by Sabine Zetteler
Throughout his career, artist Darren Cullen has forced his audience to question their views of social acceptability and culpability. Citing the “Spitting Image Komic Book” as one of the most formative influences on his work, he continues to embrace some of the most difficult moral and ethical quandaries within contemporary society. In characteristically tongue-in-cheek fashion, Cullen acknowledges his need to constantly question and challenge as having been with him from a young age: “I remember doing a bit of detective work when I was a kid and secretly comparing a note I’d got from Santa with my Dad’s non-joined up handwriting that he hardly ever used. I cracked that case wide open. There was no way my parents could worm out of that one.”
Cullen’s Irish heritage has also clearly had a lasting effect on his worldview. “I have a pretty enormous extended family in Ireland and almost every conversation any of them have usually revolves around making offensive jokes and arguing about politics so that’s obviously had an impact.” When asked whose work he admires, Cullen refers to Maurizio Cattelan, the Chapman brothers, David Shrigley and Andrew James Jones—artists all also known for questioning social norms.
Much of Cullen’s work offers a commentary on the prevalence of advertising and its effects on society. Cullen’s most (in)famous work, entitled “Baby’s First Baby,” comprises a pregnant baby doll complete with its own pregnant fetus, offering a typically Cullen-esque take on the societal encouragement of young girls to become mothers through the marketing of products such as dolls and kitchen play-sets. The work unsurprisingly provoked numerous alarmist responses from the public and press alike.
Having initially studied advertising at Leeds College of Art, Cullen switched to a course in Visual Communication at The Glasgow School of Art before ultimately deciding that a degree in fine art was not the way for him. Yet, he does acknowledge the positive impact of years spent studying advertising, predominately in the development and communication of his ideas, saying, “I think I was really lucky to be able to learn about the creation of images from both sides of the fence. From the direct communication of design on one side to the more abstract and intellectual fine art approach.”
Cullen’s aim is not to shock or to alter people’s perspectives however, but simply to give flight to his own ideas, thoughts and feelings. “I’m not pamphleteering—I’m not interested in converting people to my point of view. I’m just trying to show people my idea of what I think is insane about the world, and hopefully that makes people who share my viewpoint feel a little bit less insane themselves.”
Politics play a crucial role within his oeuvre. Cullen was deeply affected by the impact of the occupation of Ireland, and his most recent work revolves around the thorny topic of war, highlighting the public’s lack of awareness about the activities of the British army. “The army is out there oppressing people on our behalf, and back home the public are simply fed plausible sounding reasons for why that is necessary. And it rarely affects us directly—the UK has been at war for 12 years now, but you walk down the street and it doesn’t feel like it.”
He sees a direct connection between humor and truth, which explains the continual use of comedy within his work. “I love that satire is nearly always aimed at the powerful. That a joke can make the most powerful people in the world appear ridiculous.”
When asked if there are any particular works that he regrets, he says, “I’m in two minds about the comic strip I did about Jeremy Kyle because although I still think it’s pretty funny, I think it could be seen as more of an attack on the working class than on the program itself. And I don’t really want to be doing that type of ‘chavs are funny’ type thing.”
Surprisingly, Cullen has never run into any serious trouble because of his art. “I’ve only ever really had indirect threats made against me, but no one has taken the time to really come after me. The worst was probably when I did the Santa billboard and there was this forum with some Christian NRA members discussing for page after page whether I should be shot or set on fire first. It was interesting to see so many diverse opinions on the topic.”
Cullen is currently working on a comic book-style, anti-army “recruitment leaflet.” This 20-page booklet contains numerous diagrams and semi-obscene comic strips on the inside, while the exterior folds out to reveal a Bayeux Tapestry-style version of the Iraq/Afghan war. The extended length of the paper (1.5 meters) requires the expertise of a specialist printer, so the artist has launched a Kickstarter campaign to secure the necessary funds. Of the leaflet, Cullen says, “I’ve tried to combine everything I’ve ever thought about the armed forces in one document and hopefully I’ll be able to move on after this and not think about it anymore.” The satirical illustrations reveal some hard truths about the atrocities of war, while employing the truly black humour that Cullen has made his name with.
Cullen’s Kickstarter campaign runs to 11 August.
Images courtesy of Darren Cullen