“The universe itself is alive”: Mel O’Callaghan on deep sea, eco feminism, and where life began
Working between Sydney and Paris, artist Mel O’Callaghan creates evocative large-scale installations intertwining art and science. Encompassing performance, sculpture, film, and sound, O’Callaghan’s practice is informed by a broad range of creative influences including Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, Czech theatre designer Josef Svoboda and artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori.
Currently staging her major solo exhibition All is Life at Sydney’s Carriageworks, O’Callaghan spoke to Briony Downes about how her work connects to deep sea exploration, theories on the beginning of life, ancient festivals in India, and a prized mineral collection.
Briony Downes: An integral part of every work you create is a period of extensive research. Can you talk me through some of the core ideas behind your recent work?
Mel O’Callaghan: The story that always connects my work is the transformation of the body—psychologically and physically. Over time my concept of the body is changing. Now I am seeing the body isn’t always necessarily human or even organic. For example, for [the exhibition] Centre of the Centre, 2019 I traveled with a team of scientists on a research expedition into the east Pacific Ocean. We were researching the origins of life and the deep-sea life forms that live at a depth of four to six kilometres. The temperatures in these places are very high due to hydro-thermal vents in the earth’s surface. The conditions are extreme, but scientists believe this type of environment could have started all life. Rather than an ‘organic body’, I learned life here was connected to inorganic rocks, and this was hugely influential for me.
All is Life came out of questions I had while making Centre of the Centre. When I returned home, I kept thinking about one of the texts written for Centre of the Centre—an essay by [critical theorist and anthropologist] Elizabeth A. Povinelli titled ‘Treating rocks as if they matter’. A lot of Elizabeth’s work looks at life and non-life. I came across two theories that really gave a structure to All is Life: Hylozoism, a system that views all matter as alive, and Organicism, a philosophy that states the universe itself is alive.
BD: How did you translate these ideas into what we see and experience in All is Life?
MO: I thought a lot about the idea of transmission between object to body and vice versa. This idea that you call out in the hope someone calls back to you. All is Life is essentially about vibration and connecting, so we begin with two murals in the main hall that visually connect the works and highlight different themes. A big performance space has First Sound, Last Sound—two three-metre, fully-functional tuning forks activated by performers. The vibrations the tuning forks create inform the performers what do.
Then there is The Pulse of the Planet, a sound work that originated from a conversation I had with Dr. Daniel J. Fornari, a scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. We were speaking about the tuning forks and how they communicate through sympathetic beat response, and he told me about these sound recordings of seismic vibrations . . . in the North Pacific Ocean and how one of the scientists would just listen to it, this pulse. He called it the pulse of the planet. Following this is there is All is Life, 2022, a video work about the Dhalo festival in India.
BD: What is the Dhalo festival?
MO: When I was looking up the two theories I mentioned earlier, I stumbled across how they related to termite mounds. How inorganic minerals from deep within the earth are brought up by the termites and mixed with surface dirt and organic material. I searched to see if there were any kinds of worship involving termite mounds and I found there were some traditional forms in Goa [a state on the southwestern coast of India] that have been practiced for millennia. The Dhalo festival in Goa is for women, and it relates to their connection to nature. They are part of the Velip community and are defined as eco feminists.
BD: How did you go about connecting with the Velip community?
MO: During my research, I reached out to a journalist who had made a video about the festival. His name is Devidas Gaonkar, and he is a very proud Velip man, a rights activist, a poet, a videographer. I work closely with other artists—Lisa Myeong-Joo and Zeeshan Sharif—and Devidas generously invited us to come to the festival in Gaonkawada village, Ambaulim where we were able to make this film.
We could never have anticipated the depth of the festival and the creativity of the women. I learnt so much from them. Devidas said that within their culture, women are highly respected, and they feel it’s through women they are able to connect so deeply with ‘mother earth’. You do feel it, it’s a communion. That’s a huge part of this exhibition—whether it’s communing with nature, with vibration or to another. I didn’t make that work on my own and it’s important for me to communicate that.
We’ve been invited back for Dhillo in October, which is the mirror festival to Dhalo. That goes for 21 days and on the last night, the women’s song leads them through a sacred forest. In the morning, they go up to the crest of a hill where they bury a spherical form made from termite mounds, deep in the earth. So that’s the next film. It’s always unexpected and it should be. We are always learning.
BD: A love for exploration and collecting has remained a constant since your childhood, as your grandparents built comprehensive collections of minerals. The mineral collection assembled by your grandfather, Albert Chapman, is now on permanent display at the Australian Museum. Did this early experience influence your path into art and science?
MO: My grandfather started collecting minerals when he was 12. His father was a captain in the merchant marines and my grandfather would find minerals in the ballasts of the ships and became very fascinated with them. His father bought him a small collection which he could then build on. It became his entire life. When someone is a real collector, that passion takes over everything. It really took over our family and it became our life as well as his. There was a lot of travel overseas as he built the collection, my grandmother was a collector too and travelled with him, and so did we. They were very involved in the ethics of collecting and mentoring younger collectors.
We had no idea how fortunate we were, but until the late 1980s, the collection was in our grandparents’ home. There are 800+ minerals in the collection, some of them priceless, yet we were allowed to handle them, learn about them and to connect with them. My grandfather gave me a small mineral when I was young, and I didn’t realise for a very long time there was a pocket of primordial liquid inside of it. I often wondered what would happen if I opened it? Would there be life in it? He and my grandmother had such a deep connection to the minerals and to the earth.