There goes the neighbourhood

As a New Zealander writing about an Australian, or rather the work of one, I feel as though I’m walking into one of those walking-into-a-bar jokes. Especially given that I am soon to introduce an Irishman into the piece. But the main protagonist in the tangle of characters that Adam Cullen’s aped narrative Amateur Exorcist presents is none other than the human central nervous system, or more properly, the “problem of having one.” 1 

Exorcism, traditionally a religious exercise, presupposes the existence of some sort of domain beyond the mortal plane. But in the context of aesthetic and cultural exploration, exorcism might involve an individual trying to magic something from a supposed realm of meaning with only the raw materials of earthly existence at hand. The title Amateur Exorcist proposes, perhaps, an individual whose limply beneficent dabblings with demonic forces will either not work at all, or go horribly wrong because he or she does not have the necessary aptitude. Given these circumstances and that Cullen is a suburbs­reared Australian of Irish descent, and a fey one who can draw, it is entirely fitting that he appears to study in the grand manner of Blarney Stone absurdist literature. Forged by George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and J. P. Donleavy (to whom Ireland is an inaccurate country which functions inefficiently with no regard for the facts) it is a tradition steeped in hopeless addictions to self-parody. 2 

Cullen’s employment of the term amateur is apt, because on the surface of it all, he is battling an investigation of Australian-ness against the looming immensity of the psychic landscape. The analysis of identity is a Herculean task – an utterly impossible undertaking for mere mortals who are but rank amateurs in this game – for there are no answers, everything meaning everything. Or, to paraphrase the words of the granddaddy of the existential crisis himself, Jean-Paul Sartre, things are entirely what they appear to be and behind them, there is nothing (Nausea, 1938). Statements such as this effectively level everything, and it naturally follows that on this collapsed plane that cultural theorists insist we now live on, all art is of course about art.

According to Cullen, ‘amateur exorcism is also about the danger of submerging oneself in ignorance, i.e. politics, aesthetics, art history’, and as a show, Amateur Exorcist starts with a work entitled THE MAN IN WHITE. This refers to the title of the 1986 novel by Johnny Cash and to his country anthem ‘Man in Black’. The progression from black to white was, for Cash, a reflection of his conversion from a dark, angry, misanthropic, addled state, to being a sober yet experienced man of God. In his novel, he openly identifies with the Apostle Paul, who, like Cash, was also remembered for singing in prisons. He was once named Saul, a feared, hateful man, but when struck down by the blinding light of God, he changed his name to Paul and spent the rest of his mortal days trying to help people see the light. He had learned, according to Cash, to become content whatever state he was in.

What does Cash’s post-detox coming of age, his acceptance of existence and seeing the light have to do with Cullen’s work you may well ask? Well, in an atheistic context, seeing the light involves the discovery of a different immanence, a word meaning something permanently pervading the universe (of God). But without Him, it can be employed to describe that which is everywhere, or in modernist terms, the Absolute Subject. Immanence stands in Cullen’s work as mortal and animal: an invisible but apparently perceptible white ligl1t generated by a whole lot of central nervous systems going for it.

Suburban life has long been the subject of derision in art making, or at best handled sneeringly with gloves of irony. Or as Cullen wrote in Birth of an Idiot or Where I would have Got if I’d Been Stupid, his contemporaries were “almost suggesting that it’s a crappy life and that there is a better one”. Cullen, on the other hand, with his white grounds and catholic tastes, aims for and believes his work to be normal, middle class, and, to quote Auckland artist Daniel Malone, to be “not for it or against it, but about it”. His output has the tone of mild reverence or at least an oh-so-shakily accepting attitude towards his homeland. The human condition is, after all, a Gordian knot, and our best bet solution to existential crises is to get used to this. This is implicit in Cullen’s dictum trifecta “Endurance is more important than truth”, “Beauty has no life. Sublimity dies forever” and “When you remove the dead from your car you just keep driving”.

Amateur exorcism sounds like a risky activity in that something undesirable might be summoned and get out of hand. And certainly this illuminated body of work does cast grave doubts on the supposed intrinsic goodness of humanity. It proposes instead a cast of characters who seem to be slaves to over-evolved and perpetually misfiring central nervous systems. Here, the vampire that is the naked ape theory of man is invited into the house of humanism, so to speak. Assertions of Cullen’s such as ‘we are supposed to die frustrated and confused’ and (via Charles Bukowski) ‘I’m fucked, you’re fucked, we’re all fucked, just in different ways’ are certainly risky to the fragile self-esteem of the middle classes. The detection of falseness can, God knows, be very embarrassing to all involved.

‘Amateur exorcism,’ according to Cullen, ‘is like something you could see advertised on midday TV. A special offer. It’s also related to suburban crime – Satan worshipping and all that kind of stuff. And how all religion, all spirituous activity, esoteric ritual is popular culture now. There are no extremes. Just extremes of mildness. I mean it is normal to love Satan – he’s a fun guy. And he still has choice.’ And it is the question of choice and middle class assimilation that brings us to the predominance of white jazz lovely men figures in this suite of work. They hover as symbols of social success, as the very image of self-assured, highly aestheticised, yet irresponsible manhood. ‘Frank is the sound of the suburbs - mild, popular and normal’.

The employment of the Sinatra figure in EVERYDAY I GET HALF AN HOUR OLDER is, among other things, a tilt to Martin Kippenberger’s A Man and his Golden Arm show. This 1994 exhibition included reproductions drawn on hotel stationery by Kippenberger of paintings made by Sinatra in the 1980s. During this heady decade Sinatra produced paintings that covered most every modernist style imaginable. Kippenberger’s, in turn, played not only on Frank’s performance as a stylist and his drug addict role in the film The Man with the Golden Arm, but also on the German’s own drug-crazed abandon as an artist. Of this film Cullen has said, ‘This is when cool went bad. Pollock is another example.’ He cites Kippenberger as a role model of sorts – someone who “reconstructs normalcy and makes it hysterically tragic”. Normal is a key concept in Cullen’s practice, as is suburb. The suburbs are the site for his investigative reportage, a logical decision to make towards a study of Australianness – after all, you can take the boy out of the suburbs, but you can’t take the suburbs out of the boy. The suburbs provide him with an image of normality that is, according to Cullen, “hidden in full public view”.

The suburbs, invented in the desert beyond Los Angeles proper to accommodate a population bloat, with their patios, patterns, lawns and cul-de-sacs, describe the dimensions of the otherwise invisible middle class man. Duchamp recognised this – he said of LA as early as the 1960s that, “there’s no there there”. As Australians and New Zealanders are fundamentally suburban, it is apt for Cullen to come back with “Get it while it’s not- invade Australia”. This self-negatory stance is based, it seems, in the model that Cullen advances of suburban humans being creatures that “receive signals” (viz. the big baby with aerials in Amateur Exorcist’s last panel, if we are reading left to right, WHEN CAN I STOP PLAYING?). As with the suburban house, information gets into humans and goes stale. And from time to time it spills out in our talking, art making, psychoanalysis, dreaming, or whatever.

Anyway, back to the cast of characters, that bunch of dead (Frank, Dino, Kippenberger) and dying (Cash). In the anatomy museum attached to the University of Otago in Dunedin there is a beautifully preserved specimen of a human central nervous system. Beneath the brain (that clam between our ears that we must contend with no matter what we believe) the nerves normally housed within the spinal column drape down suspended in this wet-specimen’s torso-length glass cylinder full of pickling fluid. It is pretty colourless and looks like a primitive marine animal – a lot like a man-a-war, but much more like one of those corally creatures that resembles a plant, its branches fanning out in an endless process of division until mere sensory hairs mark out its physical limits.

This jellyfish, being the nexus, sexus and plexus of all human tics, spasms and emotional power surges, often figures in absurdist fiction as the root of human dysfunction. William S. Burroughs in Naked Lunch (1959) described what would be left behind of a human upon its surgical removal as The Complete All-American De-anxietized Man. And in veteran satirist Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galápagos (set a million years into the future and populated with smaller-brained, once again flippered characters who look back upon our times as the big brain era) he wrote that the spilling of useless uncalled-for signals from our preposterously huge and active three-kilogramme brains made for nearly fatal defects in the evolution of primates; that this over­elaborate nervous circuitry gave out highly questionable advice and stupid questions, and meant “modern era” humans could be beguiled by mysteries, magic and meaning; that this was once a very innocent planet before the advent of those big brains.

Cullen’s work too highlights the absurdity of urbane, white jazz sophistication and, in the words of rock critic Richard Meltzer, always contains and implies that substratum of comedy. All significant references to man’s serious or skilled nature are compiled on top of this joke. 3  Our central nervous systems are containers for things that don’t strictly exist, being mere electrical impulses. Everything within the cortex, the brain’s bark, is pretty much out of our control, as are the passage of time and our own unsolicited existences. Our peaceless nervous systems are constantly reprogramming, input’s thin air impulses charging through our flesh. As we move through time, words group, and lines of poetry order themselves, and all that electricity comes together to form our sense of identity. And things fall off the back of the truck-as, overloaded, we lose hold of things. Drawingseems suited to this momentum, this wariness. Snatched video too; and text, for, according to Nietzsche, the smallest loss due to verbalisation occurs in tragedy.

Cullen has moved on from making “mortal” found object sculpture that bore the weight of the readymade world on his shoulders. There seemed to be a guilty conscience in those earlier works about making things, as if there was enough art in the world already. But irrespective of whether it needs it or wants it, the world is just going to get more art – that has been decided. Cullen is now involved with a self-negatory practice that is based in drawing, painting, and sometimes video: ”Every banal and aberrant mark I make and every vacuous word I scrawl signifies what I am not.” “I realised that the works collectively were like a public nuisance with a fluent verbal twitch. They signalled and articulated the scope for a project investigating the impossibility of identity and everything that makes this possible.”

In so saying, he reminded me of the perennially self­deprecatory Peter Sellers insisting “I’m just a microphone” in an early ‘6os Playboy interview cut short because they did not want to hear his real (tragic as opposed to comedic) existential crisis. His nihilism, anxiety and workoholism set him apart oil and water­like from the perfumed flesh and the successful, swinging masculinity that characterised the magazine. On the other hand, Philippe Sollers, novelist and member of the French theory group Tel Quel (which translates to something like “as it is” or “whatever that is”, as in la réalité telle quelle etc.), advocated moving past boring old nihilism. 4  It is, after all, so very, very torturously hard to think nothing (nihil). Likewise Cullen, rather than settling for impotence in the face of an inalterable ambition towards the Absolute, or Rimbaud’s diseases, as it has been termed, elects to give us something as opposed to the nothing of contemporary minimalist practice: sophisms, fragments, views; portraits, the nude (the nude, that is, in the Naked Lunch sense of frozen moments when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork). 5 

But the question remains, How does one be happy without God, or if one does not believe in consumerism, parenthood, careerism, love, spirituality, or any other of our palliative social institutions? In the face of having no relation to the Absolute Subject except for being a minuscule drop of subjectivity, Sollers advocates talking to himself. (Cullen also says of his work that “you get the feeling I’m talking to myself”. And that ‘Somehow I think it’s always been too late to challenge yourself to be happy’.) An internal narrative is better for him, Sollers says, than yoga or transcendental meditation, or indeed society, which he thinks has become a huge sect. Furthermore, he offers that there is nothing more enjoyable than drawing people into a serious matter which is suddenly going to turn into a joke. Especially when you’re dealing with people who take themselves very seriously.

It seems as appropriate to discuss Cullen’s work with reference to French theory as it might be to do so in terms of less worthy touchstones the artist cites or has quoted in his work (for example, Captain Beefheart or Black Flag lyrics), given the collapsed, round-and-round-in-circles territory that is contemporary visual culture. For example, Sollers goes on to suggest that if the question What are the most significant entities in the history of Tel Quel? and the relevant data were fed into a computer, two continents would monumentally appear: Joyce and China. This might go some way to casting some light on the presence of the “Chinese writing” section in Amateur Exorcist’s last panel. Especially so given that Tel Quel historian Philippe Forest claims that members of the group, like Cullen himself, are masters of the Chinese art of managing contradictions. Interestingly, the protagonist in many of Charles Bukowski’s thinly disguised LA autobiographies is called Henry Chinaski.

It would be tempting to continue trying to unravel Amateur Exorcist’s cast of characters by examining more of their implied terms of reference, but this would follow an out of date psychiatric model. Just as an astute analyst will nowadays direct you to the question itself for illumination, Cullen’s work debunks the idea that the ideal content of art be truth (endurance being more importance than truth) and that the basic function of artistic creation is getting rid of questions. Rather, his practice seems to be involved in an exercise of rephrasing the question posed by the solid fabric of the suburb.

Indeed, the mineral paralysis of matter and the flat open landscape of the plane belie the shifting sands of experience. This is evoked by the tangled horizon lines Cullen draws, and the text he employs: text has taken the place of the horizon line in his “landscapes”, drawing the limit of our understanding. Furthermore, he has said that his work, among other things, is about the insidiousness of language. He also insists that his is a standard modernist project, and that he is ‘a pure discipline kind of guy’. It is, after all, in our natures to chip, chip, chip away to get to the root of the matter or at least to follow the unfolding of time constructively.

Another of modernism’s dominant characteristics, besides essentialism, is progression, which often manifests in overt rejections of a forebear’s stand point. For example, Bukowski (whose short poem on the subject of art goes something like As the spirit wanes the form appears) in Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969) dismissed Burroughs on the grounds that he and the likes of Ginsberg and Genet had gone soft, cuckoo, egg-shit, female – not homo, but female. And Cullen, in turn, has moved past that dog-in-a-suit Bukowski by resisting his inherently bourgeois individualism in favour of “a positive system of self-negation”: ‘ … to make art is essentially a spirituous activity. Whether the stage is fuelled by honey ant dreaming or vodka, it’s all spirit.’

Another defining characteristic of modernism is art about art, and in these terms, Cullen’s work, as a presentation of psychic spillage, is also a proposition about the nature of art making: “Being an Australian artist means working without resistance”. Art’s truths are necessarily low-grade, being as resolved as the world, or at least as determined as the next guy. And life on the mortal plane is an endless process of receiving signals, involving art with a perpetual cycles of quotation - a situation signposted by the title of Cullen’s 1996 work I’VE HAD HELP WITH THIS DRAWING, in his reception of Mike Kelley’s “Too much is always expected of love and art”, and in the Trans-Tasman Frank Sinatra Impersonator character (that personification of Antipodean assimilation) in EVERYDAY I GET HALF AN HOUR OLDER. But modernism and other over-simplifications aside, it is Cullen’s amateur exorcism, his something-from-nothing Australian shamanry, Mars bar dreaming, and insistence on the impossibility of transcendence (are you happy up there in the sky?) that makes it conceptually sound for now.

  1. From Birth of an Idiot or Where I Would Have Got If I’d Been Stupid, Adam Cullen’s MFA thesis undertaken at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney, in 1998. Unattributed Cullen quotations in speech marks are taken from this work. Quotations in single inverted commas have their source in discussions with the artist.
  2. J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man, Random House, New York, 1961.
  3. Richard Meltzer, The Aesthetics of Rock, Something Else Press, New York, 1970.
  4. Parallax, vol. 4, no.1 (1998), was dedicated to a discussion of the Tel Quel group (1960-83) and their self-titled journal.
  5. The French poet Rimbaud’s last words, years after giving up on everything totally, were “Show me something.”