Critical Collective: You have recently been awarded the Frieze Artist Award for 2019, as part of which you will showcase a new work at Frieze in London this October. According to the Frieze announcement, this commission will be an expansion of your series titled ‘we are opposite like that’ in the form of a film. What can you tell us about the nature and scope of this new work?
Himali Singh Soin: ‘we are opposite like that’ is a series of interconnected works inspired by my journeys to both polar circles: the Antarctic and the Arctic, in 2017. Like earlier installments such as subcontinentment (a speculative-poem-manifesto published in the form of a booklet) and a video work first shown at the India Art Fair earlier this year), ‘we are opposite like that’ fuses a variety of concerns: non-traditional forms of knowledge, (post-)colonial attitudes and identities and climate crises. But it also imagines the polar landscapes as projecting screens for utopian futures.
Combining different media - video, poetry, music, archival material, etc. - ‘we are opposite like that’ is a series of fictional mythologies for these extraordinary places that harbour some of the most hostile conditions for human life on a local level, but are guarantors of our survival on a global scale. They also represent intense resilience: the Antarctic midge, a meagre 6mm insect, spends most of its life as a larva frozen in ice, wakes to live for the best and only week of its life, then dies. The Arctic woolly bear caterpillar lies frozen for fourteen years, wakes up, turns into a moth and flies away. The mythologies are imagined from the non-human perspective of an ‘elder’, a true witness that has preserved every story, a melting archive: the ice.
More specifically, the video shown at Frieze explores the problematic relationships between place, identity, power and time. The video traces the Ovidian metamorphosis of a brown-bodied, alien figure into glimmering ice and juxtaposes this fantasy with archival material documenting the widespread fear of an imminent glacial epoch in Victorian Britain. It blurs the boundaries between the past and the post, acknowledging the cyclical rhythms of deep time.
Also, inspired by field recordings, an original score for string quartet creates an etheric soundscape of hissing glaciers and the hard timbre of the wind, interspersed with melodic fragments of Victorian composer, Edward Elgar’s ‘The Snow’.
CC: In the blurb for ‘we are opposite like that’, you have mentioned the use of a “non-anthropocentric, post-human” way of storytelling. Can you elaborate on this categorisation, in the context of your upcoming work? By adopting this style, are you attempting to create an alternate futurist narrative?
HSS: In past works such as ‘Silicontology ’, I have attempted to write from the point of view of a non-human subject. While the writing recognizes that language is inherently human, it does not anthropomorphize, instead destabilizes dominant voices, allowing for the other, what Ian Bogost calls ‘alien phenomenology’. It recognizes humanism as steeped in layers of prejudice and patriarchy, cycles that have brought the Earth to an irreversible brink. In ‘we are opposite like that’, we are situated in previously uninhabited places, where I like to think of the ice as indigenous, with its own rights, beliefs, desires and possibilities. If humanism promised humans liberation, this post-human would like to ask for the autonomy of the natural world. What does the ice want?
CC: Your practice relies on the creation of “mythologies” against the backdrop of contemporary geo-politics. The concept of movement between the past, present and future, or the worldly and other-worldly seems to be an important part of your work. Simultaneously, you also engage with notions of identity and post-colonial art-making. How do you reconcile post-colonialism, with its human time-scales, with the consideration of deep time central to a post-anthropocentric framework? Isn’t the former necessarily anthropocentric?
HSS: Making art feels like some mysterious alchemy of investigative research, argument, intuition and an aesthetic sense. Here, the real and the mythical are extensions of each other. The apparent paradox you refer to finds reconciliation in the very craft of constructing mythologies: how can we release ourselves from the hierarchies of ‘enlightenment’ knowledge while not falling into the boring category of ‘fake’? How can we treat science and storytelling, or reason and poetry as equally valuable--complementary ways of understanding the world? The exoskeleton of myth is meaning-making that draws from but ultimately transcends the past-present-future triad of timekeeping.
One of my first experiences of the alarming residue of the colonial project was at the Greenwich Observatory. The meridian divides the world’s hemispheres, and the keeper of the laser that beams out into British skies every evening invited me to turn the light on. I flipped a switch, and received a certificate. The keeper said to me that with the invention of the clock, Britain created the concept of time. And by bringing the railways to India, it brought timetables to a colony that previously did not have a sense of organized time. I was shaken. I wrote a piece then about two light particles on a single ray of light that fell in love. One had to exit the linearity of the beam to be closer to the other. Therein is my work subverting established hierarchies of knowledge as a means to monopolize power. These hegemonic ways of seeing (favouring techno-positivist, capitalist narratives) are no less practiced by our current government in India.
By placing myself in a kind of do-it-yourself spacesuit, I am developing an archetypical alien character whose only distinguishing feature is her brown skin. In this, she can represent a collective imaginary but also an amorphous identity, one that is constantly shifting, adapting, reflecting the landscape back. In this, the character is less-than or more-than human, moving through time that is both gridded and fluid, giving way to other-worldly dreamings.
In that, the post-colonial seems inextricable from the post-anthropocentric. Both are ultimately relational and non-hierarchical: both presuppose that we should encounter our surroundings - human or environmental - on a flat, or equal ontological plane, rather than one divided into subject and object.
CC: How does your own socio-cultural identity as a South Asian woman figure in your work?
HSS: Place, and Land, is very important to my thinking. It seeps into my work in both conscious and unconsciousways.Toknow where you come from is to know the blood that was shed for you to be at a place, in a time. Subcontinentment will give you an idea of a personal imaginary in which I make up a portmanteau of the word subcontinent and contentment, and in unraveling historical and current links between the subcontinent and the Arctic and Antarctic regions, proposing a moment of rest, and a practice of non-linear optimism so we can recognize our transnationalism while staying located in the furies of the here and now.
CC: You are a poet, artist and filmmaker. Your work at Frieze will include both film and music. What is the relationship between the medium and the narrative? In other words, what does the medium offer in terms of facilitating your story?
HSS: I wouldn’t go as far as filmmaker. I like to meddle with video as far as it is in the service of my poetry. Music, however, is a large part of my practice, not least because my partner, David, is a composer and jazz drummer. He works on the sound of most of my pieces, not simply to create atmospheres, but to extend the narrative of the work from where poetry ends. From where language means too much. Sound affords this blurring of form and subject matter that other art forms possibly don’t. What does a dinosaur, anterior to human thought, sound like? How can a graph of latitudes and longitudes change the dynamics of what you hear? What does emission sound like? What does reception sound like? What does a semicolon sound like? And what does imagining these potentials allow for in broadening our epistemologies, in filtering frequencies outside of the humanly audible range of 20-20,000 Hz?
CC: Arguably, the 21st century is characterised by two things: a rapid growth in climate change, and increasing xenophobia and aversion to outsiders. Both these currents stem from an inherent lack of compassion, and are themes you have addressed in your work. In this context, would you define your practice as inherently political? Alternately, do you believe that art-making should be political?
HSS: Seeing the world in all its symmetry also means seeing its systematic and vicious entanglements. The process of transforming something from a thing or a thought into something that can be interpreted in a myriad different ways is an act of love. A critical expression of feeling. It is also a democratic act: the artist releases authority over her work: the viewer becomes an active participant. I don’t know if art should be anything, because it inherently refuses itself at every point, but I do know that artists must be good citizens.