Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.
— Janet Malcolm, 1994
On 19 December 2005, Adam Cullen staged a performance, Home Economics: Weapons of Mass Sedition, with then girlfriend Cash Brown to an audience at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (MCA). It’s only a week after the race riots in Cronulla and barely a month after then Howard Government revealed the Anti-Terrorism Bill that included sedition laws effectively inhibiting artists from expressing political critique or satire in their work. Appropriating the style of a television cooking show, Cullen and Brown demonstrated how homemade bombs are engineered. Using bottles filled with explosive fluids and chemicals, they built the bombs, lit them for a moment, and doused them before risking the explosive demise of the MCA. Afterwards the audience could inspect the bombs as if they were sculptures.
Normally I’d question the authenticity of the explosives, chalking it up to a performative conceit. But having interviewed Cullen only five days earlier—I’d heard him tell me how he wanted to explode (like his hero Hunter S Thompson who suicided earlier that year)—I found myself sitting scared shitless and realising how appropriate that my death might take place in a contemporary art museum.
Five days earlier I’m driving to Adam Cullen’s house. He rings my mobile to say he has to duck down to the shop and I should let myself in and have a look around if I get there before he returns. I arrive, the front door is open, and I let myself in as instructed. Tom Waits is playing, stuffed animals peer at me suspiciously from the walls, and animal skins are strewn casually here and there. Gingerly, I look around, seduced by his art collection and the view of the Blue Mountains rolling beyond the balcony.
Cullen returns minutes later, makes me tea, and his mobile rings: the first call of many. He explains that he is performing an anti-sedition piece at the MCA, and he has less than a week to get it together. Cullen’s mood is a combination of rage and nervous vigour at the Government’s conflation of sedition with terrorism. The phone keeps ringing as news gets around about the performance.
I have barely touched my tea when he offers me a Bloody Mary. “Sure”, I say. We toast to anti-sedition before he shows me a couple of his favourite things. He asks if I have ever shot an air rifle, and when I answer in the negative, he insists on showing me how. Seated at his dining room table, we aim the rifle through the balcony doors at a knotted section of a distant tree. Remarkably I hit the target on my first attempt. “Hunter S Thompson used to have a great big head of Edgar Hoover he used to fucking shoot all the time”, he says before lodging another pellet in the tree. “I’ve even shot holes in artworks that I didn’t like”, he says while loading more pellets.
The air rifle was a gift Cullen received when he was ten: “My parents gave it to me for Christmas and half an hour later my father was making a barbeque and my older brother paid me five bucks to shoot my father in the arse from the top storey of the house. He just went, ‘What the fuck was that?’” My Bloody Mary is half finished now, and I’m feeling less confident that my next hit will be a success. “Imagine it’s an extension of the arms and your eye”, he says when I’m not holding the rifle properly. “Very McLuhan”, I remark. “Sure is”, he agrees. I fire the air rifle and miss the target, the pellet firmly lodging in the doorframe. Unsure whether to be embarrassed, apologetic or just plain scared, I’m relieved when he laughs it off saying, “That’s pretty cool. I’m going to leave that there forever.” Cullen takes his turn and after three shots, he also misses the tree having coincidentally shot the other side of the doorframe. We just sit there astounded by the symmetry. “You’ve inspired me to shoot holes in my own house”, he says before making another round of drinks and setting down to answer some of my questions.
Last year I followed with great interest, the mixed responses to Acute Misfortune (2014), Erik Jensen’s biography on Adam Cullen—the first memoir on Cullen to be published after his death in 2012. Jensen spent time with the artist in his final years, obviously not aware though unsurprised in retrospect that they were to be his last days, drawing more from the relationship formed with Cullen than archival or anecdotal accounts from others. “I am writing a character study in which art—in the end—is not the most important part”, writes Jensen. What’s important to Cullen, to Jensen, to many invested in the industry of Cullen is the myth of the artist and its embedded tropes of genius and its torments.
When I first met Adam Cullen in December 2005, he said, “I find myths and legends important” before proceeding to describe various Cullen family myths like they were fertiliser for the rhetoric he had constructed around his practice. This meeting with Cullen, part of which is described above, transpired because I had been commissioned to interview him for a magazine called Empty (Issue 6, 2006). I was already aware of ‘The Myth of Adam Cullen’, and it was fascinating to bear witness to its propagation.
When Jensen’s book came out I was as curious as I was suspicious—having spent much subsequent time with Cullen as a Blue Mountains neighbour, friend and art world peer from our first meeting in 2005, until around the time Jensen came into the picture in 2008. By that time, Cullen’s alcoholism and drug addiction made him unbearable and unreliable, and I like many others were in a process of withdrawing from his orbit. Certainly Jensen describes his own experience of having abandoned Cullen some time before his death: “In the end, I found him difficult to be around. I moved cities but still got daily phone calls. I stopped answering them. His demands were sad and unreasonable.”
As the story goes, Cullen approached the young starryeyed journalist to write a biography contracted by Thames & Hudson. After some time, Jensen twigged that the book contract was a fiction; a ruse to get him to stay at his place and write his biography and ease his loneliness. Why this took him so long to realise is anyone’s guess. Surely negotiations with a commissioning editor over contract, payment terms and deadlines would transpire before embarking on such a project.
What unfolds in Acute Misfortune is not any further insight into the self-made myth of Adam Cullen, than a questionable tale of a writer manipulated into some twisted modicum of companionship. Reading Jensen’s book is like watching the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990). Cullen is played by Kathy Bates while James Caan as Jensen is captive writer. When Jensen describes being shot by Cullen in one instance and pushed off a speeding motorcycle in another, it smacks of Bates making mash of Caan’s legs, enslaving him to the whims of her literary fantasies.
When Jensen describes Cullen turning up at his twenty first birthday party, I’m actually struck less by the poignant scene he goes on to describe, than by the absurdity that Cullen courted a writer so young. Regardless of his age, there’s no doubt that Jensen is a talented storyteller. He’s a match for Cullen’s youthful capacity for the fanciful. While I recognise the voice of the ‘Adam’ I knew in the book, much is in the aid of painting a particular picture to service his claims. A curious case in point: Jensen describes how the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) purchased a painting from the proceeds of a fundraising dinner event attended by several philanthropists. According to his interpretation, the painting was “bought not with one generous sum but with the dribs and drabs of thirty donations... It seemed telling: this was a man no longer capable of mustering singular enthusiasm.”
Astonishing that Jensen could write off the painting’s provenance given it was purchased, like many others before and after it—with the generous support of a large group of AGNSW members called the Contemporary Collection Benefactors, whose very role is to support the acquisition of contemporary artworks. The quality of an artwork or the enthusiasm it generates is not measurable by the number of supporters it takes. But for Jensen it’s a convenient way of devaluing the work, and by default its supporters. But why would the author know this? This story is not about art, let alone the art world or its machinations.
Jensen reveals how attuned to Cullen’s lies he became, yet his convenient use of Cullen’s punchy quotes to push along the story reveals gaping holes. Cullen’s response to the AGNSW ‘purchasing’ an installation almost two decades after its creation—“It’s taken me eighteen years to fucking sell it... They take this fucking shit out of my house and call it art”— contradicts the fine print elsewhere revealed by an image caption in the book that reads: “Art Gallery of New South Wales: Gift of the artist 2008”.
But the art—its production, reception, collection or dissemination—is not what this is about, unless you believe that the Archibald Prize, which Cullen won in 2000 and had work shortlisted for another eight times, is what sustains Australian art. Jensen makes it clear this book isn’t about art; it’s about persona. It’s about how much he hated his mother and idolised his father (read loathed women, loved men). Amid the haze of Cullen’s addiction to heroin and vodka, his vulnerability and loneliness is revealed. Therein tangled in this ethical knot is the author’s realisation that his subject was “in love” with him. The great masterstroke of the book is its impotent attempt to ‘out’ Cullen’s supposed bisexuality after a string of overtures that are homosocial at best.
Sexual ambiguity for Cullen was just another stunt, like the performance where he chained a rotting pig’s head to his leg in art school. In 2006, my then partner Drew and I had dinner with Adam at his place in Wentworth Falls. He shot up in the bathroom, came out in nothing but his undies, sat between us on the couch (much to our discomfort) and made us watch all ninety four minutes of a VHS tape of Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away (1975) while he provided audio commentary on where the Cullen mythology intersected with the story of the hard-drinking sheep herders depicted in this landmark of Australian new wave cinema.
How could Cullen love Jensen? All of Cullen’s pathological anxieties and neuroses, dependency and addictions, misogyny and selfishness are so vividly described in Jensen’s memoir that it’s difficult to comprehend he had the time or inclination to love anyone let alone himself at the bitter end.
In The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994), Janet Malcolm brilliantly dissects the ethics of biography and its claims to truth, particularly if the subject has been canonised through the retelling of their life after death. Malcolm relays a moment in poet Sylvia Plath’s life where she felt enraged for having loaned books to a friend who returned them with pencilled marks and underlinings: “I was furious, feeling my children had been raped, or beaten, by an alien”, wrote Plath in a letter to her mother.
Malcolm sets up this anecdote to illustrate how “biography can be likened to a book that has been scribbled in by an alien. The biographer feels himself to be not a borrower but a new owner, who can mark and underline as he pleases.” In writing this critique on the problem of biography, Malcolm inevitably becomes another biographer who sets about untangling the threads of this artist’s troubled life, and the troubles broadcast by those who make their private accounts of that life public. Ultimately it is the ‘truth’ of biography that is called into question. “Truth is, in its nature, multiple and contradictory, part of the flux of history, untrappable in language”, Malcolm writes. “The only real road to truth is through doubt and intolerance.”
For Cullen, paraphrasing Charles Bukowski’s Nietzschean sentiment, as spoken by Mickey Rourke’s character in the 1987 Barbet Schroeder film Barfly: “Endurance is more important than truth.” Cullen often scrawled this quote along with his autograph when signing his exhibition catalogues. I have it written to me in a catalogue from his 2006 Penrith Regional Gallery survey exhibition Between the Lines: Works on Paper 1995–2005. But it’s what Cullen edits out of this quote that is telling. Rourke says in Barfly: “It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.”
In preparing this piece, I unearthed the recording of my interview with Cullen from 14 December 2005. About twenty five minutes in, Cullen snaps, “talent is cheap”. Not as cheap it seems as the sad remains, the residual emptiness left behind when an artist’s mythology dematerialises in plain sight.
Essay for Sturgeon.
This piece is an update and expansion of 'Waiting to Explode', Empty issue 6, 2006.
Published by Sturgeon, issue 4 in 2015.