Liz Xi: a platform for art and criticism

An Interview with Himali Singh Soin

By Giulia Damiani.

Himali is an artist and writer based in London and exploring questions across the world. We met in March 2017 to talk about her connection to India, origins, entanglements and the metaphors which substantiate her inquisitive practice. 


One of the first questions I had, reading your interviews and articles online, concerns the contemporary art scene in India, especially in relation to women. There seems to be various galleries and non-profit organisations run by women, such us Outset India and Khanabadosh in Mumbai. I would like to know more about your views on how women in the art scene are helping the country to shape new notions and subject matters. How do you believe women are invigorating the art scene? Are the class issue and the monetary aspect of art helping to grant women this possibility?

India in itself, maybe more than other countries, is so complex and contradictory that almost anything I tell you is going to have a perfect counterargument… The art scene is so nascent that there are exceptions sprouting everywhere even as I’m speaking. That said, I think it’s an interesting moment in the women’s movement in India, my women girlfriends are much more intent on starting their career, not getting married yet… However, in the art scene there are also a lot of women who didn’t have to work because of social structures, and therefore could grow an interest in the arts and become patrons of a sort. There are a lot of men too, but the art institutions/galleries are definitely dominated by women.

GD: Are these women contributing to a discussion on new subjects?

There are a few women curators that have created all-women shows such as ‘Seven Contemporaries’, at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art or ‘Diary Entries’, at Gallery Espace. The subject matter is often not overtly radical, but the use of materials is. Rather than being overtly feminist, women artists employ specific materials—beads, bindis—and often hire women labor for large-scale projects, that allow a gentle, metaphorical interpretation of what it means to be a woman in a country where women have to take precautionary measures everyday. One of my personal favourites is from then British India, now Pakistan, Amrita Sher-Gil, whose paintings are replete with women, who bear witness to, or embody, the terrible sublime.

GD: Who are the artists, writers and intellectuals whose work embody the aspiration to challenge the status quo in your opinion?

I’m a shameless fan of the Raqs Media Collective, two men and a woman. When we collaborated for Performa in 2013, I realised something about their method. They weave the abstract and philosophical into the real, into their resistance, in seamless ways. They take diversions, they make metaphors in order to talk about the dangerous unsayable. When they talk about infinity, they are talking about labor and a capitalist connection of linear time. When they talk about the multiverse, they are talking about re-imagining history.  They are polymaths, working in multiple mediums from performance, to installation, photography, video and so on. They curated the last Shanghai Biennale: irreverent to answers, they asked only questions. Another example is the filmmaker, Amar Kanwar, who similarly talks about ideas of strength and vulnerability, of waiting just before an action is actually completed, or even begins. While this sounds abstract, he is in fact talking both about the process of making art as well as about resistance in general. His films often manifest in the specific context of Kashmir, which has been a conflict zone since it was conceived. I find the practices that are the most political the most interesting when they are the most philosophical.

GD: A quote by the philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy describes a possible attitude to uncharted territories. He wrote in 1917: ‘Our attitude towards an unknown art should be far from the sentimental or romantic, for it can bring to us nothing that we have not already within us in our own hearts: the peace of the Abyss which underlies all art is one and the same whether we find it in Europe or Asia.’ However, over the 20th century art movements in India seemed to be pulled both by indigenous and transnational forces, as in the case of Contextual Modernism. Is post-colonial discourse affecting the making of art in India today? Or has a the global dynamic taken over this space?

I will start from an interesting anecdote from my final show at Goldsmiths. The South-Asian curator from the Tate came to see the show and I was explaining to her that there was nothing ‘Indian’ about my work; you won’t find any direct context like that. There I was, thinking I’d voyaged all the way to outer space in order to examine feminism and ecology in a displaced manner. She looked at the asteroids I had made, and they were in terracotta. She looked at the moon string I had pulled, and it was cotton. And she looked at the cyanotype: it was indigo. Each of these materials have a long and bloody history in India. I think until a few years ago I would have resisted the postcolonial reading on everything; sometimes it’s too easy to victimise yourself. But coming to London, I see it all the time: the way we pronounce words, the way we re-enforce class and colour after centuries of rejection based on class and colour, so much stems from a colonial history. And now I wouldn’t resist it; it’s very subconscious and it’s there.

So, while there are a few fantastic experimental spaces that are process-oriented and in that, free from American/Western European constructs of the materiality of output, I still think that we are institutionally unimaginative. Our national museums are fairly bureaucratic and private galleries still white cubes. Art writing in India is the clearest example, why have mediums morphed, but writing stayed Times New Roman with justified paragraphs? We have a long history of radical literature, we could have—could still—go to weirder or more accessible places with the way we use language. I believe there is a sense that art emerges from an original spiral of the quality of being, but it is so located. Having just returned from Antarctica, a place and also a non-place, I really feel that tension … And is the spiral inside out or outside in? What if an effect created a cause or a consequence?

GD: That’s a brilliant question indeed. Can you name some of the process oriented spaces you mentioned?

Khōj is probably as good as it gets in India. The word means ‘in search of’. I recently performed in a space called HH, it’s called Heritage Hotel, it’s in Goa and it has an other-timely vibe. And this is the other thing about going to residencies in India, you can’t really ignore the fact that you’re in Goa or in Delhi. The context is going to affect you. You walk out of Khoj and there are cows and vegetable sellers. In Goa, time moves slower, and there is no hurry…





GD: It reminds me of a project of mine in Naples…Another institution I am interested in is the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which started in 2012 and it was the first Biennale to be held in India. I know you are familiar with this international contemporary exhibition, having previewed it for Artforum. Considering the role of other biennales in the world, such as the Venice Biennale, which could be described as creating symbolic value that is subsequently transformed into economic value, as well as presenting fresh talent, what do you think is the contribution of Kochi-Muziris to the art scene in India? What is its impact on the wider society and community of Kochi? Can you tell me more about the artworks, performances or collateral events which you found meaningful in Kochi?

Kochi is an interesting example of what I was talking about, because in some ways it didn’t have to conform to anything, it’s the first of its kind in the country. Especially in the writing and catalogue, which could be much more radical: I don’t want to read an artist bio, I want to read something that is parallel to the artwork. The setting of the biennale is most remarkable, on the water, in British-built warehouses, originally used during the spice trade.The pieces that were most successful for me didn’t do anything to the space, they used the conditions of the space, dusty, crumbling or looking out upon the water. The work doesn’t have to address the context, but the context is there. When I went to the opening a lot of the work wasn’t even up, there were signs saying it will be up eventually… And even though that is inconvenient for international visitors, I liked how somehow the Biennale could keep growing, a kind of organism that has no single climax. Each year, the curators have taken risks, and some have been more successful at execution than others. I hope a woman curates the next one! In terms of the impact on the community, I think the economy has benefited from the Biennale, but also a lot of resources have been used, especially since Kerala is one of the states in India that is trying to go 100% organic and self-sustainable in energy. I think that the art world needs to address its ecological impact in general.

I very much enjoyed the work of Pedro Gomez-Egan from Columbia, Eva Schlegel from Austria, Mikhail Karikis from Greece – all poetic, urgent and immersive at once.

GD: In your practice as poet, art writer, storyteller and artist you seem to draw energy and inspiration from travelling on the earth as well as towards the ‘outer space’. What is the relation between these elements and your work? And what is the distance or proximity to origins, including your relation to India?

I love any question with the word origins in it. That sounds like many different practices but mostly is one practice, it’s all constantly coming together. I use different mediums but they are only to serve the poetry at hand, to deliver the concept in its particular glove. Radar Level had to be a video because it is in part about our technological imagination; Eros had to be a cast because there was no other way to materialize a 3D scan of an asteroid, otherwise ungraspable.

Travel and outer space specifically are always used as a kind of metaphor to talk about cultural flight, nativity, identity, communication… It’s really to talk about love, human intimacy. To look at a snail and find the galaxy. When I was in Antarctica I had this moment when I thought this might be the closest I could come to outer space, and these huge icebergs appeared out of nowhere. It was a blue sky, and three clouds appeared and they looked exactly like UFOs. Obviously in a way I was manifesting these links, but there’s a kind of connection that takes place at a quantum level, an earthly entanglement. I research aliens a lot, as an image that actually many African-Americans musicians used in terms of feeling like the extraterrestrial or the outsider in your own context. I feel like that in India, I feel like that anywhere else. My parents are explorers by profession. I have always been surrounded by people from everywhere, never been able to belong to a particular nation… In this context, the UFO becomes relevant again. When we encounter an ‘other’, the other too encounters the other. It’s always about this kind of reversal of relationships, palindromic spaces where I’m wondering, I am the traveler but also the ship, also the ice, also the book I am reading, the other and the other is me.

GD: Can you expand a little more on the relations to origins in your work?

Very basically I think that the origin is the escape and the return. But from an artistic perspective I think that the origin is intuition (for no better word), and I look at this a lot in language as well. Within any formal structure of constraints and formulas, where is that place of complete illogic? Of irrationality, of breaking language, where you create obstructions, digressions, imaginative leaps. This is an act of decolonization. It is against the enlightenment, against the mediation of money. This genie that is completely unknown and unwelcome. But in the future, where there are not going to be any jobs because of automation, what will happen to intuition? Could capitalism co-opt intuition into their campaign?

GD: What ideas do these diverse languages, different mediums, embody?

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium Calvino answers this question. He tells a folk tale about the emperor Charlemagne, who was cursed: he was deeply in love with anyone that wore a particular ring. It switched bearer and the king kept shifting his passions. To dispel this, it was thrown in Lake Constance. The king never left its shore. Calvino talks about this ring as the attractive force of a narrative. Disparate events are held together by an empty circle. An absence is made a presence, by the word, love.

GD: And finally you mentioned your exploration in Antarctica, what brought you there?

The expedition was the first part before the Arctic Circle Residency, an artist and scientist residency in October. The idea is to visit both the Arctic and Antarctic, as part of a year-long book and performance piece based on the magnetism between these opposing locations. To look at the top of the iceberg and understand its equilibrium is partially eclipsed.




Pictures credit:

Rift, 3D print of asteroid Eros cast in terracotta.
Courtesy Himali Singh Soin

Radar Level, video and performance.
Courtesy Himali Singh Soin