Himali Singh Soin: Static Range
Curated by Irene Sunwoo
Exhibition design by Future Firm
The Art Institute of Chicago
Through May 15
I grew up in the shadows of a nuclear waste site: Rocky Flats, a 400-acre plant outside of Boulder, Colorado, manufactured nuclear weapon triggers and was the site of multiple mishandling scandals. A massive fire that released plutonium into the air and pervasive water and topsoil contaminations continued until the plant was shuttered in the late 1980s after being raided by the FBI. As an adult I now understand the cruelty of the Cold War–era project, but as teenagers we’d drive up State Highway 93 toward the then-emptied nuclear landscape, pull off the road, and look downward over a wasteland. It was our version of youthful nighttime magic—we’d spook ourselves with ghost stories about the underwire in our bras vibrating, the plutonium pulsing through our cavity fillings.
Unlike our Friday nights excursions, there is nothing magical about manmade environmental catastrophes, especially those of the nuclear type. But something about them is, perhaps, mythical. Nuclear mythology is the subject of artist Himali Singh Soin’s new exhibition Static Range now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). Curated by John H. Bryan Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design Irene Sunwoo and designed by architecture office Future Firm, the exhibition begins with a different site of atomic history: the Himalayan mountain Nanda Devi.
In 1965, a team of U.S. intelligence agents collaborated with Indian officials to plant a nuclear-powered spy device in the Himalayas. A storm derailed their mission, and the device was abandoned, never to be found; later, cancer rates in the Sherpa community grew, signaling ongoing radioactivity. Soin’s own personal connection to the event intersects when her father, a mountaineer, traveled in 1978 to climb Nanda Devi and took an iconic photo of the mountain that later was adopted into a national postage stamp. Through a multimedia exhibition that includes video, poetry, sound, ceramics, and objects from the museum’s collection, Soin constructs a global mythos of radioactivity that incorporates the “leakages” of toxicity, the transmission of stories between cultures, and the resonant artifacts of landscapes shaped by violence.
The exhibition spans across one large room in the AIC’s Architecture and Design galleries. Purple LED lights dimly illuminate the space and provide an unsettling glow, and intricately woven white tapestries suspended from the ceiling arranged in radiating arcs create concentric circles. The interior’s squared corners are rounded using the tapestries; together, the veils seem to form the symbol for radiation. Within each concentric circle, visitors encounter a variety of objects and soundscapes: Displayed in the center is a miniature ceramic replica of Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Glazed in iridescent colors, it sits on a plinth of stacked CMU blocks painted black—a nod to the graphite piles used to test neutron emissions in Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory.
Various wood block prints of Mt. Fuji, sourced by Soin from the museum’s permanent collection, surround the fictitious Fat Boy. Displayed on custom glass frames, each image also includes a corresponding “devotional” poem authored by Soin, who works as a writer and artist between London and Delhi.
Two video projections are shown on opposite outer walls. Arguably the centerpiece of the exhibition, they alternate screenings. The eastern-wall video displays her father’s stamp photo slowly warping between neon colors, as if being exposed to radiation, and Soin’s voice narrates a fictive letter “written” from the spy satellite to the mountain. On the west wall, a woman stands in front of the mountain as rocks glow and animated symbols float and mutate across the screen. Over the sound of drums and air raid sirens she reads a letter written from the mountain to the satellite:
“In the cat’s penumbras, your colimited rays incinerating their pupils, everything lime green or magenta… Pastoral mutations. The children, too, who play indoors now, their wonder made up not of clouds as portals to imagined worlds but danger, gases, elephants, flesh, filters, and vapor. Barometers of what is brewing. Clouds like tongues lickking the aura of the Anthropocene.”
Referenced in these audio letters is the tale of Ramayana, which also appears in the gallery via a hand-painted palm leaf, circa-late 1700s, taken from the museum’s collection. Painted in gum tempera, the scene from the Indian epic the Ramayana depicts Lakshmana, the hero’s brother, after he was killed in battle. The god Hanuman travels to the Himalayas to retrieve sanjeevani, life-saving medicine. When Hanuman couldn’t find the herbs, he instead takes the entire mountain. Today, the search for sanjeevani is continued by humans—an act that, according to the exhibition text, has negatively impacted the planet’s fragile ecosystems.
It would be easy to reduce the exhibition to nuclear ephemera or a collection of objects related to various unnatural incidents: residual radiation from the 2012 Fukushima disaster lingering atop Mt. Fuji; the role that Argonne played in developing the Manhattan Project; or the abandoned device on Nanda Devi. But what Soin does so smartly is to move away from the historicization of nuclear catastrophes. There is no linear timeline or accounting for events; instead, Soin opts for enchantment. Her videos, which loop psychedelic mountain scenes, are amplified by the letters read aloud and subtle soundscapes. Beyond appearing to form the biohazard symbol, the tapestries’ veil-like transparency allows observers to experience the entirety of the space so that the objects radiate their stories towards one another.
Like the Ramayana, Greek myths, or Aesop’s fables, human tales of creation and morality cross borders, transmitting messages that shape our collective cultural imaginations. Radiation and nuclear contamination behave similarly; their virulent and violent presence shapes the land, our bodies, our communities, and our politics. Mythologizing the catastrophe doesn’t soften its brutality—instead it transmits its lessons across geography, rendering that catastrophe relevant for all of us. The exhibition asks, perhaps optimistically, the audience to make scalar leaps together, from unseen particles to stories about our collective futures.
There is no comfort in this telling. Still, Soin’s exhibition is both mournful and fantastical, almost to the point where I questioned whether or not the spy device ever existed. (It did.) Sitting in the darkened room on a buckwheat-filled pillow with a soft felt mat underneath while Soin’s voice speaks of the Anthropocene’s green and magenta aura to the rhythm of drums and chimes, I am transported back to the wastelands of my youth. The radiation that vibrated into my body in Colorado years ago binds me to those mythologies, to landscapes shaped by oblivion.
Anjulie Rao is a journalist and critic covering the built environment.