In the 1997 film The Castle, the obvious-talking young narrator named Dale Kerrigan has a totalising faith in the promise of shared, familial love. Even the threat of potential house demolition, the material site of this ‘togetherness’, merely commits him further to the promise. Yet we only know this promise once it flickers; once it passes to unreliability. For Dale, this happens at two precise moments when he surveys his family sharing tender points in time. As if short-circuited, the wholesome scenes are dramatically cut in the film. Instead of warm fuzzies, all Dale can think about is his brother, Wayne, who’s lying in prison for armed robbery (‘He got caught up with the wrong crowd—he didn’t mean to rob the petrol station! Now he’s sorry.’). Dale is learning a lesson: not only can promises be compromised, but the potency of the promise is never clearer than in its moment of frustration. Suddenly, watching Hey Hey It’s Saturday with one’s family becomes existentially desperate: it won’t last, it can’t be shared, someone is missing out, life can’t be everything you want it to be, and, even if it is (again, unlikely), it’s only fleetingly so.
This moment—the anticipation of promises fulfilled against the fact of life as it stands—is the stuff of pop and consumer culture: hip hop songs, sitcoms, toothpaste ads, televised sport, luxury brands, ‘wellness’ culture. The promise itself isn’t too important—love, wealth, beauty, youth, truth, power, sovereignty, revolution, freedom, social acceptance, human connection—but more so the persistence of the expectation. In a more meta guise, it’s the ‘promise of the promise’ that is relentlessly and earnestly reiterated in artist Darren Sylvester’s staged, sleek, albeit semi B-grade photographs, installations, pop songs and readymade sculptures. Walking into his survey show Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something at the National Gallery of Victoria Australia feels like wandering into a poised shopping showroom, with all works initially pointing at you. In a collection as equally shaped by Marcel Duchamp as Bryan Ferry, Sylvester’s art offers not merely promises and their complications, but how we know promises through their complication.
Sylvester’s work finds an empathy towards and influence from aspects of pop culture: advertising, blockbuster films, American television and serial commodities. But it’s the narrative crux of these forms, the moment where promises become alight, that Sylvester spells out. In one of his photographs, a surgeon looks down at what we imagine to be a dying patient, reminiscent of medical television dramas. The beautifully lit man is caught between hesitance and anticipation. His handsome face shows someone on the brink. Only he can surmount the insurmountable—can I do this? This sense of being ‘on the cusp’ lingers elsewhere: a young girl listens to a Panasonic walkman, mouth slightly agape, so that one imagines new dimensions are appearing just for her; an adolescent boy sits at a dining table in his high school blazer, emotionally obliterated, a love letter of rejection strewn to one side, debris from Subway on another; a woman sits outside on a New York-like stoop, a bag of Dunkin Donuts to her right and a milkshake in hand, her face wearing that far away, lonely look a protagonist gets when things aren’t amusing anymore; six young people of various ethnicities are intimidatingly staggered at a party, each giving you ‘a look’ rather than looking at you, all wearing GAP clothing. This last photo’s title? The object of social acceptance is to forfeit individual dreams.
It’s understandable that people suggest Sylvester is criticising or laying bare a narcissistic consumer and pop culture with his subject matter, droll humour, combination of sleek, semi-cinematic imagery and abundant centring of brands. This seems noble, but doubtful as to whether it’s actually the truth of Sylvester’s art. Especially when pop and consumer culture are already so good at ironically referencing their own pitfalls and vulgarities, Sylvester would merely be airing observations made in abundance. Instead, what one gets in Sylvester’s work—a catalogue of promise, desperation, desire, love, death and, most pivotally, people—is not an overarching critique or interpretation of pop culture, but almost the opposite; something invaluably qualitative. It’s an understanding of the very experience of pop culture.
This is unusual in contemporary art, where artists often make pop and consumer culture do the work of something else: Ed Ruscha and his gas stations and questions of urban space, Dan Graham and his Homes for America and the de-skilling of the photograph, Elaine Sturtevant and her ‘repetitions’ of male artists’ work, Richard Prince and seriality, Rachel Harrison and cans of Slim-Fast, Andreas Gursky and the intense capitalist sublime, Jeff Koons and his poodles and bunnies. For this small sample of artists pop and consumer culture is a mixture of strategy, theoretical position, cultural critique, revelations, surface aesthetics to decontextualise, witticisms, opportunities to play with value and spectacle, or a testament or abhorrence of mass commonality. Yet within this framework, the actual experience of pop becomes tangential: the personal and affective realities linked to phenomena like spectacle or mass consumption are presented as auxiliary. It may instead be that Warhol is one of the closest aesthetic relatives to Sylvester as both deal in brands, desire, repetition and death, and both reiterate the sincerity of their works even as they are co-opted as the ironic, cool, clever artists. (Although, when it comes to the irony/sincerity divide in Sylvester’s work I prefer this line from a short story by Will Wagner: ‘We listened to U2 and Morrissey and Kylie Minogue post-ironically, which is not to say, exactly, sincerely.’) Yet Warhol and others like him were content with the spectacle and seriality of pop culture, that quantitative and somewhat de-personalised aspect, where Sylvester pivots on how pop culture speaks to millions while appearing to only be intimate with one: you.
Appropriations of pop culture are also often gestures hell-bent on transforming pop into art, implying that pop is most valuable when it rises to the occasion of art. When speaking of Sylvester’s work, some critics have praised how Sylvester elevates pop culture beyond itself to something more truthful and important, ignoring that pop culture already contains its own truths and values, and that perhaps Sylvester is tapping into what already latently exists. Even though pop culture is endlessly appropriated, exposed and disassembled across various art forms, and even though art has become increasingly experiential, this hasn’t exactly equaled an aesthetic understanding of the qualitative experience of pop and consumer culture as it is lived singularly, by millions, globally, daily. What does a viewer, listener, dancer and buyer of pop culture actually do? What’s their aesthetic experience? What are the expectations, the ethics, the aspirations, the failures of this experience? Who or what will fulfil such things?
These questions, alongside the complicated promises of pop culture, consistently arise not only in Sylvester’s works, but in one notable form that Sylvester both creates and borrows from: popular songs. Music critic Greil Marcus, who has made a career writing on popular songs and their promises, espouses how great songs lift promises and listeners into the stratosphere: they tell you that something great is in your grasp, even against all evidence and rationalisation. But songs don’t let you get too far—in their form they tell you of the promise’s impossibility, of its unreliability, of its dream logic. And so one listens adrift, living at once both the fulfilment and failure of the promise. Take Kayne West’s Touch the Sky: the aspiration is so heartedly bragged that it appears reachable, until one remembers with a tinge of sad reality that no-one, not even Kanye, can touch the sky. Or Lana Del Rey’s Video Games: the fulfilment of true love is granted with all the crescendo the chorus can muster, but the promise falls apart when its achievement ends with total self-obliteration. And Earth, Wind and Fire’s September: the listener lives the promise by dancing to the song, meanwhile mediating on the futility of trying to fully recapture the moment of ‘dancing in September’.
Many have commented that Sylvester’s works are reminiscent of pop songs, largely because they have titles like If all we have is each other, that’s OK, Don’t call it love if they don’t love you, Frightened of something happening. Frightened of nothing happening, Dreams end with you, You make me happy and sad and How do you know it’s real love? And indeed they do somewhat resemble pop song lyrics, or are at least characterised by a similar emotive quality that blends short narrative and sentimentality. What isn’t commented on is that both pop songs and Sylvester’s images are in the business of trading in the same, exact, repetitive moment when the promise seems both livable and desperate. In conjuring this occasion, Sylvester doesn’t simply mimic the experience but produces it in cleverly detached ways, allowing it to become knowable. Pop culture—pop songs and television in particular—has given me the dominant aesthetic and social experiences of my life, and these experiences are not well-accounted for, especially in contemporary art. They may not be the noblest of experiences, nor the most universal or moral, but they are experiences nonetheless, and here is Darren Sylvester, at least attempting to account for it.
Interviewer: Consumerist culture has long been a topic associated with the art world. How do you think your work differs from other artists? What makes your approach unique?
Sylvester: Perhaps, because often I am not critical of consumerist culture. I treat it as something in life, like a tree, it’s part of the landscape. It seemed strange to not mention or show the brands’ influence in our lives. As I type to you now, I see a Mac logo, a Fuji printer and Yamaha speakers—all within a meter. These things stay with us, and they change logos as we change clothes. They have Twitter accounts and people follow them.
—2019 interview with Darren Sylvester, Metal Magazine
If you read one Sylvester interview or article you have likely read them all. He grew up in Byron Bay and later came to Melbourne; pop culture is his culture; his narrative aspect streams from his early writing of short stories and scripts; his work is ‘many tabs in a browser’; no, the art is not a critique of consumerist culture; he is quite sincere in his images, installations and music; he does not have any staunch opinions (that he publicly shares) on mass culture; any kind of moralising is not on offer; capitalism is all he’s ever known; he’s come to realise his work is a self-portrait; it’s all about mortality; yes, Elton John has acquired his work and yes, Katy Perry really was photographed on his McDonald’s-branded, therapist’s chair-like lounges at Melbourne Art Fair. Some write that Sylvester lays pop culture bare, others say he’s complicit. Some say he plays the role of the commercial, self-distancing photographer with gusto, others find him cannily, wittily subversive.
To me, Sylvester’s art exists in a ceaseless zone where communication devices and the lived environment have collapsed into one another so completely that anyone from Western culture wouldn’t see these images as an unknowable reality. They are life-like in the way that Instagram or The Ellen DeGeneres Show is life-like. Within such a landscape ‘the promise of the promise’ is both exhaustingly and exhilaratingly repetitive, from intimate images of lonely and desperate characters to glorified portraits of ‘cool outsiders’, which then morph into scenes of celebrity culture defined by crisis, that in turn sit alongside photographs illustrating the dual anticipation and unknowability of medicine and space exploration. Such repetition is affirming; a way of keeping various moments alive and open against mass ennui (and against death, an oppressive reality in Sylvester’s art), where culture turns into history the moment it arrives as the new. Yet the repetition also contains an elemental desire to record, with Sylvester recycling and recuperating personal and collective moments of cultural history against their own obsolescence—an exercise of his power as an artist, as well as a consumerist tactic that allows the old to be endlessly resold.
In the midst of all of this, there is one particular image that captures consumerism’s repetitive promises like a gift and an obstacle, promising anything and nothing at all. It’s a staged photograph of five models with claustrophobically close faces, each painted sparkly green, their eyes bright, and their unsettlingly white teeth enclosed by smiles so tight it makes my eyes water. What is this controlled scene telling us? It’s like an ad with no product, the ‘desire for desire’, a promise without content, a simulation of wanting that has never seemed more desperate. It feels corrupt, but also kind of sexy. It works on multiple levels—it could be visual fodder for the masses, or how the masses today are fundamentally aesthetic. It’s a reminder of theorist Lauren Berlant’s tenant that we value and form attachments to objects that hinder our potential for flourishing. It’s reminiscent of academics who argue that contemporary capitalism works by intensification; by altering, enhancing and co-producing one’s very subjectivity. At its most elemental the image provokes the desire to emulate, but without any conscious sense about what one is actually emulating.
Like much of Sylvester’s work, this photograph, titled Green Editorial, streams across aesthetic, consumerist, psychological and literary landscapes. The art feels almost anthropological, inevitably tied to the world, our collective and personal memories and associations, and our identifications built since childhood. Yet the osmosis goes beyond simple self-projection, seeming more emulative than merely reflective. Pop culture sees people of all ages repetitively engaged in emulative behaviour. A child makes a concerted effort to be their favourite superhero, a teenager obsessed with hair metal dons the image and masters the guitar solo, a person in their 30s feels lonely and so acts out their loneliness in ways they’ve seen on television and films, perhaps with no conscious idea that their emotive actions might stem from beyond themselves. In contemporary Western culture emulation is so normal that it is often overlooked, and under Sylvester acts of repetitive emulation are brought into an art world that only really likes repetition when it plays by the old Kantian aesthetic values—when repetition is considered authentic, by which I mean unique, disinterested and without purpose. Under Sylvester, a disinterested viewing is fairly impossible.
While the people in Sylvester’s images emulate sincerely, never seeming aware of their appropriations, the structure of Sylvester’s images make the process of emulation clear by setting up an aspiration while simultaneously laying bare the difficulty of pulling it off. This emulative sense exists quite clearly in his newer photographs, such as a portrait of a moody, goth-attired group, and older images of GAP-wearing young people and Adidas hikers in aspirational poses. Sylvester himself has emulated Kate Bush and David Bowie by recreating their music clips with himself in their roles—but, as in many of Sylvester’s works, the emulation is never foolproof and a slippage occurs between Sylvester’s efforts to complete the emulative project and the reality that he is, unfortunately, not Bush or Bowie. Sometimes these instances seem empowering in that they allow someone to be someone else. At other times it seems like a fickle tracing; an exhaustively aesthetic, life-long exercise. And to complicate the process, it’s clear that emulation in Sylvester’s images requires one to be distinct while also being part of a social whole that makes people similar—well, not similar to anyone or anything in particular, just… similar. By showing a form of living that asks one to be recognised for their image, the concern of Sylvester’s photographs isn’t whether these are real selves or the show of artificial self-constructs, but that the difference is nullifying; today, such a polemic of living has severe limits as to what it can tell us about ourselves. Looking at Sylvester’s work, all I could hear were Sheila Heti’s potent remarks in How Should a Person Be?: ‘…I should be satisfied with being famous to three or four of my friends. And yet it’s an illusion. They like me for who I am, and I would rather be liked for who I appear to be, and for who I appear to be, to be who I am.’
In capturing such moments Sylvester, despite the seemingly impersonal, sleek, TV-like imagery, is kind rather than condescending to his subjects. Here lies not only the sincerity, but the emotional aspect of the work. While we can’t necessarily take the emotionality of the images and their pop leanings for granted—as writer Mark Greif has commented, pop culture is premised upon telling people that the strong feelings it conjures are always and entirely real, despite their truth or falsity—we can take them as representations of what it’s like to have emotions that are often related to mass and consumer culture. This gets to something rare in contemporary art: the feeling of real, fallible human figures showing their private hypocrisies, desires and emotions, all within imagery tied to mass culture. In Sylvester’s photographs this plays out via images of teenagers finding the path between righteousness and looking good, people falling in and out of love, a character realising they’ll eventually die, a snapshot of someone who wants to be very cool all of the time, someone else who’s just been dumped, and someone who is simply trying not to feel so lonely. While pop and consumer culture can undoubtedly extinguish and flatten deep feelings, Sylvester shows how this is a one-sided narrative: the same cultural aesthetics can also cultivate a space for the experience of fragile, self-revealing, retrograde, embarrassing, shameful, sentimental, exciting, hungry and silly emotions that are prohibited elsewhere. Today, this task of finding the humanity under the mass guise could be considered the work of the artist, or the salesperson.
Sylvester gets beyond the tired polemic of either resisting or applauding pop culture to show the mixture of humane and impersonal experiences that build consumer and pop culture’s promises, as well as the extended complications and failures of achieving and living one’s aspirations. As a viewer, at first this seemed relatively hopeful—a reminder of all of the virtues of pop and desire—but then, over time, it began to seem cold. I would look through a catalogue of Sylvester’s images and, as if depending on the whim of my mood, could see characters that seemed purposeful and destined, but also stagnant, trapped and without un-coerced choice. Then one morning I realised something: it’s not that Sylvester presents things like emulation, cultural ennui, narcissism, intense self-construction, the quest for authenticity, luxury brands, money and consumerism as problems to be solved or exposed. Instead he shows how these things are often presented to us as solutions to living. Which makes one wonder: what is it about the way we live our lives that make these things seem like options, promises and opportunities, and even choices?
‘It’s also the braces,’ says my friend of 15 years as we look at Sylvester’s image of three girls eating KFC. She’s answering my query as to why the photograph doesn’t merely remind me of our teenage years, but could be our younger lives. Standing in the gallery, my friend and I are the remaining two-thirds of a previously inseparable group of three. We’re no longer in contact with the third friend. We don’t remark on this, but we do comment on the girls’ dorky demeanour, how we laughed a lot back then, and how we had the kind of intense friendship which could easily have seen us purchasing cheap matching outfits. It felt silly, idyllic, sentimental and slightly embarrassing to look at the photograph. As with many of Sylvester’s images, it was like we recognised something a little too well.
Later, however, my attention was drawn to the strained quality of the girls’ poses. The young models were attempting so hard to have a joyous time that their faces were becoming taut from the effort. I imagined Sylvester instructing them to smile harder, be happier, over an hour-long period. Of course, I thought, looking again. The discomfort almost makes the image unbearable—especially that of the poor girl on the left whose smile is about to break her face. Why is it that I see so much discomfort in Sylvester’s work, but I noticed nothing unhappy in this image? Perhaps, like Dale Kerrigan, I was too concerned with the promise.
Tiarney Miekus is a writer and musician from Melbourne.