John Conomos and Steven Lojewski

From the archive of a body
Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney
12 October - 6 November. 1988

A play of words provides the title for this show which accompanies the larger exhibition From the Body of an Archive: the latter presents the work of Arthur Foster, a commercial photographer who worked mainly on architectural commissions during the first half of this century. Numerous glass plate negatives were discovered in the Mitchell Library by Lojewski and Mark Jackson; they then made a selection for the exhibition. Where the Foster exhibition deals with apparent objectivity, the Conomos one appears to deal with something far more subjective. The images are of the same man in different disguises as different roles are played out before the camera. He appears in one image as a businessman in another as a criminal, a surgeon, a pirate, an outlaw, a grown-up baby in nappies, a father. A common role he adopts is of an outsider, a marginalized character, the subjective experience of being part of a minority.

In one image he holds up a book full of mugshots of criminals (an archival clue is the visible date, 1935) whilst he participates in his own mugshot, the incriminating evidence, a gun, in his hand. The book is held across his chest as if it were his identification number. Is this a witty museumification of the criminal or an ironic simulacrum?

We see him as a detective complete with magnifying glass examining an album of family snaps. He fall back as if struck by some horrifying knowledge: a skeleton in the family cupboard? These images question the nature of evidence and the need to know and the need to label: yet, each image is framed and formally arranged around the gallery walls as if replicating the classification it seeks to subvert. Each performance by Conomos is carefully recorded by Lojewski who is well known for his documentary - mainly architectural - photography.

In this postmodern era, evidence may or may not be truth, what we see in the photograph may be real or it maybe an antecedent to reality - if there is such a thing - or it may be a fantasy. If the photograph is bound to its referent, then whose body and what archive?

In an effort to clear up the enigma of these images, I rang John Conomos - surely he would know. He talked about an autobiographical trajectory, a nomadic subjectivity and a photoperformance. He wanted to go beneath the archival, beneath the need to categorise, into the subterranean impulses and beyond.

The best images are playful with a surrealist edge: he holds up a fish as if listening to it whilst reading Plato's Republic. Or he is dressed as a businessman surrounded by piles of rubble urgently talking on a phone with a lead plugged into-himself? Or he is listening intently to rocks. Or his foot is seen surrounded by archival photos and plastic dolls.

As a Greek immigrant, Conomos sees his life and culture as marginalised, his existence as freakish and full of ambiguities. In Western society everything must be labelled and categorised, yet everything is in a constant state of flux. Our bodies are not permanent, the body's cells are constantly dying and new ones forming, we are never the same from minute to minute. But archives insist on standards, on labels, on certain methods of cataloguing.

From the apparent objective archive to the subjective, from the outer reality to the inner psyche, from the historical to the personal. In a way From the Archive of a Body attempts to deal with all these categories by presenting (ambiguous) knowledge through the body itself.