Mel O’Callaghan
Ensemble 2013 (still)

Paris-based Australian contemporary artist Mel O’Callaghan works across film, video, performance, painting and installation. In her diverse works, she often explores human behaviours and psychologies in relation to ideas of resistance and endurance. Ensemble, 2013, a video installation by O’Callaghan, which was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, prompts the viewer to reflect on collective and individual freedom. This is first time the work has been exhibited in Australia.

Jane Devery: Ensemble is a relatively short but intense video installation that depicts an epic feat of physical strength and protest. Set in a verdant landscape three firemen move into frame and prepare to turn on a water hose. We watch as the men lean into, and against, the elemental force of the jet of water. After a period of time, a lone man moves into frame and walks improbably against the extreme force of the hose. Against all odds, he pushes forward and the other men begin to retreat. What drew you to this subject?

Mel O’Callaghan: I was looking for a symbol, a gesture that could represent the human capacity to resist. I kept coming back to the water cannons. The act of someone walking towards the hose, turning their back to it and pushing forward, affected me deeply and so I went from there. In all its intensity, this image, his body turning against the violence and force was a powerful action and message. By using video, I was able to expand out of the image and into action. He transgresses the limits of one screen, pushing into the other. The man’s experience is continually in process as he struggles toward a threshold, transcending his psychological and physical limitations.

JD: Much of your work addresses the transformative possibilities of physical and psychological limits. Could you talk about how these ideas play out in Ensemble and other recent works?

MO’C: What a single body is capable of when enduring a voluntarily experience of duress is a powerful thing to behold. It allows us to imagine what a collective body might potentially achieve if thoughts surrounding resistance, endurance or even certain kinds of violence could shift. In Dangerous on-the-way, shown at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris in 2017, the Orang Sungai people of Borneo endure hours suspended hundreds of metres in the air to harvest lucrative birds’ nests for trade. Rather than this being an example of precarious labour endured for survival − this is in fact a ritual harvest, one that is deeply ingrained in the animist spirituality of the community. They derive a deep sense of identity, meaning and cohesion from the event − choreographing and coordinating their efforts and voices to shift their intricate bamboo scaffolding. In Parade, shown at the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014 or Woe implores go, at DO DISTURB Palais de Tokyo in 2016, the bodies engage with weights, ropes and pulleys, moving insistently through their motions − even if I try to stop them, to take breaks − because they enter an altered state, garnering something personal from the effort, they are compelled to continue.

JD: Ensemble is a two-channel video and the work is presented on two large screens that are joined together. Watching this work, it becomes apparent that the point at which they meet is significant. As the video progresses, it is where the action intensifies at a certain point to form a kind of threshold. Would you agree?

MO’C: Yes. I wanted to use the two-channel format to act as a physical threshold, outside of the video itself. As the man pushes through this divide, we understand he is also undergoing a personal transformation which we might apply to the collective political body of a society.

JD: In 2016 at the Serralves Museum, Portugal, you presented Ensemble as a live performance. Could you talk about your experience presenting the work in this way? Did you find that through live performance the meaning or understanding shifted in any way?

MO’C: The performance at the Serralves came about when the curator saw the video, Ensemble at the Pompidou Centre, Paris in 2016 and proposed that I present it as a live performance in the grounds of the museum for the exhibition, ‘Museum As Performance’. The long format of the museum itself is spectacular and not unlike the 32:9 format of the video. It gave me the opportunity to use the architecture of the building to create the divide, the psychological threshold.

JD: Ritualised human behaviour is a recurring theme that plays out in many of your works. In your films, videos and performances in particular, the human body is often the vehicle for physical labour but also the site of introspection and meditation. Could you talk about the connections between these seemingly opposing impulses?

MO’C: We have a tendency, and rightly so, to think about the body as a site or vehicle of imposed labour − a requirement to use our personal body to the good of private enterprise of which we are compensated. In the performance work To hear with my eyes presented at the Palais de Tokyo in 2017 I intended for the body to, through a physical process, act as a site of revelation. In the case of Borneo, labour and physical expense is actually to the ends of spiritual and personal fulfilment. When I was researching the bird nest harvesting I was surprised that it was only ever discussed from the perspective of labour. My feeling was that it must be more than this. In the case of Ensemble the violence of the action could actually be seen as virtuous resistance.

JD: I find it interesting that in many of your recent works the focus appears to be on men. Was this a conscious decision and if so, how do you see gender playing a role in your works?

MO’C: That’s an interesting question which I haven’t really considered before. Truthfully I have chosen men when I felt that strength was a real issue and the safety of the performer is my priority. In a way the men are not alone though, because I am often there doing exactly the same.

JD: You have talked about your work in terms of cycles of death and renewal, and destruction and creation. How do you see these ideas relating to Ensemble and in your practice more broadly?

MO’C: In relation to Ensemble the force of the water means the man must physically react in order to bring about a process of creating motion and change. To fall, to begin again, which is where the virtuous aspect comes into violence. It’s not being purely negative but rather a creative force. Historically the Earth is a series of violent processes that led to the creation of life and Earth as we know it. So a body submitted to a process of duress, such as endurance or even violence, isn’t necessarily immediately a negative thing. These are themes that I am more directly exploring in a new body of work.

JD: Do you see Ensemble as having a particular social or political message relating to our current context or are the ideas of a more universal nature?

MO’C: The moment in time that the film is responding to is the climax point we seemed to be approaching, and still seem to be approaching particularly in occidental governance, including politics and economics. Responding to austerity measures, to asylum, the uneven rights to individual and collective freedoms. This work is very much a visceral response to those mounting feelings of deep despair that force acts of extremism − in perhaps the typical sense of that term, but also in the risks and violence that such despair makes us willing to take. I don’t mean this in simply negative terms, violence is complex − and can be seen at times as the virtuous struggle to trigger change, I explore whether this is possible.