Darren Sylvester is a Melbourne-based artist and musician, somewhat a polymath of the contemporary era; where questions of mortality are wrapped in consumerism; reality is contested; and self-worth is determined by social media. Sylvester has a knack for highlighting abject let-downs, genuine fakes and impossible dreams all in the slick talk of advertising and high fashion.
In his photographs, stories unfold within orchestrated sets which are given context by titles that appear flatly resolute – Your First Love Is Your Last Love, What Happens Will Happen, Just Death Is True. His practice over 20 years has incorporated sculpture, installation, video and music, each medium exhibiting both detailed research and production. Sylvester’s work has featured everyday readymades such as fast food, sports brands and luxury goods, the sheen of his subjects amped up to such a glow that they start to self-destruct. A self-confessed teenage misfit, Sylvester sought an escape: “I got lost in making and still do.”
VK—I’ve read that growing up, you were somewhat of an outsider in the beach culture that surrounded you. What were the incongruencies between yourself and your environment?
DS—I grew up in Byron Bay. Back then it was a sleepy town of hippies and surfers. I was a typical not-quite-goth teenager under a blasting hot sun. I listened to The Smiths, The Cure and Suede in my bedroom, dyed my hair black, wrote in diaries about depression and short stories about life – a complete cliché of the kind of kid I love and identify with, however instead of the grime of Manchester I was at a bright, sun-kissed surf beach in Australia.
VK—You then attended Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. How was that?
DS—My parents moved our family to Wagga Wagga just as high school was finishing. I’m glad we did because if I’d stayed in Byron Bay I’m not sure what I would have done. They couldn’t afford for me to travel to attend a university elsewhere – at Charles Sturt I studied photography, which I chose because I had never done it before.
I felt like Wagga Wagga was a major city in comparison to Byron Bay, and now teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) in Melbourne, I can see I had a completely different learning experience in terms of country versus city university art life. In Melbourne you leave a degree knowing full well the hierarchy of galleries, artist-run spaces and where to show. It’s set up for you. For country students that art world doesn’t exist. I believe this cemented the themes of my practice, without my being influenced by style or trends.
I remember calling Anna Schwartz Gallery and asking if I could exhibit. I just went through the art guides and started at ‘A’.
VK—You started to see early success with shows at the Centre for Contemporary Photography and William Mora Galleries in Melbourne in the 1990s. Why did photography initially become the language of your practice?
DS—I did well at it during university, so I stuck with it. It became an ideal medium as I was a slow painter and couldn’t get the look I wanted in that medium. Photography could be representational or I could play tricks with it. I was into darkroom printing and spent most of my days in the dark where I could be alone and work on a project. In Melbourne I had limited access to darkrooms and I changed to colour transparency film, and suddenly everything was in saturated colour.
VK—Storytelling is quite a pivotal aspect of your work. How did narrative come to underpin your photography work?
DS—It carried on from my teenage diaries. After arriving in Melbourne, I continued writing short stories. I went on to write a number of film scripts in the early 2000s – one was picked up by the Australian Film Commission in 2001 and went into script development before fading out. I worked on scriptwriting for another five years. Those short stories would be distilled into a line which became a title, the image became the background or music to the lyric. The photographs became highly choreographed yet simple compositions that jarred with the title.
VK—Your practice has drawn on advertising, cinema and even Yves Saint Laurent makeup – all which speak of veneers, yet the titles to your works are often introspective and emotive. How do you see this chasm between the surface and the interior world?
DS—There’s a deep sadness in that chasm. We create that gap through advertising, cinema, cosmetics, music and social media. Instagram is a drug that feeds sadness: scrolling through the aspirational lives of holiday makers, successful artists, models and influencers all while lying in bed, feeling selfdoubt and depression. Then we place a construction of ourselves up to pretend we’re OK.
VK—While using the same glossy surfaces of advertising and brands you point to their inherent deceptiveness. Yet your works, like Céline at Bus Projects (2017) aren’t necessarily moralising.
DS—Céline is a great example of my practice. The work originated in malls overseas where I photographed the slab of marble outside Céline stores. After several years I realised that I was drawn to it because it resembled minimalist sculpture, and being stone it was like entering a cave with halo lighting pulling you in. I found it powerful that the material – once part of the earth – was now cut and presented as art. It’s a reconstructed readymade.
After the Bus exhibition, Phoebe Philo stepped down as designer at Céline and was replaced by Hedi Slimane who changed Céline to simply Celine. I’ve said before that my sculptural works are about mortality. My Céline work now illustrates something that no longer exists. The work changes meaning to become a monument, a tombstone. It becomes #oldceline. It ties in with the McDonald’s psychiatry couches I made that were modelled on Styrofoam shell packaging from the 1980s, which I had kept as a teen and found when I was cleaning up. The power of the design and the passing of life lent itself to be turned into a couch designed for self-reflection.
VK—The idea of yearning for something more, perhaps something that is unattainable, seems to reverberate through your practice. Are you alluding to advertisers manufacturing desire, or do we see a hint of some spiritually deeper need?
DS—I’m not alluding to anything, I think writers like yourself or critics can call out what they see. I personally make whatever has the most interest to me, either a sculpture, a song, a title, an image. That is why my practice is so diverse, I go with whatever I feel needs to be made. Everything is a form of self-portraiture.
VK—Nostalgia seems to be a way that this sense of yearning creeps into your work. What draws you to some of your aesthetic choices that draw on the past?
DS—These aesthetic choices are my history. My culture is pop culture. My background is TV, not religion or spirituality. I can only speak of my own life: I’m trying to make sense of it all, like everyone. I’m moving forward, and I don’t want anything left behind, if something has a pull on me I want to hold onto it, drag it from the abyss of time to the present.
VK—Outer space seems like a lonely yet aesthetically rich territory. It has regularly featured in your work such as the cinematic space set in Out of Life. What significance does it hold for you?
DS—It holds over me what it holds to all: the great beyond, limitlessness and deathly nothing. In Moon Rock (2014) I fashioned a chunk of the moon from the same scientific make-up of metals so I could hold it in my hand – equal parts romantic and absurd.
VK—In looking back at 20 years of your career for your solo show at the National Gallery of Victoria, what were some revelations for you?
DS—I’m surprised that themes have remained constant, even though through the years I thought I’d changed. Elements such as flight and space are throughout, as well as brands and products. There’s a photograph I barely recognise in the exhibition (If only we could do what we wanted, 2000) of the back of a head holding a Panasonic phone in front of a black background. I couldn’t make a work like that anymore, however in the context of everything it was the first where a brand name stretched through the image; it was a forerunner of work to come so became pivotal to the exhibition.
VK—Were there any works that you had forgotten about?
DS—I remember everything.
Darren Sylvester: Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia (Federation Square, Melbourne, VIC)
1 March—30 June
Forever twenty one
Neon Parc (1/53 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC)
29 May—29 June
This article was originally published in the March/April 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.