‘Centre of the Centre’ by Mel O’Callaghan is a large black box installation with her new video work spanning a 16 metre-long wall at Artspace, Sydney. A dedicated performance space with glass sculptural pieces will be inhabited by O’Callaghan and a team of ‘mediators’ who will push the performers into a trance state, testing the limitations of the human condition.
The glass sculptures are designed to amplify sound, made from a blend of metal and glass, which increases the resonance in the space. O’Callaghan shares, ‘it’s quite disorienting, as the performers are breathing, and hyperventilating, they also lose time.’ She adds, ‘the exhilaration was apparent within the performers, but I also saw that as a group, they formed a bond – outside of a group that sees each other every day.’
The work was inspired by the Orang-Sungai, an Indigenous group in Borneo, who collect bird’s nests by climbing up bamboo ladders 40–60 metres high. O’Callaghan couldn’t believe that they would climb these dizzying heights just for monetary value. After being invited to film the process, she realised, ‘the men put themselves under these very highly charged physical positions, it’s an endurance work… I witnessed them entering trance states and using ritual chanting.’
This theory was reflected in the studies of Felicitas Goodman, who had looked at ‘altered state of consciousness’ (ASC). Goodman had wanted to uncover the effects trances and rituals can have on the body. She had trialled the experiment on students, in the 1970s, and put their bodies in six positions from ancient artefacts finding they showed a trauma-like reaction and ecstatic trance-like symptoms. Goodman’s team at the Institute in New Mexico shared there was potential for ASC in performance. They came to Paris and helped teach 70 performers at the first exhibition in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.
O’Callaghan used the gallery’s mediators to interpret this material for the performers. The mediators are highly skilled workers (with Master’s degrees and PhDs), who decipher the artist’s concept, presenting their findings in the best possible way – like a curator of the experience. O’Callaghan adds, ‘They came to my studio; they all looked through my books and all my notes. We had extensive great conversations, and they did all the workshops as well, they were all part of the experience.’
Mediating the artwork is a crucial element to the touring exhibition; which after Artspace, will see the show travel around regional Australia with Museum and Galleries, NSW.
Artspace’s deputy director, Michelle Newton, became part of ‘Centre of the Centre’ in Paris with Sabine Rittner, from Institute of Medical Psychology, Heidelberg University, Germany. Newton shared that the experience was humbling, and in a moment, lead her to tears. It took her a few hours after the performance to get back to a normal state, but with thanks to Rittner’s mediation, it was a grounding process. Newton adds, ‘it was a beautiful experience, allowing yourself to be altered.’
Artspace wants to facilitate active participation, shifting the relationship from passive engagement. O’Callaghan shares, ‘normally you’ll feel a performance, but to actually be part of the process of understanding the fabric of it, it’s really important. The performance is great because it can facilitate the knowledge.’
The Borneo trip was eye opening for O’Callaghan. In the cave, she saw a river of death moving through with millions of cockroaches and parasitic spiders eating the birds and bats that had fallen to the ground. She adds, ‘but at the same time, there were all of these beautiful life-affirming moments in there, in the most unimaginable place for life to start. I left exhilarated and wanting to pursue that a little bit further.’
The trip pushed O’Callaghan’s research into a place where life is created in a pressure point of toxic gases that are released, and life can grow, right in the depth of the ocean. The artist joined up with The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, led by scientist Dr Daniel Fornari, in a place known as the ‘centre of the centre’ in the Philippines. Scientists have been looking at this zone to see what life, and human life, can withstand; they have been looking at DNA of the bacteria that live down there, finding human DNA. O’Callaghan adds, ‘They want to look at why these animals can live in such extreme conditions, why the hearts aren’t failing, why they’re not just completely exploding, and because they’re trying to find ways that humans can live in more extreme environments.’
O’Callaghan uses performance, with its inherent political undertones, to address personal physical struggles that we go through. Performance becomes ‘the act of doing’ and thorough research lays the groundwork for the fundamentals of the exhibition. The artwork becomes a collaboration of the work with the scientists, mediators, performers and audience; breaking the barriers of structural hierarchies between the disciplines.
Emma-Kate Wilson is a Sydney-based art critic and writer.
22 August to 27 October 2019
UQ Art Museum
22 February 2020 to 16 January 2021
Western Plains Cultural Centre
20 November 2021 to 6 February 2021
New South Wales