himali Singh Soin: Mm-hmm.

Sarah Demeuse: Because I imagine research is much more broad than just looking at documents, or in this case, very beautiful artifacts that… What else happens?

Himali Singh Soin: I look for gaps. I look for lacunas or missing moments. And, often those erasures are caused by a powerful infrastructural violence that is to say, a character has purposefully been left out of the archives. Or, there’s a literary prompt. So I think I stop at the archives once I find enough fissures to then enter into.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. And find a place from where to speak, or sing, or imagine. Himali Singh Soin: Yeah. And for me, I think, I recognize Buddhism as also being deeply racist, and sexist, and having its own internal problematic. So, it’s to also leave the religious aspect a little bit and use that idea of the pilgrimage text, so that it can be an experience of liberation for any body. Using the exiled body as a starting point.

Sarah Demeuse: Mm-hmm. And that liberation comes through an exercise in the imagination and traveling to a place that is more meaningful. Or, in what way do you replace the religious encounters say? Maybe it’s not replacing, you’re doing something else in that space.

Himali Singh Soin: I think it might be because my practice often gives voice to non-human voices. So I think it’s also thinking about all of the rocks, and the piece of salt, and the piece of ice, and everything that you come across on your way.

Sarah Demeuse: I wonder, going back a bit to your stance here, and I know you’ve been to many places, but I wonder what it’s like for you to do this work in New York, in this type of city, being as a resident here. Does that make a difference? Are there any experiences that you might not have expected before coming here? I just wonder how the context participates.

Himali Singh Soin: Certainly, I mean, of course the archives are here, and they’re incredible, and they’re conserved, which is beautiful. There’s a lot of problems with having an archive here, and not having enough translation, and transfiguration, and such. But I think, being here, and seeing how different communities and bodies are so much in proximity with each other, and yet, there is so much distance between them is really interesting. And that’s where those ideas of abolition and liberation are coming to me. Last night, I heard this incredible presentation that the Studio Museum and MoMA collaborated on, called “Black and Blur(e)” after the Fred Moton book.

Sarah Demeuse: Mm-hmm.

Himali Singh Soin: Where they were looking at images of blur(e) in photography. And that had me thinking, that in a way, going through the city as portals after portals means that everything is blurring into each other. And blurring is a form of precision, but it’s also a form of combining these different communities and seeing things as one whole. But then, quickly being… All that is snatched away from you. I think New York is an amazing city to think about what freedom could look like and what translucency feels like. Different bodies, and colors, and cultures, and music all in relation to each other.

Sarah Demeuse: Right. Yeah.

Himali Singh Soin: In a way that in London, I never… I mean, it’s a million different communities, but you just don’t encounter it in that same ecstatic way. Do you know what about the residency in New York? I think, it’s that I can hear my own inner consciousness and voice better. I’m often in collaborative settings. I’ve been producing for the last two years quite intensely with lots of people. It’s been a long time since I could hear myself.

Sarah Demeuse: Oh, good. Yeah.

Himali Singh Soin: And the sirens and the ambulances, they just enhance that listening.

Sarah Demeuse: Yeah. It happens to me in a strange way too. When I’m on the subway, it’s true, you get the full spectrum. For sure. Yeah. So we’ve talked about research, how you’re doing it here, and then the specific archives. As a general question that we ask most of our residents is, what does a residency mean for you? I guess, perhaps it’s a way of getting to an archive where you want to be, but it’s probably also just thinking about what you’re doing. You’re looking at pilgrimages, people in exile. In what way does being artists in residence maybe speak to that? Himali Singh Soin: I think it’s an expedition in a way, a residency. It’s a way you shut out a lot of the noise, and you’re on a journey. I also feel an affinity with the past and future programs over here. It feels like a similar lineup and good company. So, you share brainwaves. So it’s cool as a residency space, you can almost be like an astrologer of what artists are thinking about, or why.

Sarah Demeuse: That’s a very beautiful imagery, very telling. I think that’s a good point to end with. Thank you.

Himali Singh Soin: Thank you.

Sarah Demeuse: You can find images of the mandalas and maps that Himali mentioned, as well as a transcript of this conversation on our website at amant.org. In our next episode, I talk with Eduardo Navarro. Our theme music is composed by Silas Edgar. Eda Li recorded and co-edited the interviews. Sound editing and engineering is by Isaac Silver. Thanks for listening. Join us again next time.