Special Talent

Daniel Mudie Cunningham

Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.
– Janet Malcolm, 1994 (158)

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.

Adam Cullen
Drooges 2004
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 103.5 x 78 cm
Artbank collection, purchased 2004

"...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 and 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.


Read in full via the online issue