Liquid Borders

HolyWater5 HolyWater3 HolyWater1

Liquid borders, 2014

Essay and installation in collaboration with Anastasija Pandilovska (GRAC), Deborah Schrijvers (UvA) and Giulia Crispiani (GRAC) made during Art&Research honours program 2014

Standing on a long and narrow white table, eleven bottles are filled with water. Mindmaps are drawned on their glass. Upside them a speaker diffuses different religious prayers to make the water holy. On a small table next to it a publication displays interviews of different scientific and religious experts in a set of questions about holy water.

Work shown in the exhibition About it at SMBA (Stedelijk Bureau Amsterdam) Amsterdam (NL) in November 2014

Water as the Bridge – Anastasija Pandilovska, Deborah Schrijvers, Giulia Crispiani, Maïa Wolf
Water is one of the most basic physical substances on earth and at the same time one of the most symbolically charged by mankind: the proliferation of images and myths related to water has become an endless source of inspiration for philosophy, science, religion and art in different cultures. Departing from water itself, and subsequently its physical properties, this essay focuses on what happens when a mystical load is bestowed upon its substance. Specifically, Holy Water represents a valid example of what is perceived as a zone between matter and meaning: a space which appears to be intangible and unexplored, but allows imagination to enter, enabling matter and meaning to meet and mutually influence one another.
In his essay Water and Dreams, philosopher Gaston Bachelard calls the four fundamental elements – earth, fire, air, and water – the ‘hormones of the imagination’, defining imagination as the ‘faculty of forming images that go beyond reality’.1 He argues that the imagining powers of our mind develop around two axes: the dynamics of novelty (newfangledness, which is momentous) and the depths of being (history, which is eternal). Departing from these two axes, Bachelard formulates a duality: the formal imagination, which functions through the application of external ideas on matter, and the material imagination, which, as an imaginative source, transfers the matter’s substance to reveries. This act of addressing and interpreting nature seems to correspond to philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notion of Dasein, as formulated in his Being and Time.2 Ontologically, Dasein is fundamentally different from other entities, as it interprets its own essence. However, Dasein’s essence cannot be found in a static property. Instead, the essence of Dasein lies in its existence and is therefore in an essential relationship with the world: as Being-in-the-World, Dasein and the world are an embodied state. Being thrown in the world, Dasein immediately gets confronted with nature, as being there. By interpreting nature, Dasein takes care of its being and its existence. Dasein also means being-there-with-others, and as it perceives nature and the potentiality of its being, it needs to address and discuss it. By doing so, Dasein defines it and makes it present, making it objective/universal. As this interpretation of the world becomes an objective expression, it can thus be maintained and preserved. This arguably allows for the creation of a world. The ‘world’ consisting of a formal, thus human, aspect, is grounded in the material realm, what Heidegger calls the ‘earth’: the world grounds itself in the earth, while the earth exists through the world. This necessary interacting duality of the ‘earth’ and a ‘world’ allows for the recurrent formation of meaning, within the horizon of the subjective and collective historical consciousness. For Bachelard, duality must exist in the imagination for the material element to consume the entire soul, interact and support it, making imagination an open space, where anything can happen: where a ‘world’ can be created. Bachelard argues that water is not a ‘group of images’ but a ‘mainstay for images’. As the founding contributor of images, water becomes the element that materialises imagination by allowing time to be(come) a productive constitutor of new meanings. In this sense, temporality enables ontological interpretation and understanding.
Considering its constant response to the environment and the possibility to explore its depth, water invites an intimate interaction with its reflective and transitory qualities. Due to the liquid quality of its element, a parallel could be established between the flowing water and the flow of language or human speech. Bachelard claims that water is the matter of the ‘liquid language’: which is perceived through active hearing; an action that transcends the matter itself, revealing images to us. In Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Sufism, it is believed that if one allows and trusts it to happen, water can have a healing quality through words cast over it. Water becomes the voice that projects visions: as matter, nature resounds in water. As language, water becomes an image, a metaphysical appliance able to quench our thirst for meaning.

To grasp the specificity of the matter and its physical properties, I met and interviewed two chemists, respectively from Macedonia and the Netherlands, who define water as an important chemical solvent. According to them, water dissolves a wide variety of chemicals: the covalent O-H bond inside its molecule, coupled with hydrogen bonds between different water molecules, makes it the most common solvent in nature and a precursor in chemistry. As polar solvent it can dissolve all kinds of polar molecules in which a separation of electrical charge within the molecule itself takes place. Both chemists cut short on the possible sacred side of the matter: they do not think it has any relevance in this sort of discourse.
Then I met a socio-ethnologist from the mountains of Valais in Switzerland, who distinguishes two kinds of water: the wild waters of the glaciers and rivers – strong and dangerous – and the civilised waters, such as village fountains and man-made canals.
Later on, I spoke to a Swiss hydro geologist, who underlines the fact that water is the only element that can be found at ambient temperatures in nature in three different states: solid, liquid, and gaseous. According to him, water has an incredible physical power that is able to erode mountains and destroy villages, but simultaneously gives life to plants and animals.
A biologist from Pakistan I interviewed at a later stage argues that water is crucial and versatile. She starts by describing Milli-Q water, which has subtracted bacteria and most minerals and is adjusted to pH neutral, to enable any experiment to be conducted. According to her, water is one of the fastest energy conductors and is also used in science for measuring scale. In addition, it can also absorb matter and is doted with a cleansing property. Finally, she pointed out that, due to water’s transparency, one can observe whether it is clean or not.
Bachelard argues that the material imagination influenced by the substance precedes the formal imagination. He states that reveries, even more than clear ideas and conscious images, are dependent on the four elements, as reveries precede contemplation: “Before becoming a conscious sight, every landscape is an oneiric experience”.3 Material fuels dreams: through experience, we appropriate the physical properties of a matter with our bodies, allowing them to be stored. Any (wo)man without guide or free from social conventions may be able to capture the natural image of purity existent in water: the quality of the substance is dreamed as a substantial becoming, desired in the substance’s intimacy. The substantial action comes from a central point, a condensed will. This entails the transformation of the material imagination into dynamic imagination. The pure water is no longer considered as a substance but as a force. Pure matter radiates purity in the physical sense of the term. Inversely, it can absorb it, so as to be used to conglomerate purity. The ideal of purity cannot be inserted in just any matter, regardless of the power of the purification rituals – these have to address a matter or substance that can sustain them as symbols, such as the four elements.4

At a later stage, I met an artist from China who practises Zen-Buddhism. She states that in Taoism and Buddhism, water is considered as the highest form of kindness, the embodiment of empathy in nature. It always gives, responds, but never takes: teaching us to always think of others and forget about our ego so as to see our inner self. Since water has no actual identity, its properties depend on the circumstances – on what it becomes (the form, shape or amount) and what it can give. Reflection, to this artist, is probably the finest aspect of water. As she says, water itself cannot reflect but instead allows light to be reflected on its surface. This offers a parallel to the practice of self-reflection: in order to create self-awareness and get to a state of ‘not-thinking’, the first step is to see who you really are. Even though water is emotionless, it can teach us humans how to deal with our emotions.
Water is an important symbol and metaphor in Buddhism, because of its manifestation as substance in the material reality. Buddhism, as well as quantum physics, holds that everything is made up of exchanging energies and matter. Although in Buddhism holy water does not exist, she believes it can function as a reminder of a pure heart and mind. She also states that, if you truly believe in something, its energy gets stronger, and it will possibly impact not only mentally but also physically.

According to the previously-mentioned Pakistani biologist, who is also a practicing Muslim, there is a bridge between water in the profane and the sacred world. As water’s atoms and molecules are considered to resonate, effecting its crystals and making it possible for the water to alter its frequency: spoken words – thus the voice – literally impact water.
In Islam, the main quality of water is its cleaning/cleansing property, for personal hygiene (an important religious and cultural value) and ablution (wudu), to offer prayers.5 Holy water does not exist in Islam,6 however, there is a healing practice called roqyah which consists of reciting specific sura’s from the Qur’an over water, after which you blow over it – blowing the breath that carries Allah’s blessing. This is believed to carry both physical and mental healing, and should be drunk or used for ablution. Even though the water itself is not thought to have a healing power, it is believed to give faith in the power of Allah: that He can invest mere matter with healing power.
This practice bears similarities with what an Islamic Sufi and dervish told me in Istanbul about the rituals occasionally practiced to give water a healing quality, or to spread general blessings. He states that the Sufi pray over water, making invocations, reciting words in Arabic, and chanting divine names and verses from the Qur’an. It is a Sufi belief that the voice carries a healing element, as it derives from and is able to reach different depths of the body depending on the sounds it contains. This practice is called baraka in Arabic and bereket in Turkish. Baraka is cosmic energy and love, a touch of the divine, as Allah’s spiritual presence flows directly from Him into that which He considers worthy. In Turkey, it is popular to also pour the water into a ‘Shifa bowl’ that has the names for Allah written or carved into its metal as an extra affirmation of the blessing. These carvings consist of language over matter over language: the image of blessed water is not only shaped by the sound of words, but also literally shaped into the physical form of the materialised language in the carved vessel.
In his book The Sacred and the Profane, the historian of religion Mircea Eliade argues that symbols allow the religious (wo)man to live the universal, by awakening individual experience and transmuting it into a spiritual act. As it becomes a symbol, the word of Allah cast upon water and metal embodies images that are common properties of mankind, constituting valuable landmarks for believers.

The Dutch Catholic priest I also spoke to explained that in Catholicism, holy water consists of water that has been sanctified by an ecclesiast.7 A few drops are used in baptism, for cleansing and protection against evil. After their confession of guilt Catholics cleanse themselves and use holy water as an affirmation of this purification: water here functions as a symbol of forgiveness. Holy water gives a sense of strength to the sick, transcending its materiality and entering the sphere of the intangible.
According to the Macedonian Orthodox priest I interviewed, holy water is used for blessing and as an allegory for purification in Orthodox Christianity.8 Instigated by its natural qualities, water becomes the vehicle for the meaning it gets within the context in which it is used, impacting both the physical and the spiritual reality. This is an act of transubstantiation: the substance experiences a transition to a new dimension of reality, meaning that when one allows it, the strength of God will impact it. The content of the blessing is first said in words, but has to be well interpreted – as only then the image starts to speak – otherwise it is considered witchcraft. The image emerging from the matter assumes a specific structural representation and expression: as such it can be maintained and preserved.9
In the isolated Swiss Valais region, whose inhabitants face the strength of the elements, I witnessed that people have developed their own Catholic practices permeated by paganism.10 Both God and the Devil are worshipped and magical healing and witchcraft are still being practised in secret. The function of holy water here is to bless, protect and absolve from sins and it is considered to have a strong anti-demonic power.11 The socio-ethnologist states that the significance of a sacred object lies in the narratives around it: in the words, the stories, and the language that embedded them. It is not something people invent in the moment but something already present, carried by the objects, just as meaning is materialised in holy water. This indicates two distinct levels of understanding: the popular real-life experience of believers, and the more rational scholarly culture – the religious and scientific academies. Eliade argues that mythologies are structured symbolic languages that give meaning to the world, organising it into an ordered cosmos, which manifests itself physically.12 So, the objects that are included in mythical rituals take their meaning, and their power from words and narratives that constitute the core of mythology itself. Thus, holy water finds its place in the linguistic structure of Christianity. As merely matter, water is part of the indistinguishable chaos of a profane world. When dressed by words through contextual narratives, it gains access to the Christian Weltanschauung13 or cosmos, and becomes meaningful, entering the sacred world.
Finally, I asked my grandmother to tell me about her three small bottles of holy water, respectively from Gallinaro (IT), Lourdes (FR) and Medjugorje (BA). My grandparents are devoted Catholics, born and raised in the rural reality of Italy, who claim to have witnessed a miracle: when my great-grandmother was terminally ill, she witnessed a Maria apparition, after which she recovered and survived. For my grandmother, water becomes holy through the blessing of the priest. She does not seem to know exactly what kind of benefits it brings, but “if God says so, there must be something”. She believes holy water can be better than real medicine and before she dies, the priest will sprinkle holy water on her, as a final blessing and purification ritual. Once she visited Lourdes, and saw holy water coming out of taps behind the church where everyone could take as much as they wished for. As a place of revelation, Lourdes consists of a hierophany – a ‘manifestation of the sacred’ as Eliade calls it: an eruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and transforming it.14 As a fixed point, for many believers it represents an effective break in the plane of open communication between the cosmic planes (earth and heaven), which makes an ontological passage possible from one mode to the other.15 It is a centre that attracts, thus provides orientation to many believers. For fervent catholics, like my grandparents, the words correspond to reality,16 nevertheless, the results seem to take place in a realm beyond reality. Bachelard claims that, whenever he relies on mythology, it is because he recognises some permanence in its collective unconscious effect on people today, specifically in the case of the oneiric power that is transported from substance to imagination.17 In fact, even the psychology of purification is dependent on material imagination and not on an external experience:18 it is a matter of projections.

Dealing with the world is the priority of every individual. However, the perceived world is essentially a meaningful structure and thus only exists for entities capable of grasping meanings – as Beings-in-the-World by way of understanding it, knowing their way about it. The world we are in is not an extended physical universe, but a unified totality of entities, bound as a complex structure of symbolic relations.
The meaningful power assigned to (holy) water first arises through a direct real-life experience, a material reverie, only then does it become formal imagination, doted with an already organised structure of metaphors, symbols and narratives that complete the perception of the ‘religious (wo)man’ on holy water.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters. God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. (Genesis 1, 1-3)
Before light, there was water and creation itself happened through a spoken act: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Water and language were both present ab origine, when our ‘world’ commenced. They were there before images, and together shape the image of cosmogony. However, water, as we analyse it, is nothing but a symbol, a man-made image, like language itself. Both water and language are possible articulations of nature, chronologically following the processes of perception and interpretation. By recognising the image of purification in the water substance, the symbol takes over the matter, making it universal. In Eliade’s terms, when the meaning is absorbed by the matter, the substance remains the same, yet becomes something else as it enters the sacred cosmos. The blessing process itself is what makes holy water become what it is: through addressing and discussing water, one makes it present. Making present is by definition creation. This corresponds to Bachelard’s claim that “by imitating we invent, we think we conform to reality and, instead we translate it into human terms.”19 Heidegger calls this inclination ‘interpretation’, Eliade calls it ‘ontological nostalgia’. In fact, it could be considered as an act of appropriation, with the intention of belonging to the world, and to be included in the essence of its significance – Dasein. Man-made artefacts – images and symbols – are a result of the perceptive observation, hence interpretation. They allow the individual to access the collective – the universal.
In this sense Man is God, his Word, his images and vice versa.

1. Bachelard, 1983, 16.
2. Heidegger, 1996, 13.
3. Bachelard, 1983, 4.
4. Bachelard, 1983, 134.
5. Some Islamic people in Turkey establish small water fountains with spare money, believing that when people drink from them, the patron will receive rewards (from Allah). At the mosque, the water source has a central place in its architectural design, also functioning as a social space before and after ablution and prayer.
6. However, there is the water of Abe Zam Zam, which has some priority over water from elsewhere in Islam. Abe Zam Zam is a spring, located in Mecca, near the Ka’aba. It has a religious origin, as it came into form when Hagar and Ismael were sent into the desert by Abraham, granting Allah’s wish. Drinking water from Abe Zam Zam does not bless you; instead, its importance lies in the healthy qualities of the water and the religious context which is re-enacted and honoured.
7. When the Catholic priest consecrates water, he does so with a prayer, asking Good God, you have created the elements, the heaven and the earth, will you retract this water from its earthly meaning and drench it with the dew from your mercy, drench it with your love.
8. The Orthodox priest recites Christ (Lord), You, who with rain filled the spring of cure, healer of our souls and bodies, today in this holy place with your blessings heal and dispel (haunt) the illness of the one who needs it. There are no differences between the different Orthodox churches in how they execute the rituals of the mysteries (baptism, water blessing) or what has been said during the liturgies. The language differs but the meaning of the words is the same, and the same Bible passages are read.
9. Heidegger, 1996, 58.
10. As Eliade says in The Sacred and the Profane, rural European populations have been Christianised for a thousand years, however they integrated a big part of their pre-Christian heritage in their form and practice of Christianity, as they kept the cosmic religion they had since the prehistory. They practice a primordial, unhistorical Christianity, very different from the ‘historic’ Christianity practiced in the cities.
11. Holy water is taken very seriously in the Valais: it is used in every ceremony, and sprinkled on people in order to bless them. The soul of an unbaptized child is considered to belong to the Devil, marked by original sin. Through baptism, it is saved from evil. A similar thought structure is applied to the handling of the dead: some people are afraid to let their relatives die at the hospital, because they need to sprinkle holy water over the body at the exact moment of death, otherwise the Devil will take their soul.
12. The sacred, both spatially and temporally, creates an order out of chaos: a cosmos, which is a creation of god(s). Eliade argues that the myth of creation, or cosmogony, is an eruption of the sacred into the world.
13. In New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933), Sigmund Freud discusses the concept of Weltanschauung (literally ‘vision on/of the world’). He uses it to describe the way people perceive the world as a whole, as an organised concept. The religious Weltansschauung, proposes a complete and finite system, while the postmodern Weltansschauung, that relies on science, is incomplete and fragmentary. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade re-uses this term.
14. Eliade, 1957, 26.
15. Eliade, 1957, 63.
16. Eliade, 1957, 189-211.
17. Bachelard, 1983, 17.
18. Bachelard, 1983, 141.
19. Bachelard, 1983, 193.

Bachelard, Gaston. Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter; transl. from the French by Edith R. Farrell. Dallas: The Pegasus Foundation, 1983 [1942].
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion; transl. from the French by Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1957.
Freud, Sigmund. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. New York: Norton, 1933.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time; transl. from the German by Joan Stambaugh. New York: State University of New York Press. 1996 [1926].

Orthodox priest Atanasija, August 27 – 28, 2014. Saint Demetrius Church-Markov Monastery, Skopje, Macedonia.
Chemist Dejan Cibrev, August 24, 2014. Interview conducted via e-mail from Skopje, Macedonia – Alicante, Spain. PhD researcher in chemistry at Universidad de Alicante.
Socio-ethnologist Dr. Bernard Crettaz, July 10, 2014. Zinal, Switzerland.
Hydro geologist Nathaniel Coupy, July 20, 2014. Geneva, Switzerland.
Catholic priest Jules P. Dresmé, September 14, 2014. Parish H. Vitus and H. Willibrord, Hilversum, the Netherlands.
Biologist Fatima Farzana, September 15, 2014. Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. PhD researcher in biology at Vrije Universiteit.
Grandparents Marisa Giovanni e Lombardi, August 25, 2014. Agugliano (AN), Italy.
Artist/Buddhist Li Ma, September 18, 2014. KABK, The Hague, the Netherlands.
Sufi/dervish Dr. Logan Sparks, September 21, 2014. Netherlands Institute Turkey, Istanbul, Turkey.
Chemist Lukas Wolzak, September 8, 2014. Amsterdam, the Netherlands.