Darren Sylvester is one of Australia’s most enigmatic contemporary artists, known for depicting the tropes of consumer culture, advertising and pop music with an uncanny yet satirical bent. While he is principally recognised in art circles as a photographer, increasingly his work has taken on the medium of sculpture, extending his skills in set construction to highlight the interplay between images and physical objects. Wes Hill, curator of the 2015 exhibition ‘Outside Thoughts’ at Contemporary Art Tasmania — in which Sylvester’s work was a feature — caught up with the artist to discuss his practice, touching on his childhood in regional Australia and his almost obsessional approach to art as a form of re-creation.
Wes Hill: What was it like growing up in Byron Bay? You also studied in Wagga Wagga; how have these regional experiences shaped your practice? I’m sure a lot of people who think of your work in terms of its slick sampling of popular culture would be surprised to discover that you’ve spent so much time in regional Australia.
Darren Sylvester: Byron Bay was a sleepy holiday town at that time. The high school only opened the year I started so I was lucky not to be forced to travel to another town. The school was arts focussed, and architecturally was shaped as a shell seen from above, with a lot of peach colouring. After I finished high school my family moved to Wagga Wagga and so I went to university there. The change of lifestyle was a shock. Wagga is an army and agricultural town mostly, so art students there are very much on the outer. Far less sophisticated than what I see now, teaching students at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne. I moved to Melbourne after my degree and arrived on my own without any scene to be involved in. I went to openings alone like a loser, but I applied for exhibitions and eventually got one and it all started from there. It’s very hard to fit in and get involved in an arts scene when you move from the country to the city. You’re practically invisible.
Wes Hill: Even though you’re primarily a photographer, I’ve always seen in your photographs an affinity for such object-based artists as Robert Gober or Jeff Koons, whose works have similar high-production values, and often with uncanny and sterile undertones. What is your relation to the medium and history of photography?
Darren Sylvester: I’m excited to find the right medium for an idea. As something develops over time it might change from video, to photography, to sculpture. Recently I’ve enjoyed pursuing the same idea in two different mediums. Hard to Say I’m Sorry (2014) is a photograph of a young woman standing before a cartoon moon, inspired by the Google Image search entry ‘girl looking to the moon’, which came about after seeing this motif in a lot of teen/goth/Tumblr sites. This, in turn, became a long-researched sculptural work, Moon Rock (2014), which involved me literally making a piece of moon rock using the same metals found on the moon, in the same ratios.
Wes Hill: As someone who also makes pop music, you have a fairly unique perspective on the correlations and differences between music and the visual arts. What are your thoughts on the simplistically critical or oppositional imperatives that still seem intrinsic to many people’s understanding of contemporary art?
Darren Sylvester: I disagree with you. I think contemporary art sits easily with pop culture today, perhaps too easily. Miley Cyrus had her debut show at Art Basel, Miami Beach. Jay Z does collaborations with Marina Abramović, and Kanye West seems to do art crossovers all the time, so he says. For me, pop music creation came as a solution to an idea, and so it later became a medium. I used to write short stories and scripts, but with no outlet I found I could apply them to pop music. The LP record would then also become a sculpture, playable in a gallery. And I deliberately like ‘pop’ as I enjoy its defined parameters to work within; time, structure, rules of success. Soundworks that are noise or abstraction don’t interest me. Putting words to music was, for me, a perfect outlet.
To compare art and pop music is strange and a bit silly; I get asked that a lot, as do many artists who are musicians, and vice versa. But I guess art offers a slow burn; enabling you to contemplate a body of work, to build something. Music, when it’s released, is up and down and over in a few days. On the internet things are reviewed daily, unlike most art exhibitions. By tomorrow, whatever you produced will be replaced by a new thing and the only way to sustain a music career is to perform, to play live over and over again, which you don’t do in an art context. Pop music also works in favour of youth, as it should.
Wes Hill: What I meant to suggest in my last question was that there still seems to be a critical divide between art and popular culture. Sure, there are pop cultural crossovers (Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, Pharrell, James Franco, etcetera) but I haven’t seen much writing that seriously addresses such practices. When I first encountered your work it seemed to be situated in terms of a trajectory of early-2000s Australian art that was post-critical — affirmative rather than oppositional/analytical. I’m wondering about your relationship to art criticism and the broader art-historical placement of your work. You don’t think there is a tendency to over-theorise contemporary art?
Darren Sylvester: Yes, that’s interesting because I see in Australia, especially Melbourne, a great love of theory — artist talks, philosophy talks, publications and people doing PhDs with lots of words and references. I’ve always wished for my work to be simple, and I still do. I find much theory speaks of exclusion. If you don’t have a certain amount of education you can’t be involved. Personally, I’m not smart enough to talk about theory in the way that it’s usually presented, and I don’t think this should be an artist’s responsibility either.
You’re right that the pop star aspect creeping into contemporary art doesn’t see much in the way of critical theory. I agree with you when you say that my work comes from a post-critical position. Under the surface of my practice there are, I think, many ideas, as I spend so much time on works and creation, but in the end the work is not so much an empty canvas to project another’s ideas onto. They’re my ideas, and that doesn’t help a theorist much.
Wes Hill: This might seem like a question from left-field, but, following on from your suggestion that good artists don’t necessarily need to have a good understanding of history or theory (Warhol being the most obvious example), what is your perspective on practice-based-research? How did you navigate this when undertaking a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at Monash University? Did you find that analysing your own practice destroyed some of its mystery?
Darren Sylvester: Honestly, I found that difficult. My supervisor would point me towards certain people and texts and I soon found that what I was doing obviously had been written about before with much smarter language. And, yes, it felt like all my personal investigations and the mystery I was discovering was falling away. So in the end I didn’t go down that path. My MFA project became a personal, anecdotal history of where my work had come from and how it was changing as I grew older. During this time I could also see that by reading and theorising one could create an art practice based on research, text and justification alone, which seems a really boring way to do it.
Wes Hill: When thinking about your re-creation of the Carpenters’ Los Angeles garden, I Was the Last in the Carpenters Garden (2008), it occurred to me that your photographic practice similarly emphasises re-creation. Even if it is an original mise-en-scène that you have captured, your photographs often resemble secondary images based on originals. Maybe this is because, as you mentioned earlier, you try to stay true to your original ideas, concerned with emulating the idea-scene in your mind. Can you speak a bit about this aspect of ‘modelling’ in your work?
Darren Sylvester: Yes, my photos are nearly all model constructions. I don’t make this explicit, except in the last series of photographs from 2014 (Dreams End with You) where I left elements of the construction in-frame. It’s interesting that often my photos are perceived by viewers to be simply taken, at a specific place, as if there was no research or artificial construction involved. Yet I suppose this also shows that the authenticity I strive for is working. The emphasis on ‘re-building’ or ‘modelling’ is probably due to the original idea coming from a pop cultural moment or movie or object that doesn’t exist anymore. I want the set to be a place that existed before and is brought back to life. Then this temporary world really comes to life when flattened through photography, creating a whole world. Just outside of frame, in real life, that world doesn’t exist. Maybe a work like On Holiday (2010) — which depicts the interior of a Concorde plane with official Concorde cutlery — shows this the best. Looking closely you can see that it’s created with plywood and an Officeworks chair.
Wes Hill: Can you speak about the references to space exploration in your work? To me they appear as stand-ins for some form of romantic longing, perhaps in an ironic, wistful sense. There is also a strong design element to these works, which brings to mind the space-exploration work of the American artist Tom Sachs. Can you speak a bit about these connections, and how long they’ve been an interest in your practice?
Darren Sylvester: In school all I wrote about was space. I don’t know why, but it began there, with all the deeply romantic childhood notions of space travel. I guess it’s about me never having been up there and never understanding what to do while I’m down here. Eternal human questions. When I think about them too much I feel depressed. So my art becomes about the making of projects, much like Tom Sachs does. What is a problem, or something that is unattainable? And how can I have it, or prevent this idea-thing from falling into a pop culture abyss? And so I end up building a piece of the moon in a science lab just to hold it, and I create things like Space Blanket (2011), which is composed of the same materials as an astronaut space suit, bought from the same American companies that make the real thing. This idea of rebuilding something just to experience it again crosses over into other works; a Chanel store (Dreams End With You, 2014), the Carpenters’ garden (I Was the Last in the Carpenters Garden, 2008), a failed drum machine (Drum Machine, 2009). These are all things that interest me, and maybe only me. I guess I don’t want to believe that some things are unattainable, or out of touch, or gone, or dead.
Darren Sylvester, Hard to Say I'm Sorry, 2014. Lightjet print, 120 x 160cm. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney and Neon Parc, Melbourne.
Darren Sylvester, Moon Rock, 2014. Aluminium, silicon, silica, magnesium, iron, calcium, chromium, titanium, manganese, oxygen, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney and Neon Parc, Melbourne.
Darren Sylvester, I Was the Last in the Carpenters Garden, 2008. Stills from 2 channel digital video, sound, duration 13min 14 secs. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney and Neon Parc, Melbourne.
Darren Sylvester, On Holiday, 2010. Lightjet print, 160 x 120cm. Courtesy the artist, Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney and Neon Parc, Melbourne.
Wes Hill is an art writer, artist and curator based in Lennox Head, New South Wales.