Mel O’Callaghan

A new exhibition by Mel O'Callaghan and her collaborators calls us into a communion: with organic and mineral matter, with other fleshly forms, with the natural world, and with the embodied energy of sound.

Mel O’Callaghan’s new exhibition art Sydney’s Carriageworks is titled with a capacious, and kind of porous, claim: All is Life. The very openness of this idea, and its ability to hold lots of different specificities – and possibilities – inside it, seems to be exactly why it is useful and interesting for O’Callaghan. It’s a suggestion with a moving horizon, a moving limit. Bringing ongoing bodies (and I do mean bodies) of work together with newer ones, All is Life invites us, as viewers, to find ourselves implicated in the exchanges of knowledge and feeling which structure the artist’s practice –  our own horizons shifted, incrementally, by those of O’Callaghan’s collaborators, and her objects. Life-affirming in the deepest sense, the exhibition opens up a space in which we can regard, gently, our human need for haptic connection to whatever “life” may be, both within and beyond ourselves.

O’Callaghan and I speak as her show is being installed under the supervision of curator Aarna Hanley. In the background of our video call, I can hear heavy metal objects rumbling into place, the oddly shocking sound reverberating through the hollow chambers of the Carriageworks bays. This is likely a combination of the sounds of install and the building works underway around the venue, but the noise also nicely recalls the larger-than-life-sized tuning forks which will comprise part of the show, amongst video works, a sound piece (the artist’s first), and a large mural installation. 

These tuning forks, developed with the assistance of Matthew Mewburn of Eveleigh Works and music technologist Damien Ricketson, will stand as sculptural elements in the space six days a week, spending the remainder day (Saturday) playing and being played by a group of performers. Many of these are people O’Callaghan has worked with for long periods of time. I ask her how she considers her relationship to these performers, or if she thinks of herself as a choreographer. “I’m not really choreographing,” she says, “the work choreographs the performer. As vibrations travel through this inorganic tuning fork, they move through the resonance chamber and up into the body of the performer. That idea of vibration carries throughout the whole exhibition, and leads you [the audience] through the work.” This is a literal, as well as a philosophical picture of the work: the forks will, through the performance, be set to vibrate at frequencies to which human beings have particular somatic responses. 

O’Callaghan’s performers – and audiences – have often been moved by material in ways like this. The artist recalls, as she’s explaining All is Life, an audience member at her Palais de Tokyo show in Paris, Dangerous on the Way, who burst suddenly into tears beside her during a similar performance, moved powerfully and inexplicably by the vibrational frequency produced in the work. I’m reminded too of her work Parade, also performed at the Palais to Tokyo in 2016, and also of its earlier iteration at the Biennale of Sydney in 2014, where performers moved with the weight, momentum, resistance and other forces generated by a series of objects installed in the room. The liveliness of matter, and our beholdenness to it – a kind of contingency at once physical and metaphysical – has not often been the primary way O’Callaghan’s work is interpreted. In that sense, this exhibition represents the picking-up of an important, but as yet under-examined, thread in the artist’s oeuvre. 

Some further developments which have grown out of O’Callaghan’s recent body of work Centre of the Centre – differently moving – will also be present at All is Life. A group of speakers in Bay 21 will be set to play a recording, taken “from the very bottom of the sea, of the sound at the Earth’s core.” O’Callaghan recalls discussions with a group of scientists with whom she worked towards Centre of the Centre about the idea for making these recordings: “It’s hot magma and rocks hitting each other down there. And normally, they measure it by vibration. But one of them had this idea – which sounded so crazy, but so innovative – which was to listen to it for the first time.” The sound they found was “the pulse of the planet”: a heartbeat. 

O’Callaghan’s work, I think, is not to “explain” the expertise of the people she works with: earth scientists, geographers, anthropologists, and the figures in performance studies she’s inspired by, like Richard Schechner. I get the sense that she understands herself as not primarily a figure of authority in these disciplines, but rather somebody who can ask new questions, and feel newly, about the discoveries made and shared by her collaborators – an expert in feeling, perhaps, and in the embodiment of knowledge and non-knowledge.

This is as true for the lines of scientific enquiry she follows as it is for her approach to cultural knowledges. For the show’s large-scale two-channel video work, O’Callaghan worked closely with the journalist and activist Devidas Gaonkar, along with a team of local translators, folklorists, and environmentalists in Goa to gather record of a Dhalo festival practiced in a village, Gaonkawada, Ambaulim. Footage of the eco-feminist festival, for which local Velip women work with a mound of earth, is accompanied by videos of the women involved discussing the festival in their own words – “to give their own voice to explain their own festival,” as O’Callaghan has it. The video explores the Dhalo festival’s expressiveness of respect for “life” more broadly conceived that it is in Western (post)-industrial culture – yet it also connects to the exhibition’s theme of transmission through an emphasis of linguistic translation.

Recounting her deep-sea recordings to me, O’Callaghan describes the geological low-point in the ocean where she took the recordings as a “channel.” A perfectly functional descriptor of a passage in the ocean, the word might also describe the project of All is Life as a whole: a project about deep communion and connectedness, about what passes between things and people, and about attunement to shared frequencies which move us how they will.

All is Life
23 June – 21 August 2022
Carriageworks, Sydney

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