Mel O’Callaghan by Elyse Goldfinch

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

Ensemble 2013 is a silent two‑channel video that explores the ability and perseverance of the human body to triumph against imposing forces.(1) Set in the abundant wooded landscape of Tonnerre in Burgundy, France, three firefighters clad in futuristic silver suits and reflective helmets enter the screen. The men work together to turn on a high‑pressure hose directed at a single performer who arrives soon after. Typically employed to prevent harm, here the hose is used to physically overpower this lone figure.

Though the film is entirely silent, the torrents of water hitting the landscape feel deafening. Time too seems elastic as everything is fractionally slowed to focus on each movement and gesture on the screen. As the performer slowly gains momentum the camera closes in on him and draws attention to the violence of the spray that leaves marks and impressions on his skin. The force of the water causes him to stumble and fall, yet each time he continues, persevering and turning his back to the water as he gradually inches forward. Determined, he holds his ground and eventually the firefighters begin to retreat backwards. Ultimately, the performer prevails and is left standing at the centre of the screen, alone and victorious.

Ensemble is grounded in the universal complexities of what it means to resist through time. As the protagonist fights against the jet of water, he performs a choreography of refusal and dissent, evoking archival footage from mass protest, riots and uprisings where water cannons are deployed into a crowd.

In this work, Mel O’Callaghan renders conflict as symbolic, speculative and ambiguous, leaving the audience to impose their own meaning onto the narrative. The performer’s body is worn down and brutally impressed upon but he continues to fight through. The work becomes an allegory for self‑determination and freedom of the individual within the collective political body.

O’Callaghan lives between Sydney and Paris. Working across moving image, sculpture, painting and performance, she tests the limits of the body to reflect on the human ability for resistance, resilience and endurance. Her work often considers the labour of the body against physical and psychological boundaries, asking performers to transcend their bodily limitations through repetition, breath and altered states of consciousness. As a result, O’Callaghan creates ritualised spaces of spectacle and introspection where performers and audiences move across thresholds to come through the other side, transformed. Ensemble encompasses ideas of fortification, precarity and release to reflect on ways to build strength and persevere against oppression in the modern world.

(1) This is an edited extract of a text by Elyse Goldfinch published in Centre of the centre: Mel O’Callaghan, Artspace, Sydney, 2020.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Goldfinch, Elyse. "Mel O'Callaghan" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 282–283.

ELYSE GOLDFINCH is Executive Assistant and Assistant Curator, Artspace, Sydney.

Mel O'Callaghan appears in

  • The Book

    With more than 150 artists profiled, the Know My Name book celebrates art by women from across Australia.