In the southern Russian region of Siberia, along Lake Baikal, and just north of Mongolia, lies Buryatia. A federal subject of Russia, this republic is the modern version of an ancient offshoot of the Mongolian people. Despite forced Christianization and the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism, the indigenous Buryats are still a nation and culture that preserves its ancient traditions, one of which includes shamanism.
Several years ago these Siberian shamanic rituals caught the attention of musician and performance artist Abraham Brody. Fascinated by how the Buryat shamans used music and drumming to enter a trance state, during which they commune with ancestors and the spirit world, Brody and collaborator Konstantin Guz traveled to Buryatia to, as he tells The Creators Project, “study this link between performance and the 'trance-state' and performance as a means to connect with deeper spirituality or transformative states.”
The result of his research, made possible by Fabrika Centre for Creative Industries in Moscow, is Ongon, a video installation and performance that aims to bring the power of ancient Buryatan shamanism into a gallery space. (Ongon are the souls of one's ancestors and spirits which inhabit sacred places in nature, such as mountains, trees, rivers, lakes.) Brody and Guz’s videos show various shamanic rituals like animal sacrifice, sacred fires, and trance-inducing music.
For eight hours every day, Brody will stage a durational performance in order to bring himself and the public into a different realm of consciousness. His aim is to encourage visitors to contemplate their own origins and identity by, hopefully, entering trance-like states. “I will create music using violin, voice, drumming, and electronics, looping and repeating certain pieces,” he explains. “The music serves as a vehicle to help transform the space as well as the public's state of mind.”
“Inside the space, visitors can experience different rituals and emotions,” says Brody. “I guide them together with several assistants through the space, during which they are able to participate in the rituals, watch the immersive video installation, or rest on beds where specially created music helps to bring them into a trance-like state.”
To gather the material for this Ongon experience, Brody traveled around Buryatia, visiting shamans in different villages and observing their rituals. He also joined them in visits to sacred places like forests, lakes, and rivers.
“My first reaction was extremely positive. The first day we arrived with almost no sleep and a four-hour bumpy ride to our first ritual,” Brody says. “Four shamans were doing a ritual for an entire village’s ancestors, as a blessing, and it took place for almost eight hours, deep in the countryside. I was really moved by the shaman’s power, stamina, and the villagers respect and focus. Those eight hours were charged with an electric energy.”
Brody calls Buryatia a place of very powerful and pure nature. Buryats believe many places are sacred, guarded by a spirit, he explains, and when setting foot in such places, offerings and a prayer must be made.
“Ongon is the Buryat word for the spirits of one's ancestors and of those which inhabit a sacred place,” Brody explains. “These spirits must be given offerings and treated with respect so that our lives will be in harmony.”
As far as Brody understood, Ongon are visible to shamans at all times. He says that they even saw his ancestors. But to deeply communicate with certain spirits or solve difficult problems, the shamans must enter into a trance and travel to other worlds.
“Through powerful and repetitive drumming and chanting, the shamans work themselves into a trance state, during which they can even allow spirits to enter their bodies and speak to their descendants,” Brody says. “Places like Lake Baikal, for example, are said to be the centre of Buryat shamanism and you can really feel some kind of energy or forces there—people really live in complete respect and harmony with nature.”
“For me Ongon is a particularly interesting concept,” he adds. “As an artist I am always searching deeper for my own roots, and the idea that one can be in constant contact and communication with one's ancestors is really powerful.”
Brody also saw more personal and “intimate” rituals. Some specific people asked shamans for blessings. Others had different problems in their life, and in these situations the shaman can even act as something of a therapist.
“My favorite ritual was on our last day,” Brody says. “We traveled very deep into a beautiful Birch forest, which was outside the ancestral village of one shaman who we often traveled with. His grandfathers (all shamans) were buried in this forest, and two other shamans did a ritual for him there, deep in this ancient forest. It was extremely special.”
“We also met there an extremely powerful woman shaman, Svetlana,” Brody adds. “Her energy and her eyes were something I will always remember. It felt like she could see through me.”
As beautiful as the Buryatan daily life seems to be, it is not without its challenges. The people live without running water. There are also, according to Brody, no commercial shops where they can easily obtain the necessities familiar to other cultures. The people live only from the land, growing all of their own animals and produce, and do it all in the extreme Siberian climate, which has an average annual temperature of 29.1°F.
While Brody can’t replicate the breadth of his experiences in Ongon, he is trying to put a “world inside the gallery” for visitors. The impetus lies in Brody’s realization that the 21st century way of life, with all of its distractions, does not encourage deep reflection upon the inner self.
“When we are faced with nothing but ourselves, we pick up our iPhones,” he says. “There is something so profound and powerful about looking deeply into oneself, knowing where we come from, our roots, and perhaps where we are headed. If you have to face your inner world, even your inner demons, you are able to let go.”
“In its essence I think this is really what shamanism is, a deep connection to one's roots, and a sense of depth and spirituality in the everyday,” adds Brody. “Whether you get this from Zen Buddhist meditation, or Sufi tradition, or listening to Orthodox chants is your choice, but I think there is a lot to be learned from these ancient cultures which have survived thousands of years, and I hope to bring this into my work.”
Ongon runs at Fabrika CCI in Moscow from October 21st to November 10th. Click here to see more of Abraham Brody’s work.