Mel O’Callaghan b. 1975 Sydney, Australia. Lives and works in Sydney and Paris.

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undo the day, NAS Galleries, Sydney
opens 14 June until 3 August, 2024


L’acte Gratuit, 2014, single-channel HD colour video, 9:16, stereo sound, 29 minutes 50 seconds

In Mel O'Callaghan's video work, L'acte Gratuit we have a distillation of the core interests in the artist's work
over the past twenty years, representing as it does issues to do with endurance, notions of 'freedom', repetition, ritual, courage, transcendence, triumph and failure. The work is both speculative and visceral (if muffled) and encourages the viewer to concentrate on the meaning at the centre of it, which appears at first, simple enough, depicting a boxer in the process of a fight. But importantly, we only truly 'know' anything here by implication. We do not see the fight, nor indeed are we presented with the broader context of the event; we do not see the ring, the stadium, an audience, the referee - or indeed the other protagonist. Instead we are only shown a somewhat unnerving and intimate close up of the boxer's profile (head and shoulders) and a vague blur that appears to be the rope that forms the boundary of the ring in which the boxer performs his task. We see the sweat on his face and his stress as the fight goes on and this very intimacy is both claustrophobic and intense, causing us to think about the work's meaning and to feel at the same time a kind of visceral unease as we realise the scope of the 'action' suggested in all its brutality and force. The increasing stress on the boxer's face as he endures the fight is evidence enough of that. Also, we hear the bell indicating the start of each round, an increasingly ominous sound that prompts the boxer into an action heard but not seen. As the boxer moves out of frame, the camera stays still, photographing the space vacated by the protagonist. Indeed, we only know that he is in the midst of a fight because we hear the shuffling of shoes on the canvas and laboured breathing. Nothing is clear in this work, all is implied.

As viewers then, we are encouraged to contemplate the 'action' and to consider the meaning of dedicated endurance. Why does the boxer continue despite his increasing stress? Is there purpose in enduring? What is the meaning of this apparent dedication to a kind of ritualised failure? Does this indicate courage or lack of vision? Is the boxer undergoing transcendence through suffering and concentrated effort? Is he like the birds nest gleaners in the caves of Borneo (Dangerous on the way, 2017) or the solitary figure fighting off the extreme pressure of combined water hoses? (Ensemble, 2013). There are no answers for the artist of course - who is also like her protagonists, engaged in kinds of ritual behaviours and obsessions reflected in the very act of continually making art. There remains a series of questions that raise metaphysical issues to do with the nature of existence and its purpose. Perhaps, like the artist herself and her protagonists we must all endure because to do anything else is futile. We must find meaning in the 'freedom' to continue. But unlike the boxer in L'acte Gratuit perhaps, we may have irony to help us face the abyss.

Simeon Kronenberg

Film credits

Performer: Abdoulaye Fofana
Cinematography: Mel O'Callaghan
Editor: Mel O'Callaghan & Clemens Habicht
Camera Assistants: Lauren Gulotta & Amina Suleimanagic