Mel O’Callaghan has drawn from her background in both visual arts and architecture to create a new work designed especially for the industrial buildings of Cockatoo Island. In Parade (2014), a series of functional, inert sculptural elements – ladders, weights and pulleys – appear upon a stage, made lively on occasions throughout the day by a group of performers. The intentions of the performers are ambiguous; they engage with one another and the objects as though acting out an absurd game, the purpose and rules of which are not made clear.
Parade continues O’Callaghan’s interest in kinetic sculpture and her compulsion as an artist to make objects transform. The presence of the performers and activation of the objects creates, in essence, a moving sculpture, dramatically altering the installation as it exists in its static state.
Just as a circus spectator may marvel at the capabilities of their own body as demonstrated by the physical feats of another, so too does Parade allow us to recognise our plight through the actions of the performers. O’Callaghan’s characters are in an eternal struggle between futility and the persistence of human will. Parade functions as a sculptural and psychological tableau; a cyclical and ritualistic depiction of the absurdity of the human condition.
O’Callaghan’s art practice – encompassing film, sculpture, performance and installation – is rooted in myth. For the Australian artist, myth and ritual can be seen as illustrative of the human condition, and art the means of addressing or solving conundrums raised by these stories and actions. O’Callaghan is particularly intrigued by the Greek figure of Sisyphus: condemned by the gods to a lifetime of painstakingly pushing a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll down to the bottom again. Often used as a parable for the absurdity of the human condition, Sisyphus’s fate appears a good metaphoric starting point for O’Callaghan’s artworks, which frequently examine man’s plight through repetitive, cyclic or futile actions.
O’Callaghan is drawn to harsh or barren landscapes, such as the ruins in Corsica which serve as a backdrop for her recent film Endgame (2012). In this landscape, a group of actors perform a series of abstract, game-like actions. There seems little point or purpose to their movements and yet the actors resign themselves to their tasks as if acknowledging and accepting the futility of their situation. Rather than looping conventionally, Endgame has been developed to play continuously and in various sequences so that the viewer never sees the same run-through twice. Endgame’s form thus echoes its narrative; an eternal, unfinished pursuit.
Parade: Rocks (2012), performed at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, and Galeria Belo-Galsterer, Lisbon, similarly examines Sisyphean metaphors with a group of actors moving cobblestones from one pile to another to form a moveable sculpture. The fruitlessness of their actions – dismantling their piles as soon as they have formed them – alludes to the value of working method over finished piece, and illustrates O’Callaghan’s interest in the fluctuation between hope and disappointment.
O’Callaghan holds a Master of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney; a Bachelor of Science (Architecture) from the University of Sydney; and a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) from Sydney College of the Arts at the same institute. Her recent solo exhibitions include ‘Balancing Act’, Galerie Allen, Paris (2013); ‘Endgame’, Belo Galsterer Galeria, Lisbon (2013); and ‘Each Atom Of That Stone In Itself Forms A World’, Grantpirrie, Sydney (2010). Her work has been included in several significant group exhibitions internationally, including ‘NATURA: Paisagem e Natureza’, Museu Nogueira de Silva, Braga (2013); ‘Desire Lines’, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2012–13); ‘Livret IV’, Musée départemental d’art contemporain de Rochechouart (2012); and ‘La Main Numerique’, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, and Maba Maison d’art Bernard Anthonioz, Paris (2010).