Ensemble, 2013, two-channel HD colour video 32:9, without sound, 7 minutes 15 seconds
Mel O’Callaghan’s two channel video Ensemble (2013) tests the limits of the body to reflect on the human ability to resist and endure. Set in the abundant wooded landscape of Tonnerre in Burgundy, France, three firefighters move into the frame clad in futuristic silver suits and reflective helmets. We see them working together to turn on a high pressure hose directed at a single performer who enters the scene soon after. Typically employed to prevent harm, here the hose is used to power over this lone figure, physically imposing onto him. The force of the water leaves impressions on the performer’s skin as he holds his hands up in defence - making him stumble and fall as he gradually inches forward. Determined, he keeps his ground and eventually the firefighters begin to retreat backwards. Ultimately, the performer prevails and is left standing at the centre of the screen, alone and victorious.
The work’s formal cinematic qualities become intensely hypnotic as the narrative progresses. The film is entirely silent but the audience can imagine the deafening torrents of water drumming against the landscape. The silence heightens the tension in the work, making time more elastic, compelling the audience to concentrate on every gesture and movement on the screen. As the performer gains momentum and begins to cross the physical and metaphorical threshold of the frame there is a point at which he and the firefighters almost make contact across the two screens. It is at this moment that the performer transcends his own bodily and psychological boundaries and is compelled to continue as he turns with his back to the water and perseveres.
Ensemble is inexorably grounded in the universal complexities of what it means to resist and persist through time. The epic battle evokes heroic images of resistance throughout western art history such as Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), Caravaggio’s triumphant David with the Head of Goliath (1607) and archival footage of protests such as Bruno Barbey’s photographs from the 1968 riots in France. In O’Callaghan’s rendering the conflict against oppressive powers is symbolic, speculative and ambiguous, leaving the audience to impose their own meaning into the narrative. The protagonist pushes through anonymous forces, performing a choreography of refusal and dissent. His body is worn down and brutally impressed upon but he continues to fight through, an allegory for self-determination and freedom of the individual and collective political body.
Like much of O’Callaghan’s work, Ensemble is deeply empathic exploring the ability of the human body to triumph against imposing forces. Throughout her practice, O’Callaghan asks her subjects to push themselves to their very limits and come through the other side transformed. Her work often requires performers to transcend their bodily limitations through repetition, breath and altered states of consciousness and return to their bodies again in a moment of life-affirming ecstasy. By asking herself and others to keep pushing O’Callaghan empowers through resilience, endurance and release.
Performers: Clemens Habicth with Tonnerre Fire Department
Cinematography: Martin Testar
Post Production: Clemens Habicht
Production Assistant: Magalie Meunier
Collection of the NGV, Melbourne 2017