Mel O’Callaghan: Centre of the Centre


Mel O’Callaghan’s solo show, Centre of the Centre, at UQ Art Museum has recently reopened to the public, and is on view until January 2021. The essay below is from the monograph which was published alongside the exhibition. In this essay, Edward Scheer discusses the significance of performance in the multidisciplinary artist’s work.

How to Keep Breathing: Mel O’Callaghan’s Rituals for the Anthropocene

by Dr Edward Scheer

In the history of humanity, the one we name God and those who enjoy spiritual powers demonstrate their strength through a creative breath, through the domination of winds, through the capacity of setting, or setting again, in motion that which was motionless, rigid, dead. (1)

One of the key problems in performance art is transmission; that is, the extent to which a spectator may or may not receive what is presented, partly because it is often an experience, first for the artist and secondarily for the spectator. Performance artists, especially those whose work involves an element of endurance, submit their bodies to extreme experiences to push the envelope of aesthetics as a sensorial discourse, to circumvent other less direct modes of communication and find a way to engage with spectators at the level of the body. Sometimes transmission is attempted through shock, as in the work of the first wave of performance artists from the 1960s and 1970s such as Stelarc, Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović, Gina Pane, Chris Burden, the Viennese Actionists and Mike Parr; or through the extreme durational pieces of artists such as Tehching Hsieh in his five One Year Performances undertaken between 1978 and 1986. This approach is not always efficacious as what is transmitted does not always arrive – what is usually conveyed is still the idea of the experience rather than the experience itself.

Mel O’Callaghan has explored an approach to artmaking that has taken her into the heart of the transmission problem and allows her to pose some interesting solutions. For O’Callaghan, the way through this conundrum is the breath, which occupies an increasingly prominent place in her performance work. During her work Parade, 2014, commissioned for the 19th Biennale of Sydney, O’Callaghan observed that her performers (who manipulated a number of ladders, pulleys and other sculptural objects) unconsciously breathed in unison throughout and seemed somehow altered afterwards. Several years later, seeking to understand this phenomenon and methods for its induction, the artist encountered the doctoral work of Felicitas D. Goodman whose investigation into glossolalia focused not on speech patterns, or the religious experience of spirit possession, but on the neurophysiological changes that were driving the behaviour. Subsequent experimentation showed that trance states could be achieved with participants based on breathing, rhythmic sound and altered posture. These experiments also noted changes in blood chemistry so that ‘the stressors, namely adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol, initially rose slightly, then dropped below normal levels, while beta-endorphin, the brain’s own painkiller and opiate, made its appearance and stayed high even after the conclusion of the experiments accounting for the euphoria so often reported after a religious trance experience’. (2)

These experiences of trance in a ritual or cultural performance (as opposed to an art) context became a significant object of study within the emerging discipline of Performance Studies, especially in the North American academic institutions of the 1980s. The founding figure of the field at New York University, Richard Schechner, came from theatre but worked with the anthropologist Victor Turner to champion the study of a wide variety of cultural performances such as rituals, festivals and ceremonies of different kinds alongside the more familiar (to Western eyes) modalities of artistic performance such as theatre, music and dance. But the orientation towards ritual and especially the analysis of altered states of consciousness faded. The focus on shamanism as a cultural practice associated with particular ethnic groups remained, as in the work of Michael Taussig and others, but the study of the practical application of ritual techniques in post-industrial societies became less significant, as understanding the impact of digital media and especially technologies of representation on live performance genres assumed greater degrees of importance.

O’Callaghan’s own experiments have taken her into a similar universe of symbolic behaviour where the sacred overlaps the profane and where states associated with ancient rituals can be induced in participants in a contemporary art context.

In Respire, Respire, 2019, six performers enter the space and take up positions behind hanging sculpted glass panels. A musician plays a soundtrack of string and percussive sounds while the performers begin to breathe rhythmically against the glass. This form of synchronised breathing, sometimes described as holotropic, is designed to induce hallucinogenic or visionary states. While spectators can’t see the visions of those engaged in the performance there is a sense of empathic response as we witness them breathing vigorously and maintaining postures for the 20-minute duration of the piece. This is the length of the performance developed in collaboration with Sabine Rittner, an Associate Researcher at the Institute of Medical Psychology at the University Hospital Heidelberg, Germany. It is technically possible for spectators to participate in the breath cycle if they wish and perhaps experience the same kind of state as the performers. That this is theoretically achievable is an important development in the transmission problem, which has a long history in this type of performance art.

The experiential logic of this artform is that, by staging or producing extreme physical states, the artist can transmit the ideation of that experience, if not the experience itself, to an audience with more force and impact than other forms of representation. For example, in some of Mike Parr’s more endurance-based work, the delivery of the artist’s pain to an audience – electric shocked or cut or branded or stitched up or nailed down – sets up an immediate and intense presence that gradually dilates over the length of the piece. His 2002 work Malevich (A Political Arm) Performance for as Long as Possible was staged at Artspace and webcast for the 30-hour duration of the event. Spectators saw the artist seated in a chair, occasionally slumping forward, and if they looked closely they would see a nail through his right arm pinning him to the centre of the wall, occupying what Parr referred to as a vanishing point for the scene. The logic of this vanishing point, or the punctum, would likely not have been evident to spectators, nor would they have felt the artist’s pain. The intention, insofar as we can speak of this, seems to be that shock follows sensory overload. In a state of shock the self undergoes a kind of symbolic death, even for a moment. Performance artists have repeatedly used this symbolic death as a means of opening themselves and possibly also their audiences to new perspectives. The value of the shock is perhaps just this resensitising of the self through an exposure to experiences that do not permit a retreat into the past or the future. Physical shock focuses time into an instant, a sudden break from the usual flow. Extreme duration does the opposite, with the development of an experience of time as an unfolding, as real time but with the same result in that the self undergoes a kind of suspension. In Hsieh’s Time Clock Piece (One Year Performance 1980–1981) he punched a time clock every hour upon the hour for 365 days, leaving him unable to complete any other meaningful tasks. As he said in an interview, ‘in one hour I could not do much, my mind and my body have to be totally concentrated on time. Even if I were talking to someone I would be thinking, “I have to go and punch the time clock”; I could not miss that’. (3)

So we may well be shocked to see an artist’s arm nailed to a wall, and we may feel discomfort and be challenged, but we do not receive the pain that the artist feels. Similarly we can witness the documentation of Hsieh’s Time Clock Piece without experiencing the suspension of selfhood that an entire year of that activity involved for the artist. There is a limit of sensorial transmissibility in this genre of art. What O’Callaghan is exploring is something more direct, aimed at the spectator rather than focused on the artist. But she also adopts a familiar ritual format: performers go out onto the stage, enter the trance state and then return to everyday consciousness at the end of the piece. It is not an unstructured bacchanale, however radical the idea of altered states of consciousness may appear. The structure pertains to the idea of liminality, which remains one of the key topics for Performance Studies. The idea is of a threshold experience where one becomes aware of crossing over into a different state, either one of being (a newlywed, a graduate) or of consciousness (speaking in tongues, trance states).

Victor Turner identified the concept in the folklorist Arnold van Gennep’s division of rituals of passage into three stages: separation, liminality and reaggregation, where the participant must separate from their everyday life, enter the in-between or liminal state and then return. Turner uses this term to signify a range of experiences from ‘suspensions of quotidian reality’ to performance in general, and particularly to ‘performances characteristic of liminal phases and states’. He relates this concept to ‘life-crisis rituals’ for individuals (e.g. birth, nuptial or funerary rites) and for entire groups and cultures including ‘collective response to hazards such as war, famine, drought, plague, earthquake, volcanic eruption, and other natural or man-made disasters’. (4)

This points to the significance of performance in O’Callaghan’s work, and especially to the way that she utilises the breath to develop a new kind of ritual – a renewed response from the art world’s glossy surface to the deep world of culture in pre-industrial societies where ritual and ecstasy once played their part in structuring the lives of people before the separation of the sacred and profane. Perhaps this is what Luce Irigaray refers to when she warns that, ‘our epoch has to return to an awareness and to a cultivation of the breath before and beyond any representation and discourse. The accomplishment of humanity, its perfect realisation, requires the cultivation of one’s own breath as divine presence, in ourselves and between us’. (5) The personal ritual enactments of this vision are not hard to imagine and are present in meditation and mindfulness practices, but our contemporary consumer-orientated cultures lack the drivers for the sort of shared and collective practices Irigaray describes in her writing.

Mel O’Callaghan, Centre of the Centre, 2019, installation view, UQ Art Museum, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist and KRONENBERG MAIS WRIGHT, Sydney; Galerie Allen, Paris; Belo-Galsterer, Lisbon. Photo: Clemens Habicht.

In another kind of ritual, O’Callaghan presents Centre of the Centre, 2019, a video work made with the help of a deep-sea submersible craft. The video is a collaboration with Dr Daniel Fornari and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and was produced with the support of the creative collective Collider. Centre of the Centre is an artwork not a documentary film so there is no explanation as it cuts between the alien deep ocean space of hydrothermal vent fields and the shallow coral outcrops of the Verde Island Passage in the Philippines. The video is also a trace of a journey that the artist has taken to imagine and to report on zones of the world where humans cannot survive, such as these fields four to five kilometres below the surface at 9°50’N on the East Pacific Rise axis. The vents here discharge geothermally heated water at unimaginable pressures and as a result of the extreme conditions produce unique biological communities.

O’Callaghan shows us rare footage of lifeforms that have evolved to thrive in this harshest possible environment, offering absurd, almost sculptural images of survival against the odds. We are accompanied in this journey by the sound of the intensely rhythmic, almost gasping breaths of trance practitioners that serve as a link to the human world above as well as more literally connecting Centre of the Centre to the rest of the artist’s breath works. As climate change accelerates and assumes a critical state, this work, with its array of bizarre forms and movements, its soundtrack punctuated by the sounds of holotropic breathing, presents a kind of life crisis ritual for the Anthropocene. One section of almost orgasmic breathing ends in a long exhale as the screen goes black. There is no narrative here, no shaping of the experience, just an invitation to keep breathing.

Mel O’Callaghan: Centre of the Centre was co-commissioned by Artspace, Sydney; Le Comfort Moderne, Poitiers; and UQ Art Museum. The book is distributed by Perimeter Books in Melbourne.


1. Luce Irigaray, Luce Irigaray: Key Writings, Continuum, London and New York, 2004, p. 166.

2. Felicitas D. Goodman, ‘A Trance Dance with Masks: Research and Performance at the Cuyamungue Institute’, TDR, vol. 34, no. 1, 1990, p. 106.

3. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (eds.), Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History Intellect, Bristol and Chicago, 2012, p. 460.

4. Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, PAJ Publications, New York, 1986, pp.101-107.

5. Irigaray, p. 169.