Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2014

Acute Misfortune (2014), by Erik Jensen

Acute MisfortuneThere was a lot to think about while reading this book, and it took me well out of my comfort zone.  I like reading biographies of artists, but although his prize-winning portrait of David *swoon* Wenham was on my radar,  Adam Cullen (1965-2012) wasn’t.  When the publicity blurb told me that this Cullen cultivated a ‘bad boy’ persona, (drugs, grunge, outrageous behaviour) I suspected that I was not going to like him – or the book.  As it turned out, I was right about the former – and wrong about the latter…

I like books that make me think.  And this book provokes the question, how tolerant are we as a society and as individuals, of people who don’t fit into everyday society?  I am not now thinking of discrimination, but rather of disapproval, whether expressed or internalised.  Erik Jensen writes the life of a most unlikeable man with some tenderness.  He makes the reader see that within the self-destructive egoist, Cullen had some charm.  And although Jensen is somewhat ambivalent about Cullen’s talent, implicit in the bio is also the question, are we willing, or obliged to be, more tolerant of someone of genius; and are we willing, or obliged to be, more tolerant of artists more ordinary that that?  Chris McAuliffe asks the same question in a more erudite way in his art criticism blog about the rad scunge exhibition.

This expectation that the artist’s task is to transgress raises the question of latitude; how much leeway do we grant artists, why do we grant it to them.  (Chris McAuliffe, art, writing, music, June 6, 2014)

I hope I have come to the conclusion that Jensen might have wanted, that genius is not the point. It’s easy to be tolerant and approving of Beethoven, who was cranky and rude and a genius.  His music is glorious.  But Cullen’s legacy is more debateable. He is said to be highly collectible as the Cullen Hotel testifies but he made the sort of art that polarises opinion.

I often like contemporary art, but I suspect that I am not alone in finding most installations peculiar and obscure.  Jensen distinguishes between Cullen’s sculpture and his painting, and if you want to imagine my struggle with Cullen’s art, try to read the following from the perspective of someone whose next overseas trip involves learning about Dutch Renaissance Painting with Academy Travel:

Adam was mostly a sculptor at this point.  He made scrappy works from used pens and unfired clay, giving them long names from theory and nonsense.  Everything looked as if it had been broken and he had tried clumsily to fix it.  These signs of caring were the works’ charm, and they were lost to some end in his paintings – perhaps because painting came more easily. The sculptures grew out of performances at art school: the lawnmower he started on stage; the cat he skinned while the Doors played; the cassettes he stitched to the soles of his feet; the pig’s head ball and chain that sparked his notoriety.

His sculptural masterwork, Residual paroxysm of unspoken and extended closures interrogated by a malady of necrogenic subterfuge with a nice exit, finally sold to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2008, almost two decades after being shown there as a part of the era-defining Perspecta shows.  It was, like many of his assemblages, maternal.  An air-conditioning unit, padded with disposable nappies, sits in a bathtub, connected to a television by a length of plastic tubing and, further on, to a battery of pharmaceutical instruments and drying mucus.  The impression is of a failed life support, an ectopic womb. The unplugged television exists as an aborted power source.  It is an extension of the idea explored in Cosmological satellite mother denied depressed speech, a beer keg to which he affixed a length of umbilical cord preserved in formalin, a specimen stolen from a closed teaching hospital. The works represented what had nurtured Adam: television, and then beer.

“It’s taken me eighteen years to f-ing sell it,” he said by way of celebration.  ‘They take this f-ing sh- out of my house and call it art.  It’s just so great.”



Hmm.  Apart from the fact that this last is not true, Cullen didn’t sell it, the Art Gallery of NSW website page for this work says that it was a ‘gift of the artist’ in 2008, this comment looks as if Cullen is mocking his admirers.  That’s if we take what he says at face value…

(The arrangement of text suggests that Erik Jensen took this comment at face value.  That asterisk above signals the end of that episode.  It’s followed immediately by a sequence about Cullen’s abortive doctorate. So although elsewhere Jensen makes it obvious that Cullen plays fast and loose with the truth, there’s no rebuttal of Cullen’s claim that the AGNSW bought the work.)

Ok, the artist is representing a fractured view of contemporary life.  Just as *reluctant frown* the Impressionists represented their impressions of contemporary life.  But IMO it’s a whole lot easier to understand and admire their work.  *Another reluctant frown* Would I have been one of those reacting with a doubtful ‘hmmm’ when Impressionism was first exhibited at the Paris Salon?

By coincidence this video turned up on my Facebook page today, thanks Chris C in SW Rocks.  (Apologies if you’re not on Facebook and can’t view it).  As one of the comments says: ‘Sometimes life looks like a pile of trash. Changing your angle can make things a lot clearer’. 

(Changing my angle) what is a reader to make of the strange genesis of this book?  In 2008, with claims that there was a publication contract Cullen persuaded journalist Erik Jensen to move into his house and write his biography.  Over four years, Jensen eventually realised that Cullen, who was seriously ill due to years of drug abuse, had invented the story because he wanted to get to know the author.  There were macabre events such as Cullen shooting Jensen and throwing him off a speeding motorbike.  The author follows Cullen’s descent into hospitalisation, squalor and appearances in court for possessing an arsenal of weapons which his lawyer the celebrated Charles Waterstreet argued that he intended to use in his art.

I am not surprised that this book has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.  For the right kind of open-minded bookgroup, it would be a terrific book for a wide-ranging discussion not only about art and artists and the difficult issues they make us confront, but also to explore how much Jensen has invited the reader to trust or distrust his authorship, and whether his own ego (or the need to make use of four years of his own work) has influenced his perspective.

Author: Erik Jensen
Title: Acute Misfortune, the Life and Death of Adam Cullen
Publisher: Black Inc, 2014
ISBN: 9781863956932
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc

Fishpond: Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen
Or direct from Black Inc, where you can also buy the eBook.


  1. Just finished reading Acute Misfortune. A quick, but disturbing read. As to Cullen’s art I find it interesting in the sense it makes me query what he is expressing. I don’t think I like it. He definitely had personal problems, and I doubt if he could have been saved.


    • Yes, it’s provoking, isn’t it? Which makes it interesting.
      I find it so sad that drugs are so often a factor in these messed up lives.


  2. […] 2015 – Acute Misfortune: The life and Death of Adam Cullen, by Erik Jensen, Black Inc. See my review 2014 – The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, by Clare Wright, Text. See my […]


  3. […] 2015 Erik Jensen, Acute misfortune: The life and death of Adam Cullen (biography) (Lisa’s review) […]


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