Mel O’Callaghan: Ensemble


A lone man stands in a field poised against three firefighters, the latter of whom are pummelling the man with a high-intensity water cannon. With his back to the water, the man resists the force and moves slowly towards the firemen. It’s a moment that’s reminiscent of protest movements throughout the world. It’s a display of the resilience of human dignity. It’s also the scene captured in Mel O’Callaghan’s video work Ensemble.

Displayed across two channels and projected over a 20-metre-wide space, the video encompasses the overarching themes defining O’Callaghan’s multidisciplinary practice: questions of resistance, struggle and transformation. Ensemble expands these ideas by exploring the political symbolism of protest. As O’Callaghan says,

“I wanted to do a work that related more overtly to protest and protest movements and over several years I’d been collecting a library of reference images and one that kept coming up was the water cannons, with either an individual or a group resisting the force of the water.”

By conflating the political, psychological and biological, O’Callaghan anchors the human body as a site to investigate protest and resistance. “When watching the water cannons I noticed how the body would move against the water in a very specific way and it felt like a universal symbol that people could identify with,” says the artist.

This interest with identification is ultimately a question of shared catharsis; the sole man’s eventual triumph against the firefighters likewise becomes a transcendent moment for viewers. For O’Callaghan, this victory speaks to our current cultural climate: “I think we’re at a crisis point at the moment and I suppose I want to go back to, on a more biological or primal level, the way that humans have this capacity to resist and to regenerate.”

Mel O’Callaghan

The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
17 November – 12 March 2018

Preview Words by Tiarney Miekus