In der Unterwelt
Mario Rott is a freediver, competitive swimmer, graphic designer, author, and artist, his passion is water—as a phenomenon and as the element that makes life possible. Sinking into our phylogenetic origin, sounds and colors blur, space dissolves into infinity. Those who dare delve into the abyss will find true beauty there—they will find themselves.
“I did meet a mermaid once.”
What advantages do fish have over birds?
Fish exist in a world that forms a whole, that is endless, within an ocean that begins where it ends. Birds always have to return to the ground.
Given that you are an avid freediver and a record-holding swimmer, I probably don’t need to ask you if it’s more beautiful on land or underwater.
The underwater world is much more difficult to explore, and maybe that’s what makes it more attractive to me. There’s a certain beauty in that mystery. But the term beauty is problematic. We’re always trying to find beauty and identify it as such. But beauty per se doesn’t exist. In my opinion, beauty reveals itself when you let things be as they are and try to find your way to them. It’s their essence that makes things beautiful, and not the things themselves.
What makes water beautiful?
Talking about beauty and water calls to mind an image that I’m sure many people have: It’s a crystal-clear sunny day, you’re sitting by a blue lake and watching the light reflect off the surface of the water. The infinite little ripples, the constant transformation—there’s something about it that’s incredibly attractive to us humans. There’s a beauty in that.
Air is the element of the upper world, water the element of the netherworld. What makes them different?
The underwater world is an alternative universe. Not just because water is eight hundred times denser than air and sound travels in a completely different way, but also because it feels completely different—there is much more direct contact between our skin and the water than there could ever be with air.
When you see images of the universe — the infinite expanse, the meditative emptiness—are you reminded of the ocean?
The darkness of space often reminds me of the depths of the ocean. But space is only accessible using technology. At the very least, we would constantly hear the pump supplying us with the oxygen that keeps us alive. We will never be able to experience the universe with the kind of immediacy and intensity that the underwater world offers.
“At some point we were condemned to be born on dry land.”
You’re from Tyrol, way up in the mountains. What was it that dragged you down into the depths?
The beautiful mountain lakes. I realized early on that water is an element in which I feel very comfortable. I have a freedom of movement in water that I can’t experience anywhere else. So I got addicted very quickly.
Many people are afraid of water. Can you understand their fear?
I can understand it very well. Breathing is what tethers us to life—under water it just isn’t possible. It’s a primal fear that also has to do with the deep, the subconscious, the invisible, the fear of drowning. But the depth actually isn’t a threat at all. The coldness of the water is much more dangerous, though oddly enough nobody is afraid of that.
Diving is about letting go and engaging with another world ...
Letting go is the hardest part, because it also means falling, not having any references, being alone with yourself. On the one hand, that’s obviously scary; on the other hand, it gives you the opportunity to become strong and self-reliant. Learning to let go is also part of the training. Yoga is a very good way to prepare. The big blue is an unlimited realm where everything and nothing can happen. You have to be ready to meet your true self in the deep.
What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve ever experienced?
Things get dangerous when you overestimate yourself, when you get cocky. In my case it was a current that drove me out into the open ocean, which I would never have escaped on my own. That was in East Africa, in Tanzania, on a very small island in the Indian Ocean. I had already made my peace with myself ...
So crossing the Sea of Marmara was nothing in comparison?
No (laughs). The most measurably extreme thing was crossing the Strait of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia, a distance of 17.5 kilometers. That’s the farthest I’ve swum so far. But that was pretty doable, so it didn’t feel terribly extreme to me.
What do you think of extreme athlete Felix Baumgartner and his world records, like the Red Bull Stratos, where he parachuted from the stratosphere at a height of almost 40 km?
I think very little of him, naturally. There are people who can certainly control their bodies and pull off things that are considered extreme, but when you just think of yourself as a machine, the spirit starves. That’s often the case in sports, unfortunately. The body and the mind in combination can be something very beautiful, but purely physical feats don’t count at all for me.
“You have to be ready to meet your true self in the deep.”
You made a short film, published an illustrated book, and are writing a philosophical treatise, all under the title Phenomenology of Water. You explore the phenomenon of water — what defines that phenomenon?
The fact that it isn’t tangible to us, that we, who are always trying to objectify everything, fail miserably when we try to understand water as if it were a thing. What’s most exciting to me about the phenomenon of water is that you can’t say much about it, that you can only get to know it in all its intensity and manifestations by going into the water.
Visual and acoustic stimuli are distorted underwater. What impact does that have on your perception?
It’s a change that occurs abruptly as soon as you go under, a change so all-encompassing that our sensory organs aren’t even capable of comprehending it. Because water has a completely different density, everything is much more immediate. Your perception shifts in different directions. We can’t comprehend the vast expanse of space around us. Acoustically, everything changes. Sounds can’t be localized; they come from everywhere and nowhere. And since we ourselves consist mainly of water, we’re also a part of this element. Sounds pass through us in the water. You’ll often hear your heart beating very loudly and wonder where the sound is coming from. Physiologically speaking, it’s an absolutely exceptional state that we would never experience on land.
“I’m trying to reach the lowest point, but the lowest point in me.”
As a diver you’re no longer constrained by gravity, there’s no ground under your feet. How does that affect you?
Not feeling your own weight, being relieved of the burden, not having to drag your mass around—it gives you an incredible sense of freedom. Gliding and floating returns the body to a state we’ve experienced before in the course of our evolution.
All life has its origin in the water. Does this return to the site of phylogenesis also represent a search for our origins, an exploration of our human existence?
Absolutely. Exposing ourselves to this element reminds our body where we come from. Planet Earth should actually be called planet Water. Only a very small proportion of it is land. Over seventy-five percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water.
When you dive, you vanish off the face of the earth. Is that your way of escaping life?
At some point we were condemned to be born on dry land, and we learned to deal with it. It’s more about going back into the water to remember what it was like when we were fish or embryos in the womb. It’s a feeling of comfort that you can’t experience at all on the earth’s surface.
“Abysses can have something very calming about them, because they make you aware that depth exists.”
What is it that you are diving for?
I’m trying to reach the lowest point, but the lowest point in me. Being in the water gives you the opportunity to dive deep into yourself.
Do you get more profound the deeper you dive?
The extreme isolation under water gives you the opportunity to see many things differently. It can become addictive. You keep wanting to go back, to see how deep inside yourself you can actually go and in what ways you can feel that depth—in physically terms as well.
Media theorist Vilém Flusser believed that the chasms of the ocean and of our souls—the abyss below us and the abyss within us—are one and the same. What have you learned about your own abysses through diving?
I’ve learned that it makes no sense to only guess at your own abysses, you have to actually enter them. Abysses can have something very calming about them, because they make you aware that depth exists. I don’t think the idea of looking into the abyss is some kind of nightmare; the abyss and the deep are something very beautiful. It’s a hidden beauty, a beauty that doesn’t reveal itself quickly, that you have to spend a lot of time and effort looking for.
Below 30 meters, the body begins to exhibit the first signs of nitrogen narcosis, the so-called rapture of the deep. When you look at the symptoms, it sounds a lot like a drug high ...
The influence on the consciousness really is pretty strong. But it affects scuba divers more than freedivers. Laughing gas is the best simulation of what you experience during nitrogen narcosis. Things seem very strange, funny, you get tunnel vision, do things you wouldn’t normally do. Most of all you become very carefree, and that’s where it gets dangerous. Being tempted by the euphoria to not worry about how deep you are or where your diving buddy is. It’s something every scuba diver has experienced to some extent. There are some divers who actually seek it out. They dive especially deep using compressed air in order to feel that intoxication really intensely. But those are usually very experienced divers who know exactly what they’re doing. If they weren’t, it would basically be a suicide mission.
The underwater world is a mystical place. Have you ever met a mermaid?
I did. But unfortunately it turned out to be a very human mermaid, a Russian freediver who had dived away from her rope. I ran into her at a depth of 40 meters. She was wearing a monofin, and from a certain distance a human with a monofin looks very similar to a mermaid. For a moment I thought, okay, it’s finally happening (laughs). But I was wrong, sadly.
Hallucinations occur because the brain fills in for missing information. There is a lot of information missing underwater, since there is so much that you can’t see or hear correctly.
Water is also something we project onto. A creative person diving into the depths will certainly get more “value” from their experience; they will see more than someone who approaches the whole thing very pragmatically.
We are robbed of our voice underwater. How do you feel about this loss of language?
Not being able to speak can be a great relief; you are forced to listen—to listen to yourself and to what the ocean has to say to you.
How does it feel when you’re at the bottom of the ocean?
As though you understand for the first time what it means to be. That might sound really pompous, but when you find yourself holding your breath at the bottom of the ocean, you’re in a state of being that seems incomprehensible. I think it gives you a pretty clear idea of what “being” means.
What does being mean?
For me, being means experiencing moments where you can be completely serene, where there is only you, your body, and the water surrounding you, the sea. Maybe it’s simply a matter of dissolving into the water, no longer existing. You could look at that as being.
„Silence surrounds the body, passively gliding under, the knowledge that the divine does not exist—just a blue that penetrates through closed eyelids, the sinking body and the slowing heartbeat.“ (Mario Rott)