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Re-emerging through Immersion

The value of the imagery that binds us to water

Alessandra Navazio
a story by
Alessandra Navazio
 
 
Re-emerging through Immersion

Creation, transformation, purification: the water-related imagery is as deep and fluid as the liquid with which it is associated, but it has common characteristics in every culture and every time. A truly sustainable management of water also depends on this heritage, which is in danger of being drowned. Here is how art can help recover it. 

«When I met the people from the Faroe Islands, I didn’t need to talk about water because it is already part of the social tissue. Everyone knows it and knows it has to be respected»: musician Jens Thomsen with colleagues Laila Skovmand and Petri Kuljuntausta recorded underwater reverberations and soundscapes in various fresh and salt water locations in Finnish Lapland, Greenland and Denmark. The project gave birth to the sound installation Sound’s Hidden Journey Under Nordic Waters, aiming to bring our primordial relationship with water back to the surface. 

Water as a primordial substance

Water is crucial in many natural processes, but it also holds a special place in mythologies and spiritual beliefs around the world. Throughout numerous traditions, myths and religions, water precedes the existence of the universe and of ourselves, as if all forms of the world are nothing more than the manifestation of the primordial substance. 

According to the Babylonian poem of creation, Enuma Elish, everything originated from the union of Apsu, the freshwater Ocean, and Tiamat, the salty sea populated by monsters1. The ancient Egyptians believed that in the beginning there was an endless sea of liquid mass covering everything and every space: the Nun, the primordial watery abyss from which a hill emerged2. And even in the earliest Upanishads, which bring together Indian religious and philosophical texts, in the beginning, there was not the word but the austerity of the waters from which Atman, the soul, was born and eventually developed into two parts: a golden half, the sky, and a silver half, the earth3

It was on the water, which is “the origin of all things”, that Thales, who lived in the 6th century B.C. Greece, and who is considered the first Western philosopher, founded his system of thought.  An arché, a life-giving first principle that, in various myths and religions, cyclically regenerates what is around it. In ancient Egypt, for example, the river Nile was worshipped as a god, Hapi, responsible for the flooding of the land, providing nutrients for the harvest. Yet, in Aztec mythology, it was the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue4, “the one who wears a skirt of jade” according to the literal translation, who was the personification of all terrestrial waters, namely the water that irrigates and fertilises the Earth but, at the same time, can cause great floods such as the one that, according to the myth, struck the Earth at the end of the fourth sun5 and caused humans to turn into fish.

A common trait in cultures throughout the ages: from the biblical tale of Noah’s ark to the Hindu Puranic story of Manu, via the Utnapishtim in the Gilgameš epic of Babylonian mythology, the flood that submerges everything regenerates as it purifies the human being or nature but in doing so sometimes destroys, becoming a subject that reacts and acts, not only as a chemical element, but also as an element of our imagination and social practices.

The link between spirituality and sustainability

«There are deep interconnections between human needs, economic well-being, spirituality and the vitality of freshwater ecosystems that must be considered by everyone»: in 2017, the United Nations High Level Panel on Water6 recognised in its Bellagio Principles on Valuing Water7 the importance of not neglecting cultural variables for sustainable water management.

Among the Wayuu, an indigenous people living in Colombia and Venezuela, for example, water is a living being at the centre of traditional rituals and ceremonies such as the one celebrated at the arrival of rain8. In the Australian Aboriginal culture of the Ngarrindjeri, the Murray River is «an immense artery of a living body of lakes and forest above the southern plains and rolling plains» 9.

Hindus consider the Ganges River, which flows for over 2,500 km through northern India, as embodied by the goddess Ganga, mother of all human beings, and is considered the holiest of rivers, where one can immerse oneself for self-purification and removal of sins. Several Hindu rituals are also celebrated in the Yamuna, a tributary of the Ganges, and this happens even when its waters are covered in foam or contaminated by other chemicals, the result of industrial waste. Then there are the Shinto shrines, in Japan, where one can find a temizuya, a basin of water where visitors clean their hands and mouths before entering, symbolising the purification of body and mind, just as many Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca stop at the Zam Zam Well, a sacred spring where they can purify themselves before reaching the Holy City. From pre-Columbian civilisations, nowadays, we still have the aqueducts of Nazca in Peru10, installations created precisely to conserve and manage water for ceremonial, economic and social purposes.

The failure to include spiritual and cultural values in water management, denounced by the High Level Panel on Water, has over time resulted in inequalities in access to water resources and in their unsustainable use that violates fundamental human rights11.

Water management requires a more dynamic and fluid understanding because water is also a social practice and a common imagery that each culture expresses, then, in its own way and that the humanities, together with art, can contribute to recover and reframe in order to respond to the challenges that threaten our future.

The hidden sounds of Northern waters

From the water imagery we have in common it is «impossible to take distance», as the anthropologist Maneglier states in his history of water12. And the Sound’s Hidden Journey Under Nordic Waters13 installation created by Between Music aims to prove this. 

Laila Skovmand, Jens L. Thomsen e Petri Kuljuntausta

Laila Skovmand is a Danish art director, composer and performer. Her artistic process derives from an intuitive method, combined with craft skills and an almost scientific search for new sound and expressive possibilities. Jens L. Thomsen is an artist and musician from the Faroe Islands. He holds a BA in Music Technology from the University of West London and an MA in Acoustics from London South Bank University. His work often explores the relationship between art and technology. Petri Kuljuntausta, Finnish composer, sound artist, musician and author. He has given underwater concerts, played with different kinds of birds and created works about the sounds of the aurora borealis and space.

Discover more

The sound installation and collective composition realised by Laila Skovmand, the artistic director of  Between Music, Jens Thomsen and Petri Kuljuntausta, together with sound engineer Roma Komar, by recording the aquatic landscapes of Finnish Lapland, Greenland and Denmark, recreates a state of disorientation in which to metaphorically immerse oneself, to question the spiritual value of water, our relationship with it and what it is that brings us together through the water. It took about three years to collect the sound recordings via hydrophones, create the echoes, and clean up the sounds: a first installation of the project was shown in April 2024 at the Nordic Culture Point in Finland.

Jens Thomsen recorded underwater sounds through hydrophones in the Faroe Islands:  «The installation replicates a boundless sound, which is itself a boundless state of mind», he says. A state that can be achieved in the water, because if in the air the source of the sound is easily distinguishable, under the water surface «the sound travels fout times faster and we don’t know where it comes from» explains Thomsen. «And it is precisely in this way that, somehow, we become one with the environment». When we dive, «the only layer that divides the water inside us from the water outside us is the skin», he emphasises. Through its environmental music, Sound’s Hidden Journey Under Water listens to the water, without imposing itself in order to receive and welcome it. «Listening to water is learning another way to connect to it», says Laila Skovmand, who instead recorded sounds from the aquatic depths of Sweden, Faeroe islands, Finland and Greenland. Laila Skovmand herself said:

Water connects all living things on earth in a continuous life current: sitting in a small boat while listening to the enormous amount of water that covers our land makes you very humble and respectful.

As for Petri Kuljuntausta, he listened to the sounds of Lake Saanajärvi, next to Saanatunturi Mountain in Finnish Lapland in an area «that has the cleanest air in the world» and is considered sacred. «By the lake», he says, «there are Seyda stones, stone formations that people should not move. Along the slopes of the mountain, several streams flow that end up in the Saanajärvi lake, as if the mountain were crying: the mountain itself is considered a living being».

The installation Sound’s Hidden Journey Under Nordic Waters at the Nordic Culture Point in Suomenlina. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author.

For the project, Kuljuntausta played the electric guitar on a boat, dialoguing with the lake itself, whose response was “heard” by an underwater hydrophone below the surface. «It was an amazing experience. I felt like I was playing the lake» as well as its history, its inhabitants, its legends. «All water inhabitants produce sounds and the soundscape of the underwater is constantly evolving», Kuljuntausta explains. «The soundscape is influenced, for example, by the movement and currents of the water, the temperature and purity of the water, the presence of biological organisms or pollutants. And based on the underwater recordings, I can say that Saanajärvi (5 km from the center of Kilpisjärvi village) might be one of the quietest lakes in the world» By plunging into the water, we can thus recover its rhythm, which differs according to where we are, but is similar because of the common imagination of water that permeates the various cultures. And it is, after all, no coincidence that in the art installation, three different places in Northern Europe tell the same story. «Just being in the water induces relaxation», Kuljuntausta concludes, «it reduces stress. Water is vital for us and the rhythm of water is something quite primary. Being close to it and listening to its rhythm allows you to reach a state of built-in balance. I cannot explain it, but its effect is significant».

Sound’s Hidden Journey Under Nordic Waters thus prompts a new appreciation of our relationship with water, because through something as uncommon as listening to its underwater sounds, rhythms and echoes, it immerses us in our common water-related imagery. In a place where, as Jens Thomsen says, «we are all united because we are water and we are in water». 

 

  1. For a closer look at the Babylonian creation poem Enuma Elish see Bianchi E. (2007). Adamo dove sei?, Qiqajon, Maiano. See also Bibbia (La) di Gerusalemme (1974), EDB, Bologna, p. 32. ↩︎
  2. On the Nun and further insights into Egyptian culture see Tosi M. (2004). Dizionario enciclopedico delle divinità dell’antico Egitto, Ananke, Torino, 1. ↩︎
  3. For a more in-depth look at the Upanishads and the Atman see Geoffrey P. (1964). Le Upanishad, la Gita e la Bibbia: Studio comparato delle scritture hindu e cristiane, Ubaldini Editore, Roma. ↩︎
  4. On the Aztec goddess Chalchiuhtlicue see Dehouve D. (2020). The rules of construction of an Aztec deity: Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of water, Ancient Mesoamerica, 31(1), 7–28. ↩︎
  5. Mclaren Walsh J. (2002). The Smithsonian Water Goddess: An Aztec Sculpture Rediscovered, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 42, 142–58. DOI:10.1086/RESv42n1ms20167575 ↩︎
  6. The United Nations General Secretary and President of the World Bank Group convened a High Level Panel on Water (HLPW), composed of 11 sitting Heads of State and Government and a Special Adviser, to provide the leadership needed to support a comprehensive, inclusive and collaborative approach to developing and managing water resources and improving water and sanitation services. ↩︎
  7. On the Bellagio principles of valuing water see High Level Panel on Water (2017). Bellagio Principles of Valuing Water, The Valuing Water Initiative. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/15591Bellagio_principles_on_valuing_water_final_version_in_word.pdf ↩︎
  8. For a more in-depth look at the Wayuu’s relationship with water see Daza-Daza A. R., Rodríguez-Valencia N., Carabalí-Angola A. (2018). El recurso agua en las comunidades indígenas Wayuu de la Guajira Colombiana. Parte 1: Una mirada desde los saberes y prácticas ancestrales, Información tecnológica, 29(6), 13-24. https://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0718-07642018000600013 ↩︎
  9. For more on the relationship of the Ngarrindjeri with the Murray River see Birckhead J., Greiner R., Hemming S., Rigney D., Rigney M., Trevorrow G., Trevorrow T. (2011). Economic and cultural values of water to the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower lakes, Coorong and Murray Mouth, River Consulting, Townsville, Australia. ↩︎
  10. On the aqueducts of pre-Columbian civilisations in Peru, see Rovere M. B., Iza A. (2007). Prácticas ancestrales y derecho de aguas: de la tensión a la coexistencia, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. ↩︎
  11. For more on the importance of the cultural and spiritual aspect of water see Khayat L., Jara D. (2021). An insight into the cultural and spiritual value of water, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.iucn.org/news/environmental-law/202104/insight-cultural-and-spiritual-value-water#_ftn3 ↩︎
  12. On the relationship between the human being and the imagery of water see Maneglier H. (1994). Storia dell’acqua, SugarCo, Carnago. ↩︎
  13. Sound’s Hidden Journey Under Nordic Waters sound installation is a part of the whole project that has the same name, created by Between Music. Underwater soundscapes are an underdeveloped area. Teledyne Reson supported the project with its state-of-the-art hydrophones and invaluable knowledge of underwater acoustic technology. Aarhus University and the University of Southern Denmark ensured the quality of the sound recordings. The official website: https://www.betweenmusic.dk/sounds-hidden-journey ↩︎

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