On ViewMuseo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza
October 25, 2022 – January 29, 2023
Himali Singh Soin’s solo exhibition The Third Pole at The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid spans five years of the artist’s work, ripping through the fabric of our reality to reveal a more-than-human world, one brimming with characters that defy characterization. From queer alien figures and animals down to posthuman entities and even sediment, the artist tells stories across time, species, and geography that swing, in a kind of dialectical poetry, between human and nonhuman narratives. How does she experience consciousness from that place? She tells me about American ecologist and philosopher David Abram, who once said: “We cannot restore the land without restorying the land.” And indeed, fiction runs through this show, a primary vehicle in Singh Soin’s arsenal: “For me, poetry becomes a way to communicate across distances, and I believe anthropomorphisation might be our only way back to reconnecting with the natural world.”
Upon entry, I melt into the velvety navy-blue vastness of the exhibition space, punctuated only by an archipelago of stories that come together in new and unfamiliar cosmologies. Imagined as a space of possibility, the glacial mountain range of the Himalayas is here foregrounded as a “third pole.” Sitting at the axis of the north and south polar regions of the planet, the Himalayas have a critical influence on global environmental shifts—a significance that has not always been acknowledged by a scientific community enmeshed in histories of colonization and western navel-gazing. This “third” pole comes here as a deliberate rupture in the binary ways that we’ve come to imagine and express the world. Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino says “fiction participates in the truth of the world.” What Singh Soin attempts to do here—through a multimedia exhibition that includes video, performance, textile, poetry, and music composed by David Soin Tappeser—is undermine the human and allow the world to express itself.
We are opposite like that (2017–2022) is a two-channel video shot during a research trip in the high Arctic Circle that blends archival material from the Victorian era, when anxious anticipation of an imminent glacial epoch ran rampant. Since the poles are used as laboratories for outer space research and have been the site of numerous UFO sightings, Singh Soin incorporates sci-fi tropes and attempts to recount stories from non-human perspectives—the main character here is ice, a swiftly melting archive. Presented as an alien figure entangled in a shifting landscape of receding glaciers, it traverses the stark, oblivious whiteness, then ultimately undergoes a dissolution. In Mountain, pixelated in the water (2021) Singh Soin documents this kind of transference in a series of tapestries that use ikat weave to represent the sound of ice crystals smashing into each other.
Far from reproducing existing values of anthropomorphisation, the artist attempts to dissolve her own human ego through play and speculation. Avoiding the impulse, so common in the tech world, to think in terms of downloading or projecting human consciousness into the other, Singh Soin eschews the anthropocentrism of most attempts to reproduce intelligence. “These are usually created by a single type of person; a cisgendered white man from western Europe or America” and the resulting intelligence “ultimately holds the same prejudices that its creators do.” Surely, avoiding such pitfalls is easier said than done, but Singh Soin attempts to safeguard against seeping prejudice by placing science and mysticism on a flat epistemological plane, without hierarchy. “I start with the perspective that all of these systems of knowledge are a source of wonder. Even a scientist comes up first with a hypothesis and that’s already a poetic act of imagination,” she tells me. Imagination breaking through the hard codes of scientific rigor might very well restore magic to the mineral and reveal how science can inspire rather than restrict. “These thin shimmering diaphanous spaces between two types of viewpoints is exactly what I mean by the ‘third pole,’” she continues.
On the other end of the exhibition space, a three-channel video is found surrounded by gongs and mats. As grand as what (2018-21) calls on the kalachakra mandala, a diagram that illustrates the interconnectedness of the body, the city, the earth and the universe. In this case, Singh Soin portrays the sickness caused by the loss of bla, a vital force in Tibetan medicine. Through a series of rituals, a figure masked in palm leaves embarks on a journey across different planes and ecosystems to restore the soul of the earth.
A lot like science, fiction is an attempt to interpret, in some ingenious way, what we don’t understand, privileging the movement of the imagination and using it as a springboard to begin anew. The Third Pole is not a doctrine, nor a philosophical school, but rather a style of thought, a method, an open and ever-renewed experience with no fixed result. Singh Soin’s work will prove disorienting for those who wish to define the world or who it’s made for.