Oda, a sound relic (860 A.D. – 2007)

Soundwalk based on the myth of the Scottish princess Oda, born blind, founder of Sint-Oedenrode. Commissioned by Artfoundation Sint-Oedenrode and SKOR (Foundation Art and Public Space) as part of the project ‘Slotjes van Sint-Oedenrode 7waarvan3’.
Dramaturgy: Robert Steijn

Review in NRC Handelsblad, 12.10.2007
Sound walk with blindfold, in procession for Saint Oda

Blind_geloof___116604aOne needs a good deal of faith to take part in a soundwalk, blindfolded. In the same way that every artwork needs faith, actually. Without faith there is no surrender and nothing happens.

They walk across the graveyard blindfolded, believers and unbelievers alike. They are being guided, they hold on to the elbow of someone who can still see, and disappear behind the beech trees and the monstrous Mount Calvary. As they appear again and shuffle closer, I can see that their faces are shining. Something has happened to them, they’ve reached a higher plane. A little later I’m blindfolded myself, and find myself wondering if I will pull such a devoted face myself, when I’ve always been such a staunch champion of disbelief. Can you become a believer against your will, simply because the circumstances automatically evoke such a quality in you? A believing unbeliever, a convert who doesn’t believe?

The man who will head the procession has long hair, a moustache and a gentle face, and in hushed tones he tells participants what will happen. We are to be fitted with a specially-designed ‘sound-blindfold’ and will be brought closer to Saint Oda during the course of our walk. We will hear her sounds, sounds which made up her world until, miraculously, she could suddenly see and was inundated by visual impressions. These are sounds from the wild, empty Scotland where she grew up. Sound artist Cilia Erens entitled her project in the graveyard of St. Oedenrode ‘Return to Oda, a sound relic (2007-680)’. But one could also experience it as a ‘sound-treasure’. We are submitting ourselves to a ritual on this late-September day, we carry Oda’s sounds with us in the same way that her bones are lugged around in processions.

For the Brabantine village of St. Oedenrode, there is every reason to resurrect her memory. St. Oda gave the village a name and an identity. Oda was bastardised into Oeden, and the village of Rode became St. Oedenrode. She was venerated there for centuries, but this gradually declined and had stopped altogether by the 1920s. And so one can question what exactly St. Oedenrode is without Oda. In the same way that one more frequently questions the individual character of the Netherlands. There is a burning desire to evoke its individuality, to promote it. But that desire only exists because of a perceived lack of identity. The Netherlands has become a relative phenomenon, and that makes people insecure. A village is a heightened manifestation of that relativity, and in that respect St. Oedenrode is no different from any other village. For centuries it has nestled snugly against the River Dommel, but the old landscape has been mutilated by roads and building developments, the A50 grazes its boundaries, and for a long time the inhabitants haven’t all been born there, largely work in Den Bosch and Eindhoven, watch TV along with the inhabitants of St. Michielsgestel, Schijndel and Waspik, surf the web and take their holidays in Thailand or Kenia. What remains then of the individual character of St. Oedenrode? Or can one say that its individuality has gradually turned into a farce, a distorted mask that is only put on when intruders need to be chased away with pitchforks?

St. Oedenrode can only become St. Oedenrode again when it rehabilitates its beloved saint and places her in its midst. Oda’s life story was recorded around 1250 by Canon Godefridus van Rode. Her veneration begun more than a century earlier and had, as with the veneration of most saints, a political charge: the gentry of Rode used her to legitimise their power. According to legend she was born at the end of the 7th century in Scotland, in the same period in which Willibrordus christianised the Netherlands. She was a beautiful princess, but because of her blindness, not deemed a suitable candidate for marriage. And so her father sent her to Luik, where she underwent a miraculous healing at the grave of St. Lambertus. Although healed, she still didn’t want to marry. She fled from her father and finally settled in the hamlet of Rode. There she dedicated her life totally to God. After her death many visited her grave to seek healing, particularly those afflicted with eye conditions. And when her bones were dug up in the 12th century, these were said to give off a sweet, pleasant smell. This was completely accepted, and she was a popular saint, even though she was decanonised in the 1960s by the pope because of to many inconsistencies in her story.

The sounds of St. Oedenrode are hardly audible any more, I can only hear the babbling of a brook. Uncertain and a little fearful, I take my first steps. Will I bump into something? Will I fall down a hole? Is the ground suddenly retreat now that I’m not looking? I grab on to an elbow, Nils’ elbow. Nils works for Stichting Kunst Openbare Ruimte [Art in Public Space Foundation] and seems trustworthy. But whether or not his elbow is, I don’t know. I don’t know his elbow well enough, for all I know, I might have been guided to someone else’s elbow. I just have to believe that I’m not being duped. I have no choice, I either have to surrender or rip off the blindfold. I also have to trust that nothing will happen to me and that this walk has a point, that it matters that I’m walking in this place as opposed to somewhere else.

It’s not exactly belief in God, but one still needs a good deal of faith to take part in the soundwalk. In the same way that every artwork needs faith, actually. Without faith there is no surrender and nothing happens, paintings, sculptures and compositions would remain dead images, dead sounds.

Stories of saints are infectious, even for unbelievers. Saints are perfect. In them, body and soul are no longer separated and life attains peace. They refer to our state before the Fall, before consciousness had saddled us with a harrowing, but evolutionarily extremely productive, awareness of imperfection.
A belief in saints was bestowed along with our consciousness. It is a valve through which to let off steam, a window in the narrow cell of our dialectic thinking. The miracles of the saints are therefore always a reversal of how we usually experience and explain reality. Their dead bodies don’t putrefy but smell of jasmine, they can cure the incurable, they conjure with time and make predictions, they fly – if they have to – round church towers and only really come to life after their death. Inexplicability is conditional; whatever can be explained is part of banal life and loses any religious lustre.

To my knowledge, deaf saints don’t exist; the ears must be wide open to receive the divine word, the whisperings of angels. But Oda was certainly not the only saint to be blind. Even for the old, dying Oedipus, blindness had a spiritual quality; as apotheosis for his tormented life he dissolved in light. And it is said that the Christian saints don’t see with their eyes, but with their heart. Eyes only see the exterior, the heart sees the interior, the soul. For this reason blindness contains within it the ultimate spirituality, and perhaps also the miraculous.

Sound artist Cilia Erens allows me to take part in Oda’s blindness. What is immediately obvious is that blindness makes things vertical. My sense of perception is mainly high and low in my body. My feet feel their way over the ground, the unevenness, the grainy particles and the sticky wet patches. The wind blows through my hair and the sunlight strokes my neck, my forehead, like a warm hand.

Just as pure are the sounds that Erens would have me believe that Oda heard in Scotland. A babbling brook, a spatial bleating of sheep, the barking of a dog, the crackling fire, the wind that moans through the trees, the overpowering breaking of waves and the oystercatchers which fly from one ear to the other, as if you are experiencing the expanse of landscape yourself. You are completely inside it, inside the sounds. There is nothing between you and the sounds, you are the sounds.

And so you understand how eyes distract and activate our consciousness, are responsible for the distance we experience from reality. Our eyes drove us out of paradise; we’d be better off closing them in order to experience something of what it was like to be at one with the world.

Along the way I forget that I’m being guided and am walking in a procession. I have surrendered and imagine myself to be alone and unobserved, outside of any social context whatsoever. I am free of the other, of his gaze, I don’t have to see myself and am by now probably walking around with one of those idiotic grins on my face too. That’s what this blind procession brings about: something elementary and childlike that is freed when our consciousness is less in our way and our social conditioning is suspended. It’s no wonder that a saint is able to manage blindness so well.

Then I am lead to a chair. As I lower myself down carefully, like a very old man, I hear the swelling and dying away of a passing moped engine, a vague hum of conversation in which one voice briefly stands out, a car which drives past, all this suddenly drowned out by the church clock which strikes four. It is the murky sonic soup of modern-day St. Oedenrode, and I’m not totally sure if I’ve been guided to the street or if these sounds are coming to my ears via the sound-blindfold.

The blindfold is removed and I’m sitting opposite the gloomy chapel situated at the top of the small hill where Oda’s cell is supposed to have stood. There are not many sounds to be heard. A bluetit, the rustling of leaves. The silence of tombstones. It is Sunday and the whole village is celebrating its community spirit with a cultural event around the manor house of Henkenshage. But the overpowering thing is what I can see: leaves swirling against a grey sky, dark red brick, sharp lines, the physical characteristics of the other members of the procession and the statue of Oda, impervious in stone.

It is overwhelming, it supersedes anything that can be heard. I can suddenly appreciate Oda’s disappointment when she regained her sight. She understood that it didn’t do her any good at all. The miracle turned out to be a sidetrack with only one message: to construe her blindness posthumously as a divine gift. She withdrew from the world and dedicated her life to God, which is another way of turning a blind eye to the community. It only made her more important to that community, thirteen centuries later she still manages to bring the inhabitants of Rode together and engage them.

Before I leave the graveyard, I want to have a look at her bones. I say her bones: but the research shows them to be from the third century, so they could never be her bones. They are lying in St. Martin’s church, but I don’t get any further than the porch, as the church is locked. I feel disappointed. It’s as if I’ve missed the essence of St. Oedenrode. It’s strange that I attach so much importance to a heap of bones, the ridiculous remains of the human body, and not even her body at that.

Apparently, they’re not just bones to me any more. They have taken on a special significance, a power of attraction. All because I immersed myself in Oda and took part in the sound ritual.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to believe at all in order to believe. Before you know it, you’ll be in it up to your ears.Stories of saints are infectious, for unbelievers too. In them, life attains peace.
My sense of perception is high and low in the body. Blindness makes things vertical.

Photographas of walk with sound-blindfold in St. Oedenrode by Hans van den Bogaard.

Sonic artwork
The sonic artwork ‘Return to Oda, a sound relic (2007-680)’ is part of the 7 of which 3 project, which was set up by the Kunststichting Sint Oedenrode (Sint Oedenrode Art Foundation) together with Stichting Kunst Openbare Ruimte (Art in Public Space Foundation). The project will last a year. Landscape architect Paul Roncken developed a ‘master-plan’ in which he reports on five art works: a footpath, an oracle, a temporary event, a contemporary relic and an overdimensioned project.

He himself designed the footpath that will highlight the unusual situation of the village within the landscape and restore to memory the history of the seven manor houses: three of the seven are still in existence. They were built in the 12th century and, according to the landscape architect, constituted the identity of the village.
“The aim of the art project is to make this largely invisible history tangible once more and – above all – relevant.”

©  Mik, Edzard