No Ground Under My Feet– Tavoletto 2013
No Ground Under My Feet, was an exhibition in the 15th century Tavoletto Chapel, in the hills of Piedmont in Northern Italy. The exhibition followed a residency at the chapel in the autumn of 2012.
In the South Indian state of Kerala, a series of rituals have been preserved and practiced for somewhere around 5 or 6 thousand years. Lasting several days, it is thought that these rituals may be the oldest surviving rites of mankind.
There are chanted mantras, blood sacrifices and milk offerings and a sacred drink called Suma is consumed, which is prepared from the pressed leaves of a mountain plant. These Hindu, Brahminical rituals have been zealously guarded and until recently, never shared with the outside world; this is especially true of the mantras. These magical formulas can take days to recite and they have been passed down from father to son, with complete accuracy, over millennia.
Mantras are part of the archaic, unwritten and often forgotten history of mankind. They work on the emotions, the physiology and the nervous system and are a way of reaching heightened mental and physical states. When outsiders were first able to get close to these practices and record them, they were perplexed. Analysis revealed no communication through ordinary language. The sound patterns, which took years to learn, clearly followed elaborate rules, but had no meaning, even the Brahmins could shed no light, saying simply, ‘it was what was passed on.’ The doing was all. Yet how had they developed? When the patterns were analysed, they had no comparable analogue in human culture. Although the mantras have refrains, cycles and triplets, even a comparison with music was not helpful for an understanding. In the end, it was the development of computer technology, which helped. A twelve-day cycle of mantras was analysed and the results showed that the nearest analogue to these sound sequences was birdsong.
It has been in relatively recent human history, that humans have tried to give a rational explanation, to create a system of understanding, for their most archaic practices. The mantras in these Indian rituals clearly sound ‘musical’ to us. Yet music is a way of organising sound into an experience, it has no ‘meaning’ of its own. Likewise, ritual need have no meaning. Hence, it is possible that ‘meaning’ may not have been important in the early roots of religion.
A short film about preparing the exhibition at Tavoletto.
© 2014 Jonathan McCree