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

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Cassandra Bird Gallery, Sydney
opens 3 Feb, 2024


Dangerous on-the-way, 2017, two-channel HD video 32:9 with sound, 32 minutes 5 seconds

Dangerous on-the-way was a solo exhibition commissioned and presented at the Palais de Tokyo in 2017 and curated by Daria de Beauvais. Her two-channel video nvestigates the complex intersection of ritual, labour and transformative states of consciousness. Simud Putih, or the White Cave of Gomantong, located in the northeast of the island of Borneo, sets the scene for a remarkable centuries-old practice profoundly anchored in the cultural and spiritual identity of the Indigenous Orang Sungai. Twice a year they perform a ritual harvest of the edible nests of swiftlets, a migratory species in Southeast Asia. Suspended hours upon end in the lethal void of the caves, the Orang Sungai induce an ecstatic, trance-like state as a necessary means to transcend everyday consciousness and to perform their laborious act. The artist was invited into the family-owned cave over two years to witness and document this otherwise inaccessible space and the transcendental experience that takes place there.

The labyrinthine cave systems embedded within the mountain are worlds and ecosystems unto their own. Undertaken by the Orang Sungai men, the harvest is carried out under strict conditions - upholding at once their Animist-Muslim faith and the sustainability of the natural life cycles of the birds and the abundance of other species found within the caves. For a select few poised atop 120-metre ladders, the harvest begins in the void. Their eyes, captured in O’Callaghan’s film, reveal a gradual departure from everyday consciousness. Those below chant to the climax of the superhuman effort required to lift and pivot the monumental infrastructure of bamboo ladders and scaffolding, made according to traditional methods specific to each family. The faces and calls of the men are a jubilant overture to overcoming fear and surmounting the odds to procure their prize.

For the artist, it is in the apogee of the physical act of the harvest that the transformative moment takes place: the men disconnect from the site of duress and enter a state of ecstasy or ekstatis – meaning the perceived sensation of standing outside oneself.

- Alexandra Pedley

Film credits

Participants: Sahrel Bin Satar Aloi, Mien, Ondine, Abdel, Walter, Boy & the Orang Sungai people of Simud Putih, Gomantong, Borneo, Malaysia
Production: Mel O'Callaghan, Sahrel Bin Satar Aloi & Clemens Habicht
Community Liaison: Sahrel Bin Satar Aloi and Wyianna
Cinematography: Mel O’Callaghan and Clemens Habicht
Sound Composer: Richard Pike
Post Production: Clemens Habicht & Olivia Hantken, Collider Films, Sydney
AssistantEditor: Stew Arnott
Colourist: Billy Wychgel
Sound Engineer: Guillaume Couturier
Production Assistant: Sanie Irsaeva
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its funding and advisory body.

Commissioned by Palais de Tokyo and SAM Art Projects, Paris