Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with Darren Sylvester about the six photographs of ‘Treasure Island’ – diverse in subject, elaborately studio-staged, and rich in invention and pop-cultural resonance.
The glitz of teen memories of a school excursion to Tweed Heads made Darren Sylvester leap at an invitation from curator Sarah McGhee to show in the region. ‘I believed I was in Los Angeles,’ Sylvester recalls. ‘I saw they had mini putt-putt golf, for instance. On the bus ride back, we stopped at McDonald’s; I had 25c and purchased the warm cookies in a box and sat in the back of the bus eating them, in love with life and this town.’
The National Gallery of Victoria staged a survey of Sylvester’s multidisciplinary practice – across photography, sculpture, video, installation, performance and music – in 2019, whereas ‘Treasure Island’ is more singular in its focus. And ‘it’s enjoyable to limit a show to one medium this time around’, he tells me, with each of the six photographs being ‘major works in size’ that ‘need room to breathe.’
As its title suggests, the photographs of ‘Treasure Island’ are rich in pop-cultural resonance, in which the hunt for meaning is both a visual treat and a key to understanding the artist’s practice. ‘Yes, you’re right,’ Sylvester says about my reading, ‘the work contains many Easter Eggs of information, really only relevant to me in how the work is made, as I have to invent everything that goes into a photograph.’
‘Something like art is seen as high value,’ Sylvester says, ‘yet often I’m talking about something specific, some low culture ephemera that holds great significance to me, like a McDonald’s wrapper or discarded film costume.’ But relevance and significance are qualities of ‘Treasure Island’ that extend to us as viewers as well. Sylvester transforms artefacts of everyday life and evanescence into art objects in a process that imbues his selected subjects with a sheen of something special – something of a treasure about them.
Stacey (2018), for example, uses a displaced sci-fi film costume as an opportunity for one more curtain call. ‘Finding through auction, this worthless prop costume for sale of unknown origin, with the only detail being the word Stacey sewn into it was enough of a trigger to imagine this actor or character and how, most probably, they had passed away. By purchasing the costume and creating a final scene for them, I’m creating a memorial for the object.’
The End (2018) is another standout, with its nod to Universal films of the past. Its iconic revolving Earth was designed by the artist and custom-made by a balloon company into a 70cm globe that is hung from the ceiling in his studio like a prop in some B-grade movie of old, over which ‘THE END’ hovers, cut from MDF and stylised to font from a 16bit computer game about the Cold War, all on a backdrop of polystyrene panels painted black onto which silver discs were thrown. ‘It fitted into this idea of a pop-cultural death,’ Sylvester says about the final work, ‘so heavy-handed for an end to a film.’
To my eye, the works of ‘Treasure Island’ embody the saturated scope of cinema in single, laboriously crafted shots. These photographs, like a director’s signature, hold their own set of references and sometimes-distinct styles, and, in their finished form, they linger, courting immersive viewing and connective points to collective pop-cultural competences of current times – yet also stirring more subjective nostalgia for media moments of the past.
‘A different subject each time to me is very contemporary; it’s work made from a short attention span,’ Sylvester says. But also, Sylvester’s entire studio process, which is then captured as a single photographic image, leaves us with some of that cinema magic. In the artist’s words: ‘It’s like bottling lightning.’
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.
Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre
14 May to 31 October 2021
New South Wales