Static Range: Himali Singh Soin explores the past and present of nuclear landscapes


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In her first solo exhibit titled “Static Range,” artist and writer Himali Singh Soin explores the past and present of nuclear landscapes.

The conversation begins in the hallway at the entrance. A different feeling than the city outside, the light softens as the viewer approaches the sound of the artist’s voice.  

Located at the Art Institute of Chicago in the Modern Art Wing, “Static Range” and “We Are Opposite Like That” by Himali Singh Soin are on display until May 15, 2023.

Her inspiration is the radioactive Mountain of Nanda Devi, whose name means Goddess of Happiness, but she finds a connection to all nuclear sites and people. 

The Indian Himalayan mountain, Nanda Devi, houses a lost nuclear-powered surveillance device planted by the CIA in collaboration with the Indian Intelligence Bureau. The device was planted in 1965 and intended to intercept Chinese nuclear missile data. 

A storm during the mission caused them to lose it. Although they returned the following year to retrieve the nuclear-powered device, it has yet to be found. 

Chicago’s nuclear history started with scientist Enrico Fermi and his team working at the University of Chicago. They were tasked to produce a self-sustaining nuclear reaction. A self-sustaining reaction can generate energy and produce plutonium. Plutonium is a radioactive chemical that can power satellites.   

The chosen test site was the middle of the University of Chicago campus. In December 1942, the experiment went live and succeeded. Chicago Pile-1 was the first artificial nuclear reactor. 

“It was incredibly uncanny to learn about Chicago’s nuclear history, and that Illinois is a continuing site of radiation and toxicity (through the lake). It’s also a city full of transmissions and broadcasts, radio signals, cell phone signals, lighthouses, which feels in line with this project,” Soin said over email.

Although serious, the exhibition is approachable. 

“[I designed] the experience so you can choose-your-own-adventure and feel intensely but not really be able to locate that intensity,” Soin said. “It was important for me to locate you, my viewer, in this tangle: distant landscapes are connected to each other, complicating our fixed ideas of place, and radioactivity is planetary, beyond the boundaries of nation and identity.”

There are pillows, an invitation to sit and reflect on the visuals projected on both sides of the space. 

“I get museum fatigue, at first I was just excited to find a place to sit,” Jacob Guerra, a 21-year-old visitor from Florida said.  

An excerpt in the video piece titled “Static Range” is what Guerra said helped him understand her message. 

“Man is destroying mountains. She shows us this natural beauty, but when it turns to a negative image, you can see the flickering lights in the back of the landscape. That’s modern beauty, and I guess it shows how far we’ve come,” Guerra said. 

Organic curtains separate still works and pottery by other highlighted artists.  

“No single author can tell this story, because they’re many stories, and they’re stories from different countries and different disciplines,” Soin said.  

Soin’s father photographed the radioactive mountain in 1978, which  became a national postage stamp. His photo is a central piece to her exhibition.  

The artist, Himali Singh Soin, addresses the viewers first with a letter at the entrance of the exhibition “Static Range.” As a poet, her words are intentional and reflective. Letters continue to be displayed inside the exhibit addressed to the mountain and the response of the mountain. 

“The letters were inspired by the first photograph cited in the show: the image of Nanda Devi that became a stamp,” Soin said. 

The spoken words and the mountain on the screen seem to breathe with the people in the frame. Dynamic symbols transcend over bodies of water. The landscape is alive. 

“Being in there, I watched the waves of color and I moved through them,” said Neil Kinahan, who was visiting the Art Institute with his wife on her day off. He described the work as “calming and tricky.”

Healing is a significant theme in the exhibition. Nanda Devi is seen as a non-human character, and healers work with sound waves to heal the mountain at a distance. 

“A lot of us are thinking about healing after the pandemic, ways of co-existence and love, and I hope that resonates.”