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

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

EN MASSE, 2017

Photo: Aurelien Froment


FEB 9 - MAR 11, 2017

Mel O’Callaghan presents En Masse, 2016, a new series of paintings on glass canvas and a floor painting, exhibited for the first time in France at Galerie Allen, Paris. Parallel to her solo exhibition ‘Dangerous on-the-way’ at Palais de Tokyo as the 2015-16 Prix SAM laureate, Mel O’Callaghan’s practice continues to focus on transformation and transcendence through new material articulations of endurance and resistance. The artist situates the works in a constantly recalibrating propositional field, intersecting trajectories of both action and consequence that are always-already poised at the precipice of the threshold.

At the point of the threshold lies the abyss of potentiality. Recalled in Nietzsche’s reflection on man as the rope stretched over this abyss, and from which the title of the artist’s solo show at the Palais de Tokyo is drawn, he describes the human condition as ‘A dangerous crossing, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and stopping’. The abyss in this context, for Giorgio Agamben, is no metaphor; to be positioned at the edge of possibility simultaneously entails the potential free fall into nothingness. In their opposition one is necessarily contingent on the other and ‘only when we succeed in sinking into this Tartarus and experiencing our own impotentiality do we become capable of creating’. The urgency of paint poured over a glass canvas, and the ensuing struggle to defend respective chroma front lines, embodies this oppositional will to be. A virtuous violence in creation comes to fore in the works of Mel O’Callaghan as she studies the process of what a moral endeavour or obligation might mean. The insistent repositioning of the colours in relation to one another recalls the pulley mechanisms present in the performance and sculptural pieces by the artist such as the performance work Parade, 2014, and points to the impossibility of absolute resolution in this quest.

Curator João Silvério considers that in these processual paintings, ‘the body is a place of revelation/occultation of memories, of acts and celebrations’. Our own bodily humanity, as he terms it, is recalled in the action of unfolding and becoming across and through the vitrine canvas. The underside is both visible through the glass and occluded by the paint leaving a trace rather than fully disclosing the acrylic limen marking the first moments of actualisation, when opposing forces first fuse and forge creation. After the performative moment of the pour, transcending the abyss, the action paintings continue to shift, breaching the borders between colours. In much the same way as man who ‘has developed consciousness slowly and laboriously’ over time, so too do these elemental forces speak to the necessarily durational and reiterative event of creation, ever-resisting final resolution. If the threshold is a central concern for the artist it is out of a desire to observe transformational states of both consciousness and the body together, and their differing potentialities. Specifically, those of ecstasis and catharsis which respectively entail a standing outside or beyond oneself and a spiritual cleansing or purification. For the artist, the performative potential of the threshold is primarily in its ritual setting, experienced as liminality. As Victor Turner elaborates, it is located at the margin and is a passing through of a cultural realm where ‘secular distinction and rank’ dissolve. Ever pushing and ever at the tipping point of transcendence, the desire to transform via differing articulations of resistance remains a central focus for the artist.

The performing bodies so often present in the live and video-based works of the artist, such as Woe Implores Go, 2016, Parade, 2014, and Ensemble, 2013, are here substituted with those of the visitors. Much like her video work L’acte gratuite, 2015, the focal point of the artist’s previous solo exhibition at Galerie Allen, the floor painting draughts a propositional matrix that both guides and conflicts with our own positioning in the space. Between the site of the body and that of its physical environs, a new paradoxically resistive conduit is produced; the almost ritualistic movement proposed by the lines and arcs of the floor transform our presence and prime our encounter with the chromatic bodies of the paintings cohabiting the gallery.

The incumbent violence at the trigger point of actualisation is simultaneously the ecstasis and catharsis of transformation in the process of becoming, necessarily reiterative but always reproducing anew. Between ritual and processual action, the threshold towards which the artist implores us to push is the joyous annihilation of the nothing, ‘letting something from nothing, be’. Mel O’Callaghan navigates the ledge of potentiality despite the dangers of its intrinsic abyss, ultimately advocating for this liminal zone of precarity as both generative and transformative.

– Alexandra Pedley

1 Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Graham Parkes. Thus spoke zarathustra: A book for everyone and nobody (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005), 15.
2 Giorgio Agamben and Daniel Heller-Roazen. Potentialities: Collected essays in philosophy (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999), 253.
3 Ibid.
4 João Silvério in Dangerous looking-back, (Lisbon: Galeria Belo-Galsterer, 2015). Essay written for the solo exhibition of Mel O’Callaghan.
5 Meaning threshold in Latin, as cited in Victor W. Turner. The ritual process: Structure and antistructure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969), 359-360.
6 C. G. Jung.1990. Man and his symbols. London: Arkana. 23.
7 Turner. The ritual process: Structure and antistructure, 359.
8 Agamben, Potentialities: Collected essays in philosophy, 253.