Darren Sylvester’s practice, comprised of staged photography, sculpture, video, installation, performance and music, reflects our interaction with pop culture and consumerism; driven by advertising, fashion references and mass-marketing, and expanded by the limitless reach of the Internet. From medium to medium, scene to scene, Sylvester’s sincere and at times humorous lens looks at our obsession with possession and substitution, within the confines of the banality of everyday life, love and mortality.
Bringing together works spanning his ongoing 20-year career, ‘Darren Sylvester: Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something’ is the Melbourne-based artist’s first major Australian exhibition in a public institution. Held at the National Gallery of Victoria, the retrospective features over 70 works from Sylvester’s oeuvre; 43 hyper-colourful photographs, as well as large-scale installation and sculptures presented in the artist’s signature aesthetic of colour saturation and high-gloss finish.
Sylvester explores how we are shaped by branding and what we purchase: our social status, our relationships and values. Our pop-infused lives are depicted in photographs from ‘happy’ teenage girls bonding over a bite of finger-licking KFC, to an American-style gathering where dressing uniformly – in this case, clothing from the Gap – is key to social acceptance. These brands, and others referenced in Sylvester’s works (Adidas, Chanel, IKEA, Cheerios, Subway, 1980s video games, Pokémon and so on), are perennial substitutes that provide only a fleeting moment of satisfaction, security and comfort. In Your first love is your last love (2015) a disconsolate schoolboy sits at the dining table of his well-furnished, upper-class home. The pages of a personal letter appear to be the cause of his upset and the detritus of a fast-food meal the quick-fix to his all-consuming teenage heartbreak; where global issues such as poor health and the use of recyclable products are, at best secondary.
Sylvester’s works deal with issues of mortality. Products are continuously made, overused and then either rebranded or scrapped from the shelves. In the exhibition, a chaise lounge upholstered in a McDonald’s discontinued Filet-O-Fish wrapping alludes to a therapy session where one contemplates existence, change and death, while the replica of a Simmons Suitcase Kit which contained hexagonal-shaped drumheads and used by bands such as New Order in the 1980s was highly researched and meticulously rebuilt, it represents ‘something no longer existing; a ghost of the original.’ Empty promises of a decommissioned aeroplane service Concorde are reconstructed by Sylvester in On holiday (2010) as a symbol of a decadent past; its contents including crystal glasses, Royal Doulton condiment dispensers and other luxuries. The End (2018) is a digital print that references the end titles of Universal Pictures films. It’s typeface taken from a retro arcade game’s ‘Game Over’ text, the words THE END are a confronting realisation of the world’s current situation, where all products and the emotions they instil can quickly dissolve just as fast as they appear.
For you (2013/19) is a throbbing, coloured dance floor with reflecting walls based on an Yves Saint Laurent makeup compact. The artist asked the French luxury fashion house for a supply of their latest range of lipsticks, eye shadows and foundations. Their colour palette – ‘proven’ to appear flattering by market research – is incorporated into the interactive performance piece. The work is inevitably about consumerist trends: ‘since the colours change every season, every time the work is shown a new current range of colours will be seen,’ says Sylvester. The accompanying music, like the lighting scheme, changes with every iteration of the dance floor.
This modification in Sylvester’s work shows our desire for more and the struggle to obtain, and hold on to, fulfilment. ‘Although we’re in a culture that provides hopes and dreams it never allows us to reach them,’ says Sylvester, ‘we’re still terrible consumers and believers – always investing, yet knowing there’s a diminishing return.’
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
Until 30 June, 2019