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JOHN CONOMOS One Never Arrives

A super interesting look inside the wise and knowledgeable mind of artist and writer John Conomos.

A sobering reflection on living, being and making today.

Thanks for sharing John

Conomos Hitchcock_20

The photograph : credit : Tim Connolly, Sydney, 2016.

Video and neon installation “ Paging Mr Hitchock” ( John Conomos, 2015)

“One Never Arrives.”

As one gets older one values our common world of aesthetic, cultural , dialogic and existential possibilities.

Art, writing, are in the final essence, shadows on the wall of life. Friendship above all these two any tick of the clock. But they are vital shadows that critically illuminate our lives.

When Friedrich Nietzsche, one of our enduring light – keepers, once said : “ Should life rule knowledge and science, or should knowledge rule over life ? Which of these two forces is higher and more decisive ? No one would doubt : life is higher, the ruling force, for any knowledge that destroyed the world simultaneously destroy itself .

Knowledge presupposes life, hence it has the same interest in the preservation of life that every creature has in its own continued existence.”

How many of us have taken heed of Nietzsche’s words ? How many of us as artists, academics, curators, writers and spectators are not clambering over each other in the name of careerism, self-interest and narcissism.

All of us, some more than others, are complicit – in the Sartrean sense – with the engulfing global free-market ideology that is seeping into our universities, museums, cultural institutions and industries. This is not new news, as we all know. It is just that reflexive knowledge, and self- and institutional critiques are rapidly receding into oblivion.

 What we are encountering, day by day, is a vertiginous global world of panoptic Fordism. Which is exceedingly fracturing Antoine de Saint – Exupery’s apt description of the world we have familiarly known as one being of winds, stars and tides. No time for such a world as we are too busy, too busy, in our public and private lives.

A few years ago, Jean-Luc Godard went to New York by plane from Europe and on his way back he chose to return by boat. Asked why he took the boat Godard replied : “ To see an open sky.” How many of us today see an open sky ?

One makes images and words because it is the only way one knows how best to interact with this world. One is compelled to do so. It is a vocation.

It is that simple and that complex. As John Cage use to say, rather enigmatically, “ nothing more, nothing less.”

One is also obliged to treat the past, the present and the future as one continuing dialogue of possibilities. Being alive to our one shared world. Treating the past as part of the present, in other words, believing in (to use Octavio Paz’s words) “ an antiquity without dates.”

In the late 1970s Susan Sontag was once asked what is the role of an artist or a writer in modern society? Sontag, who certainly lived up to her following words, replied that it was to pierce the narcotic veil that society produces on a daily basis and to show the possibilities of another world.

Art must be an invitation to contemplate the presence of beauty and the sublime in our lives as spectators, as artists, and as citizens. It is only in recent memory that beauty itself has been re-introduced into the discourse of contemporary art. Whether we speak of analogue or digital art both can be impoverished unless we are willing to acknowledge beauty as one of the definitive aesthetic, cognitive and ethical forces in today’s world.

To speak of beauty and the sublime as Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and others spoke of it as a co-mingling of awe and terror is to be willing to explore the enduring impact that they have in the literary, dramatic and plastic arts.

When our eyes encounter beauty are we compelled, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once argued, to want to draw it ?

Beauty matters in so many uncharted telling ways. Not least, as Elaine Scarry has recently demonstrated, because it is first of all sacred, it is unprecedented, and without sounding too melodramatic about it, it can be lifesaving. Whether it is Homer, Plato, Dante, Augustine or Proust, all of them averred that beauty quickens the beat of our hearts, makes life more vivid and worthwhile living. In essence, beauty greets you when you encounter it and indeed underscores the immense gift that life is.

It is also a calling to ponder the fragility of our material world and to seek , in a democratic civil society, that aesthetic fairness as well as ethical fairness are shared and central to human perception. Finally, it behoves us, in our universities, museums and schools that the beautiful artefacts of the people in the past are, as Scarry rightly notes, carried forward over to people in the future.

As artists and writers, one needs to be appreciative of the unwavering necessity to be aware of how many different kinds of cultural, linguistic and psychic borders, one crosses in their lifetime. It was Kafka who once described his nocturnal feverish writings as an act ‘of interior emigration.

The most direct route to the past and the present, knowledge and ethics, critique and poetry, is the one that roams freely across the ‘compartmentalisation’ of everyday life, that gets you from one point to another, that allows you to geographically and intellectually trespass, is the indirect one. Where everything is, to echo William Blake, connected to everything else.

 A sense of place has also been always dear to one. Landscape as lifescape, soundscape, tastescape, and memoryscape. Landscape as dis-location. Landscape is, as one sees and hears and interacts with it, something that lies, to evoke Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘beyond the cultivated zone.’ Beyond the law of genre.

The dramatic global changes in capital, power, media and technology have wrought –- new aesthetic, cultural, epistemological and ethical shifts in how we define landscape, community, home and place.

 We need also to remind ourselves that the critique of cultural amnesia as a mass-mediated malady of late-capitalist culture is not new in itself – for example, witness Theodore Adorno’s, Walter Benjamin’s and Martin Heidegger’s inter-war writings on culture’s obsession with memory and the fetish quality of mass cultural forms. This is an important issue that often blights our cultural and epistemological endeavours to discuss art, culture, history and technology shifting in our ever – changing techno-culture.

Critically, then, cultural amnesia is paradoxically conveyed by our computer – inflected media in our age of consumption, information-networks and global capital.

To speak of one’s own art and writing practice is always a difficult thing to do in the light of D. H. Lawrence’s wise cautionary observation “ Never trust the artist, trust the tale”.

For one is critically concerned with questions of seeing and hearing which maybe hovering beyond our present horizons of creative, cultural and existential possibilities. Neither here nor there, so to speak, but yonder. But as we do, as Siri Hustvedt once reminded her readers, one ‘ can never find themselves yonder .’

There is the rub : art and writing, for us , share a perennially nagging, half-glimpsed, striving towards an undecided elsewhere ( Maurice Blanchot/Hugh Kenner/Ezra Pound). One never arrives.

Art that questions itself and articulates an overall attempt to be self-reflexive, open-ended, always motivated to remind ourselves that art is power and it needs to be always ‘untimely’, to put in Friedrich Nietzsche’s term.

Creating as a polemic with our time-haunted world.

By existential necessity one is – what you would call in the classical European sense of the term – a ‘ ragpicker.’ Or if you will, an ‘aesthetic vagabond’ (Jean-Louis Schefer) interested in the multiplying ‘creative encounters’ (Deleuze ) that have been and are taking place between art, cinema , video and the new media technologies.

Concerned with the conversations that exist between these different art forms, contexts, and genres. Locating the ancients next to the moderns in the same room and seeing what may ensue?

Through cunning, language, mimicry and play one learns to value beauty, difference, exilic marginality, self-reflexivity and experimentation in order to survive, to make sense of one’s ongoing life.

You cling to experience, feelings, intuition, smells, and passion, as well as colour, form, genres, texture, space, fragments, essays, aphorisms, quotes and digressions like a marooned sailor does to floating wreckage.

One’s past, identity, and self is intimately predicated on place, gender, history, memory, and time. This means absurdity, irony, scepticism, solitude and vulnerability.

Rilke’s central belief that the artist or writer is the bearer of cultural memory will increase in importance as this century unfolds. Making memory matter.

Art-making (irrespective of the medium) as a fugitive, elliptical enterprise that questions one’s own aesthetic, cultural and epistemological values.

The artist and writer as self – interrogator, as trickster, crossing the thresholds of multiple forms. Always attempting to dig deep , mingling things, perennially engaged in boundary creation and boundary crossing.

Forever curious, sceptical and suspicious of things especially of the continuous prison-houses we create and incarcerate ourselves in the name of art, cinema, culture, knowledge, and society.

Having an unswerving willingness to leave the beaten path.

Art as a form of ‘travelling without a passport ‘(Steve Fagin) , or as the French would say, being ‘paperless’- homeless, ‘without (identity) papers.”

Engaged in critical speculative enterprises, located at the edge, always in the midst of things, suspicious of homogeneity, fetishisation and linearity.

To make visible the invisible, to say the unsayable, you need to be bold in your convictions, recalling Cocteau’s wise counsel “ Art is worthless in my opinion unless it be the projection of some ethic. All else is decoration.”

This means that the artist and writer of this centur, like in the last one, will need to cultivate a fluid capacity to approach complex subjects with lightness, speed and simplicity.

Above all, art that is being forged on the today’s anvil of mutating techno-creativity, space , time , class, gender, power, and spectatorship, needs to always resonate to the telling wisdom of Cezanne’s following observation : “ Things are disappearing. If you want to see anything, you have to hurry.”


John Conomos, Sydney, I July 2016.

Associate Professor, Principal Fellow, The Faculty of Victoria College of the Arts and the Conservatorium of Music,

University of Melbourne.

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About the Author

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RAYGUN PROJECTS is an artist run initiative run by artists Alexandra Lawson and Tarn McLean located in the CBD of Toowoomba, Australia. 2011-2018.

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