ArtistsPeople 06-02-2017

From cave to gallery | Mel O’Callaghan’s entrancing new exhibition

Mel O’Callaghan is no stranger to hostile environments. In 2012, she travelled to a remote, wind-battered ruin located on a promontory in Corsica to film "Endgame", a work in which performers carry out absurd, cyclical actions in the harsh setting. Two years earlier she filmed "Move", a seven-minute 16mm film in which a group of people shift rocks between two decaying forts in the wilderness. Now, the laureate of the Prix Sam for Contemporary Art is bringing one of her most ambitious projects yet to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Curated by Daria de Beauvais, "Dangerous on-the-way" is an immersive exhibition which encompasses installation, video and performance, and explores how ritualized actions or forms of labour can offer access to a meditative, ecstatic state. In order to film the video which forms a core part of the show, O’Callaghan travelled to Borneo to see the indigenous Orang Sungai people carry out the death-defying activity that has taken place there for hundreds of years. Supported by bamboo ladders that are suspended above a void, the men harvest birds nests from mountain caves located deep in the jungle. 

O’Callaghan spoke to Happening about her experiences in the caves, and the role they play in the exhibition. 


A number of your works have been set in very inhospitable environments, and the caves in Borneo are no doubt some of the most challenging yet. What was it like filming in this location and how did you prepare?

The preparation was lengthy, because although the collecting of birds nests takes place in caves throughout southeast Asia, I wanted to go to visit one in Gomantong that was more inaccessible than usual. In the end, I was invited by a local man, Aloi, to another cave nearby that isn’t publically open, because the Orang Sungai never began the harvest in the cave where I originally wanted to film. This meant it was especially hard — and scary — to access. To reach the caves we had to ascend a mountain via these precarious ladders that have been there for hundreds of years and are now starting to disintegrate. Once you go into the body of the mountain you enter this huge, vortex-like space which is entirely other worldly. The Orang Sungai see the caves as a sacred place, and you get the feeling of entering a Cathedral as you cross the threshold. The eco-system within the caves is remarkable, but it does mean you have to let go of any kind of dignity! You’re falling through shit and standing on a carpet of millions of cockroaches. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily the hardest location I’ve tried to access, but it was certainly a big emotional strain to ask the collectors to open up this very private, historic tradition to me.

Mel O'Callaghan, preparatory drawing for Dangerous on-the-way performance


Were you attracted to this tradition of birdsnest collecting because you felt it reflected a lot of the core things you deal with in your work?

I felt like it was the reality of things I’m trying to achieve in my work. The idea that the process of harvesting the birds nests could be a conduit to a transcendent state was extremely attractive to me. I could have arrived and discovered that what went on in the caves was nothing more than labour, but that simply wasn’t the case — the whole activity is ritualized in a very spiritual way. There’s this overwhelming sense of joy in the very harsh, frightening environment of the caves, and it’s that ecstatic state that allows the men to perform these superhuman feats. I wanted to witness this transcendence on a very intimate scale, and I felt if I could film the men’s faces up close then I might be able to see it. What I didn’t realize was that it’s not just the men at the top of the ladders who experience this, it’s the men at the base too — they become this collective body. I was able to film both at close range and from 400 meters away and still apprehend this collective transcendence that takes place. Something which really struck me was that the men at the foot of the ladders are constantly looking up. It was Sabine Rittner, a psychotherapist and researcher working in Altered States of Consciousness, who first suggested to me that this type of posture is one that has historically been used to allow the body to enter into ecstatic, trance states – which connects to the work of Dr. Felicitas Goodman.



How did you discover Felicitas Goodman, and how do her ideas feed into the show?

I noticed a while ago that after my performances, the performers were coming out of the experience pretty exalted. They were abandoning themselves to the work and it was changing the way they interacted with one another. I felt the need to understand this, so I did some research, and eventually came across an essay by Felicitas Goodman, A Trance Dance with Masks. Research and Performance at the Cuyamungue Institute, and was completely amazed. She was a linguist and anthropologist, and a large part of her work involved anthropological research she carried out in the 1970s into altered states. On the basis of this research, she set up the institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico where she developed six fundamental steps to induce ecstatic trance. After I came back from Borneo I contacted the institute, and got an incredible response. The two directors — Paul Robear and Laura Lee— were so excited by the prospect of me directly applying the six steps to performance art, and they generously agreed to come to Paris for the exhibition and to collaborate on the project. They’re going to be doing the majority of performances in the first three weeks of the exhibition, and teach workshops to the group of performers who will take over from them.

A man ascends a ladder in a still from the video installation. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Allen (Paris); Belo-Galsterer (Lisbonne); and Kronenberg Wright (Sydney). Produced by SAM Art Projects.


When viewers experience the exhibition, do you hope it will activate a similar meditative or transcendent state in them?

I hope that it’s cathartic. Because these special ritual states that I’m looking at are quite theatrical and performative, they are cathartic in the true sense of the word, in Grecian theatrical terms. The scenography of Dangerous on-the-way is important in terms of how the show affects the visitors. You enter the space via an arch into the Galeries Wilson and are confronted by a large platform with several black lines across it, representing the six steps. There is a burnt tree to symbolize fire and smoke, a large vessel of sacred water, a drum, a gong, and so on. Then you go immediately into blackness as you enter the space of the video. I want the sheer scale of the projection to be very confronting to visitors. I would hope that, when a viewer is in that space, they can’t help but be changed by it in some way. From there you go into a separate, final room which is a very different space. It’s quite white and stark, with large geometrical shapes in it. Daria — the curator — describes it as a decompression space, because you can’t go through these experiences without some down time. On the weekends we’re opening the exhibition up so that visitors will be able to participate in the performance themselves.


"Dangerous on-the-way runs" through May 8, 2017, and coincides with another solo show of O’Callaghan’s work in the French capital — “En Masse” — which runs from February 9 through March 11 at Galerie Allen. The exhibition showcases performative works in acrylic on glass canvas which explore trajectories of action and consequence.

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