IN 1988, the New South Wales government in Australia purchased the famed 820-specimen mineral collection of Albert Chapman (1912-1996), a cabinet maker by profession and a world-renowned mineralogist on the side. Chapman’s family was left with a few pieces following the transfer of the collection that the Australian Museum tagged as a “national treasure” and “of international significance.”
Mel O’Callaghan, Chapman’s granddaughter, picked up from the family’s possession a mineral that was several million years old. It looked like a heart, and inside it was water. O’Callaghan’s mind raced.
What if I open the mineral and release the water? The water would most likely contain bacteria that no longer exists in the world as we understand it, which most likely could alter the forms of the body, of genetics, of forms of science.
She eventually began to wonder how—with the millenniums-old moist that was presumably there at the creation of life on earth—did life exactly start. What is the meaning of it? What is in the center of it all?
The idea supplies the premise of the ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) of De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, titled What Lies Within: Centre of the Centre.
The show first acknowledges the blind spots with regards to our knowledge of the human psyche and the world in general, then probes into the unknown without pretending to offer answers—not the ones we already know anyway. Instead, it presents truths about the contemporary world.
“Without entering the spaces of magic, trickery, fantasy or fairy stories, the works of the artists in this exhibition employ evidence-based methods to arrive at expansive forms of psychic, ontological and otherworldly modes of understanding humanity,” MCAD Manila Director Joselina Cruz writes in the exhibit guide. Cruz curated the show alongside Artspace Sydney Director Alexie Glass-Kantor. What Lies Within, according to Glass-Kantor, has been in the works for years after Cruz was invited to a residency program in Sydney to look at ways that could create greater connections between the Philippines and Australia. They also intended to advocate for dialogue around the ideas that are occupying artist practices in the region and globally.
Glass-Kantor introduced Cruz to O’Callaghan, who presented her the idea of life from the water in the found mineral. Trained in visual arts and architecture, and working across film, performance and installation between Paris and Sydney, O’Callaghan is part of the exhibit with a three-piece presentation about genesis, composed of a large-scale video work, hanging glass sculptures and a performance.
At the time of her discovery and contemplation about life’s beginnings from the ancient water, O’Callaghan was working on a global solo show, which, coincidentally, also inspired her thoughts of new life and regeneration.
“Everything kind of coalesced,” the artist said.
She took the happenstance as a sign to pursue the idea further. O’Callaghan deep-dived in her pursuit and also literally at Verde Island Passage in Batangas, the so-called Center of the Center of Marine Biodiversity in the World. Together with acclaimed underwater macro photographer, Batangas native Dennis Corpuz, she filmed the area and captured on camera nudibranchs, which are casually called sea slugs that live to depths well over 700 meters.
“But I still felt that I had to go deep, I had to keep going,” O’Callaghan said. “Scientists believe that all life began there and that led me on this huge journey.”
The determined artist found herself spending a month in the Pacific Ocean on an oceanographic research vessel with a 20-person science team of oceanographers, geophysicists and microbiologists. O’Callaghan managed to film life unfold 4-km below sea level.
The footage from the two expeditions were made into a film, titled Centre of the Centre, the centerpiece of the exhibition that is a 20-minute, three-channel HD color video with sound. The piece takes viewers into underwater life, flourishing not only with extremophiles but with also hydrothermal vents that propel gases, along with minerals, corals, plants: an entirely different world where life is purported to have begun and continues to persist.
Glass-Kantor added that the setting is also where gas from the Earth’s core of 450 degrees is meeting 4-degree water. “At that point, in which the gas meets the water, neither is gas nor water. It’s a stage in between,” she said.
The in-between stage is another thought O’Callaghan presents in the exhibit through hanging glass sculptures, called Respire, Respire (formation). The installations serve as a metaphor of a trance state wherein the transparency and reflection of the material play with the luminosity of projected images. By using metal on glass, the pieces also represent pushing an entity to its limits.
In that pushing, O’Callaghan said, transcendence occur, and with it, possibly, life.
The hanging glass sculptures doubles as objects for ritual, activated by performers with choreographed breathing techniques as part of O’Callaghan’s third presentation, an act, titled “Respire, Respire” (states). The performance explores how we can use our bodies to create the conditions of change, of altered states of consciousness.
The patterned breathing of the performers ranges from cathartic to orgasmic. O’Callaghan has brought the performance across the globe, but added local touches to the version at MCAD. Filipino musicians, coupled with a whole array of instruments, created what she describes as energy and texture that’s peculiar to the Philippines.
Along with O’Callaghan in What Lies Within are three international artists who are, likewise, presenting their works in the country for the first time.
French filmmaker Laurent Grasso is showing his creation for the 2018 Sydney Biennale, titled OttO, in which he attempts to grasp the invisible, particularly the magnetic energy emanating from what is considered as sacred grounds among aborigines of Australia.
Meanwhile, English artist Suzanne Treister brings viewers inside the head of her fictional character, a London-based trader named Hillel Fischer Traumberg, who has made an extensive connection between trading in the global market and plants.
Last, Pamela Rosenkranz of Switzerland scatters around the space’s entrance and in a refrigerator PET bottles. Gathered from around the world, the bottles are filled with pigmented silicone, which mostly represent the median skintone of the people in its place of origin, including Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. This serves as a metaphor to the human body being distilled.
“Pamela’s works are found at the start of the show, but it’s actually the end of the exhibit, because I wanted it to end in the beginning,” Cruz said. “We go through breathing, through energy, plants, altered states of consciousness, then we end up in the body.”
What Lies Within is on view until December 1. It is MCAD’s last exhibition for the year, with the next one scheduled in February.