30 Apr 2013

Sao Macário Mountain Dreaming

                                                                                                                                                           an intimate space for water and women, in Sul
Sacred Waters - territories of timeless whispers and serenity

"But I know of places where there are stones
That speak to me" 
A. M. Pires Cabral, December, from Arado (2009), Portugal.

I recently completed a short rural artist residency in the remote mountains of northern Portugal, supported by the unique and inspiring Binaural organisation, and commissioned by the Tramontana Festival. Whilst situated within the realm of sound-art/intermedia, the exploration was, for me, primarily landscape-based; fossicking, turning over stones in search of some enduring essences, and intimate relationships between people and place. The Tramontana theme for 2013 revolved around 'divine/religious/sacred' connections. Responding to this, the quest was to uncover, and respond to, people's sensuous and deeply-felt connections to this land, especially those relating to pathways, pilgrimage, journeys and water. 

Conjectures on the interplay of nature and culture: The culture of this rural part of Portugal encourages an interweaving of ancient and contemporary resonances and rituals. There are invisible, intangible patterns here. The local sacred mountain of Sao Marcário harbours a multitude of jostling functions and relationships - an annual pilgrimage; a site for telecommunication towers; enormous dominating wind turbines; and a scattering of sacred/revered springs which have curative associations as well as providing necessary refreshment for thirsty pilgrims. The mountain also provides stone for building, crystals for grottos, grazing for goats, herbs for both health and talismanic protection from evil influences. Chestnut trees exist here as ancient, pre-historic groves, and they too have a special liminal quality - protected and treasured for something more than their ability to provide food. They have presence (and enchantment?) in abundance and an essence that ties them to the nearby ancient weathered and fallen dolmens. There is an ever-changing, but enduring, weaving between worlds - between the sacred and the mundane...and the profane. Carvings and conversations point to the enduring vitality of a ‘trickster' mentality, or even lusty Pan, god of flocks and herds, half-goat, half-man. There is co-existence with the veiled worlds of the spirits, ghosts and supernatural ancient ones (In Portugal often called enchanted mouras). And water - always water - holy water (and local fire-water...); water for irrigation, drinking, blessing, baptism, disputing, sharing. 

The concluding installation - a work-in-progress presented as part of the Tramontana 2013 festival - was an 'occupation' of the local communal clothes-washing house, a place infused with water and communitas. It presented an intuitive and imaginative journey, inspired by ancient echoes. At the core of the work - titled Sacred Ways:territories of timeless whispers and serenity - was a floating assemblage, or bricolage, of materials rich in symbolism, cultural association and folklore. All these materials originated from the local landscape. The combination was a form of tangible symbolic communication, with ever-present submerged watery undercurrents. Water formed this mountain landscape, emerging from the sunless deepness within it, and now gently whispers its secrets. The installation space was chosen to echo this watery quality, as well as for its potential to express the interplay between sacredness, symbolism, intimacy, community and delight. It is also very much a social space, and the art installation possibly a form of social sculpture. Sound and film components completed the scenographic intermedia creation, forming a rich and sensuous amalgam of the tangible and intangible. The project will now have a life outside of the installation space; some of the slowly evolving work-in-progress can be seen here.

The essence of this project has been about journeys, a quest for deep connections to the landscape, a sense of deep-time and enchantment - on the road to nowhere and everywhere. Perhaps those who have gone before had a deeper, more elemental (and ritual, alchemical?) sense of the sacred - residing in a complex interconnectedness of plants, trees, animals, rocks, springs, rivers? Enduring, vital relationships to place are a mesh of the intimate, the emotional, the imagination and the rational. Coming from Ireland, a land where water has long been venerated (at holy wells, springs, lakes, rivers), I feel ever drawn to re-connect to these timeless facets of existence. The ancient Irish incantation, 'The Song of Amairgen' (below) formed part of my presentation in this performative and scenographic immersive installation space, which co-hosted a connected 'Sacred Ways' sound/video work by lecturer/photographer Dr. Anne BurkeThe multifarious links between northern Portugal and Ireland were always close to the surface, for both of us, during our residencies. The geographical and cultural similarities extend even into the current entanglements with  'The Troika' - the all-powerful EU banking ensemble; the new governors of both Ireland and Portugal; ever present on TV screens here during this time (see also here and here). Unavoidably, the process involved an overlaying of my personal cultural background on the contexts I encountered in Portugal. The interweaving however was an intricate mixing; a kind of accidental - or experimental - superimposition; an embracing of connections, entanglements and playful imaginative leaps.

The Song of Amairgen (truncated version)
I am the wind that blows across the sea
I am the ocean waves 
I am the roar of the sea
I am the stag of the seven combats 
I am the eagle on the cliff 
I am a ray of the sun 
I am the fairest of flowers 
I am the wild boar in valor 
I am the salmon in the pool 
I am the lake on the plain 
I am the skill of the craftsman 
I am the mountain in a man
I am the God who creates in the head of man the fire of thought. 
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I? 
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?

Under the Sacred Mountain - charged and charmed metaphors
In this installation , each material was symbolic of something more than itself - derived from the mountain zone, and relating to pilgrimage or 'superstition'. Each material involved a personal pilgrimage journey of sorts - interior as well as exterior - offering a window into some of the more veiled aspects of the human condition:
  1. Quartz crystals from a special location on Sao Macário Mountain.
  2. Waters from the 'holy' fonts on Sao Marcário Mountain.
  3. Erva das Sete Sangrias / Sargacinha (a local plant with medicinal properties, including that of inducing abortions; in England known as Creeping Gromwell. The Portuguese name translates as 'herb of the seven bloods').
  4. Rue/Arruda: Locally cultivated and much discussed. Protector of people and houses from the evil eye; also thought to bestow second sight/ sixth sense. Formerly used by priests to sprinkle holy water, rue is also strongly associated with witchcraft and alchemy, and gives its name to a talisman/'witch' charm named cimaruta from 'cima di ruta', Italian for 'sprig of rue'.
  5. Sweet Chestnut shells from the ancient and revered groves on Sao Marcario Mountain. "O Castanheiro é a alma da nossa gente" ("The Chestnut is the soul of our people")
  6. Maize cobs: locally a vital foodstuff; sacred and worshipped in many lands. Vibrant and charged in a special way.
  7. Carnation flowers: presented as offerings to Sao Marcário for healing, especuially at the summit chapel. Roses were also mentioned in connection with this activity. With beautiful synchronicity, the anniversary of Portugal's 1974 bloodless 'Carnation Revolution' occurred just a couple of days before the Tramontana festival. This year, the celebration day became an occasion for mass protests, in the shadow of 'The Troika'.
  8. Duckweed brought from the location of a mountain font/spring dedicated to Sao Marcário. (Duckweed can be used to remove pollution from water - something very much part of my own past researches in ecological design).
Somewhere between pilgrimages and situationist journeys?
This feels like a project on the edges, the margin (in portuguese 'orla'); on the cultural edges, and on the edges of belief systems - but no less fertile for this. Whilst hopefully avoiding the pitfalls of pseudo-mysticism, I have framed the investigations in terms of 'conversations'  - with the flows of water, ancient chestnut trees, rocks and the many local ‘pilgrim guides’ and tricksters who have generously joined in to illuminate this brief geopoetic adventure, scratching the surface in these wondrous hills. It has been a tale of the unexpected: journeys in search of pre-historic sites; mines, crystals, holy wells, hot springs; the fortuitous encountering of the pilgrim/sacred mountain; the strongly emerging association with the materials of the landscape; and some unexpected serendipitous involvements with my final art installation (e.g. the gathering and long lingering of local townspeople, the dispersal/relocation of the carnation flowers to the nearby chapel and homes; the moving responses to the work etc.)

As for geopoetics. This, for me, is a weaving of the rational with the imagination, the instinctual and the emotional. The term geopoetry was first coined by geologist Harry Hess in 1962 to introduce the novel idea of plate tectonics: 
"He described his speculations as geopoetry in order to induce his readers (mostly other geologists) to suspend their disbelief long enough for his observations about seafloor spreading, driven by magma rising continuously from the mantle, to catch on. He needed his audience, in the absence of much hard data, to speculate imaginatively, as if reading poetry...think Harry Hess, like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, or any other creative scientist, enters mental space where conjecture and imaginative play are needful and legitimate, and that this is mental space shared with poets..Geopoetry, am tempted to say, is the place where materialism and mysticism, those ancient enemies, finally come together, have conversation in which each hearkens to the other, then go out for drink. This may not lead to marriage or even cohabitation, but I’m guessing it does lead to series of dates, trysts, rendezvous, and other encounters whose mood is erotic rather than simply disputatious.Don McKay, The Shell of the Tortoise, 2013

To add to this, here also is a recent quote via the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics:

"What do we mean by Geo-poetics?  Kenneth White, paraphrase 1.
Just as each human culture has had a principal motif and a poetics at its centre – be it myth, religion, metaphysics or history - the context today calls for a central motif and a new poetics for a new world-culture, a deep-going, out-looking movement leading to an open and freely evolving world...Poetics – the nous poetikos - applies not only to poetry as a literary form, but also to art and music, and can be extended into science and social practice.  Art needs that poetic intelligence, that active intellect, to form a new discourse, a logos, behind art.
Geopoetics is the means to break into a larger space, and to illuminate that penetration.  This, for me, is the telling phrase."


"Kenneth White: Paraphrase 2.
A local context, for example a country like Scotland, is a microcosm, or a bio-region, which begins with a ground, a geology - the archaic ground.  Contact with and consciousness of that ground – thinking-in-the-territory - is fundamental for a reconstitution of the full mind, for the renewal of culture.
The question of and obsession with local, regional, national identity arises when a field of energy, deriving from contact with a ground, is lost.  There is no point in talking about roots unless you also talk about ground. However, once you have regained a significant centre, you can map out the rest, re-set the co-ordinates after wide-ranging reconnaissance has opened up new perspectives, delineated new space.  By opening out we do not lose roots and identity, but extend and enlarge them, recovering scope and energies.
Geopoetics is out to speak, play, or graph the ground-tone (‘the pure music of the landscape which announces nothing’) which can be heard all over the Earth, to get on to its wavelength.  Geopoetics aims at a new mental geography and a new language of communication."

In Portugal, the geopoetic was encountered through ritual-like journeys, stories, songs and talismanic connections with objects and materials. It is about a place-based search for gnosis (which in Greek philosophy is a term for experiential knowledge in contrast to theoretical knowledge). There is also an aspect of posing questions. For example, in this setting, one of the obvious questions is 'what next?' What next - in the realm of the divine/sacred - for a declining church congregation with loosening institutional bonds? (alongside the clearly declining economic viability of the village and farming communities). What next for this depopulating landscape and the associated entangled mesh of relationships that make up the sense of place, the genius loci, with its contradictions and hidden meanings? What does it mean to call a space/place/route 'sacred'? (outside the realm of organised religion). Who defines the sacredness of spaces? How is the sacred related to the profane?

Holiday romance or long-term relationship? An additional enquiry which became unavoidable during my sojourn was on the nature of 'artist residency'. In the past I have written on my experiences of 'slow residency' and its close links to 'deep mapping' (and also on the topic of 'slowly encountering place'). This was something very different - an intensive, concentrated encounter; three weeks allotted to absorb some essences, to make genuine connections, to weave something meaningful - or to locate some of the dwelling places of meaning. Compared to the slow flux of a longer-term residency, this often felt as if one were scratching the surface (not helped by language barriers). The intense nature of the visit created its own particular frisson, focus and maybe fresh perspectives on local identity. However, an abiding sense is that these two types of residency - 'slow' and 'intensive' - are distinctly different. Intimate involvement with the interdependent ecologies-of-place, getting under the skin (and even co-creation of future visions) are processes that can only emerge and flourish over time.

ADDENDUM: Arriving back in the UK from Portugal, almost immediately I find myself on the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain in Wales. Interested to find yellow roses wedged into the trig marker.  Roses - along with carnations - are traditionally left at the summit of Sao Marcário mountain in Portugal.
Interesting too, to be given - on my arrival home - a copy of 'Soil and Soul' (by Alastair McIntosh, of the Isle of Lewis):

" Cultural healing entails coming alive to community with one another, with the place where we live, and with soul. This interconnection is, at its deepest level, poetic. Such poetics can be deeply political… If we are to restore meaning and heal our broken cultures, if we are to be concerned with the blossoming of human potential then we must learn again to use such techniques that in some cultures would be called 'shamanistic'. " 
Alastair McIntosh. Soil and Soul

ADDENDUM 2: A side-show in Portugal was provided by the impressively long chains of Precessionary Pine Caterpillars - sometimes with hundreds of individuals. I filmed some of this mesmerising activity, and plan to create a short film piece. Now, on my return to England, I read, with surprise, that a relative - the Oak Processionary Caterpillar/moth - has taken root near London, and the big guns are to be deployed against the 'alien' population. Its slow northwards spread seems to be another consequence of climate change.
and this, and the aftermath.

Sacred Ways/Binaural Residency: A huge 'thank you' to all the people encountered around the mountain of Sao Macário, especially to the many who led, fed and inspired us visiting artists. In particular, Senores José Almeida (Pai & Filho), Paulo Jorge, Henrique and many others in Macieira, Sul and Sequeiros; immense thanks also to Luis Costa, Manuela Barile, Nely Ferreira, Daniela Lopes, Rui Costa, Tiago Dias Dos Santos and Maile Colbert. And of course to the other Binaural/Tramontana resident artists.

Tiago's documentary film of 'our' process is here (for a limited time only)