Level 2, Art Gallery of New South Wales
31 May - 5 July 1998
"Hey, I've got something I think you'll really like."
"What, a handgun?"
The inner-suburban social landscape with its mores, mindset, values
and detritus, are the world of soft targets in the sights of Adam
Cullen's critical handgun. On initially viewing this exhibition
one is aware of a sensation akin to being mildly assaulted - like
being jostled on public transport. And as on some public transport,
the first impression is one of vandalisation, of lines, images and
words out of context in the bland white space of the room. But closer
inspection reveals consideration. There seems to be an unfamiliar
kind of editing process involved here. Are these works the off-cuts,
or the product; the meat or the bone? After all, meat can be consumed,
whereas a bone can be fashioned into a weapon to obtain more meat.
So which is it? It can all be utilised. Everything is real. Everything
will be commodified, consumed, damaged, repaired and sold back to
us as new. And it's perhaps this notion that begins to emerge when
viewing the works of this artist. That they offer a glimpse of the
mechanisms of free enterprise, small and temporarily exposed in
a discrete space in the largest economic hub on this landmass.
My dad had sex with my mum(1)
Some of the works in this exhibition seem to be axiomatic. Others
behave on a political level, as slogans. There are drawn texts.
Look again. There are also drawings with text. The tone of some
of the drawing is reminiscent of tattoos, blueprints, schoolbooks,
and their shared character is somehow dark, playful, and on a subconscious
level, known. The text is recognisable, everyday. But thehat surrounds
and permeates us, is the minutiae of contemporary urban existence,
the over looked and the depended upon.
These spent shells of visual language - the fact of text apart from
it's content, the pattern or shading of lines of verse on a page,
the semiconscious scribbling conducted during numerous telephone
conversations - are the very modus ponens of twentieth century capitalist
language and the currency of this exhibition. But this language
is, after all, a found object. It is not the invention of the artist.
Some of these works can be seen as a reminder of this - and of the
tools we use to traverse contemporary existence and the way that
these tools are a part of the educated structure of ones persona.
They can also be seen as strategies and as battle maps of intimate
and foreign terrain's - as both language observed and discarded.
This is serious work.
Dee be dee be dee(3)
Adam Cullen is speaking in tongues, in a language that is on the
tip of our own. Here we have images recognisable from childhood,
made funny by infantile subversion - fairies vomiting and shitting,
for example - that pull the viewer into the mindset and value system
of the schoolyard. The image's pettiness is its power. It is perhaps
this inversion - and the notion of the adult as a simplistic, diluted
extension of the amoral, worldly child - which allows access to
the work. After all, there still exists a certain thrill, often
silent and denied, in seeing good things do bad things. Our attention
spans are short and we are; as a consequence, harder to entertain,
yet we can still be entertained cheaply. We are easily amused. And
no where is this better understood then in the field of commercial
Commercial media as entertainment, as information, is education,
as increasingly we see its intervention in our educational institutions
through happy meals, sponsorship deals and the like. The time of
the subliminal message is long gone. The constant, overt, saturation
bombardment of contemporary life by these media is both ignored
by us and yet absorbed at the same time. You can change the channel
but you can't change the programming. We find ourselves confronted
by a ceaseless heated tirade from advertisers, politicians, broadcast
events, history in the making, and yet there is no right of reply.
It is a given that must be taken, consciously or not. Honour the
giver by receiving the gift. This cacophony of messages, all to
be uncritically believed, becomes both background and foreground
in the mind of the consumer and in the work of this artist. TV is
king. And Benny Hill a close second.
It moves when you touch it.
Touch it. Go on. Switch it on. I dare you. Hey! Is that Pauline
Hanson on the video? No, it's someone pretending to be her. No,
it's someone who uses a curling wand and wants us to have one too.
There is no soundtrack acompannying the image. The screen's flickering
seems to animate the work on the walls in the same way as it animates
our view of the world.
The video becomes visual muzak in a room of social muzak. The television
becomes the point of reference in the space, as it has in our culture
and our lives, and it emphasises the similarity between the static
found on it's screen and that contained in some of the marks made
in these works.
I've been alive for ages.(4)
The television, as the endless hum of the human world, provides
the soundtrack of the suburbs, of our childhood, adulthood, dotage
We accept you.(5)
This work is not radical. The only lesson to be taken from radical
movements - in art and politics - this century is that they will
be subsumed and assimilated into the fabric of the state. The periphery
is drawn inexorably to the centre. I'm a rebel, so I rebel.
(6) Yeah, right. Buy another Cadillac. The radical is made impotent
through acceptance. So, if there can be no outside position, if
the radical has become normalised, then how does one proceed? In
the case of Adam Cullen the answer is excess - to push out the envelope,
to try to take things too far, to concentrate this visual flotsam
and context, of itself or through manipulation, shows a different
meaning and brings to the surface subtexts, hidden agendas, and
at times, small chaotic evils. Previous work of the artist has included
the lyrics of songs written down, and through this action they have
become simple lists; bad verse when deprived of their melodic accompaniment.
Organisational charts become glyphs depicting the structure of nonsense.
In everything there is an underlying sense of absurdity. Yet the
viewer is never sure that they haven't missed something. The form
is familiar and that is its authority. The media is the message.
Cullen's work, from the spray painted texts, familiar from the walls
and fences of suburbia, to his enlarged telephone pad appointment
dates long gone, and his spreadsheets from some parallel universe,
presents us with the visual substructure of our lives and to a large
extent, the means of our education. It is a language so familiar
and all pervasive as to be virtually invisible.
All these signs, telephone numbers, diagrams, speak to us of doing
business, of tactics for exchange and furtherment. "Never lose sight
of the big picture," proffer politicians and banks alike. There
is a goal - move towards it and never take your eyes off of it.
Our sights are firmly fixed on various outcomes, results, destinations,
Try living in the present for a change.(2)
Yet all our concentration is on the target - we are there. We have
already left the chamber. And the means of our progress, the charge
required, t jetsam until they become dense enough to create their
own gravity, to reach a critical mass. And this may explain the
undercurrent of absurdity, both dark and humorous, contained in
his work. This work is too normal, it is excessively normal, it
is so normal it hurts.
15 September 1998
1 Adam Cullen, text from his work My dad
had sex with my mum, enamel on board, 1997
2 Christopher Chapman, Zero to thirty-two
in twenty minutes, exhibition catalogue.
3 Dancey Boy, an associate of the artist.
4 Adam Cullen, text from his work Actual
Re-enactment, ink and enamel on board, 1998
5 Zippy the Pinhead
6 Public Enemy, Black Steel in the Hour
of Chaos, 1988