Darren Sylvester: The Right Stuff - Art Collector

Issue 36, April - June 2006

Download PDF

Since the late 1990s Darren Sylvester has been photographing an ultra-cool cast of lovelorn youth. Now he's putting himself in the picture. Edward Colless checks out his performance and gets emotional.

He’s bunkered down in the Australia Council’s Greene Street studio in wintry New York. It’s below zero on the Soho streets outside. Is Darren Sylvester moving out of his comfort zone? “When I’m away from Australia, Japan is far more my sort of world,” he reflects. “It’s clean, friendly, polite, safe … hmmm … founded on repression, of course. Here, however, they do whatever they want; it’s dirty, dangerous, and people yell at you in the street!” And it’s clearly inspiring. Even after barely a week the impact is showing. He’s bought cowboy boots and silk scarfs, and he’s even thinking about recording a country and western CD. “I can’t really sing, so it would only be a gallery piece if it ever comes off.” He quickly adds, “not a work for release in the music industry.”

As a veteran of Goth and Emo styled art school bands in the early 1990s (a taste incited by teen years dressed in black and in a subculture as opposed as possible to the beach life of Byron Bay, where he grew up), Sylvester is no musical novice. Nonetheless, from the darker shades of the Smiths’ gloriously indulgent lamentations – “Morrissey was and still is my number one hero,” he admits – to the clipped, sentimental ballads of the broken-hearted urban cowboy may seem a lateral, if not eccentric, direction to take. From the doomed party boy pondering a fatal car accident with his girlfriend (“…such a heavenly way to die,” croons Morrissey), to the fool for love drowning in a lost weekend of cigarettes and alcohol? Well, perhaps it’s not such a great divide after all.

Darren Sylvester is a self-confessed romantic. Not that it’s quite so evident at first glance in his work. Introduced to a national audience by Rachel Kent’s 1999 Primavera show at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and with highly successful annual solo exhibitions at William Mora Galleries in Melbourne since then along with a prominent spot in the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2004 blockbuster, Sylvester’s photographic portrayals of lost, wistful or anaemic youth seem so distinctively cool in their high-keyed clarity, and so severe with their décor of consumer confidence, as to be almost emotionless.

In Everything In Life Depends On Yourself from 2000, a beautiful young woman, dressed in sober black and white as if she is about to head out to her $200K corporate job (or has just come home from it), sits poised on the end of her bed, alone in thought. Not quite settled, not awkward enough to shift position, her pensive stare is as blank as the scene in the window next to her: a dull reflection of her sterile apartment’s grey interior. The only colour in the shot is her skin and the matching apricot tone of a large panel behind her, on the wall at the head of the bed. Both are flat and featureless, and merge into each other. Her flesh seems as much of a bland decorative feature to her life as the coloured panel is to her austere bedroom.

Any kind of emotion, let alone the extravagant Gothicism of Sylvester’s angst-ridden mentors, seems a remote tremor in this psychological landscape. In fact, so empty and ruthless is this scenography that we feel it has to be a cover version or maybe a satire of something else, in mimicry perhaps of an advertising image. Of course, so much advertising now is lifestyle branding rather than product placement. The hook for the image could be anything, or everything, in the shot.

And yet, in this image nothing seems adequate or satisfying. As we grasp this flicker of frustration, we identify with the melancholy plight of the woman. We find ourselves apprehensively expecting something more and yet unable to imagine what it could be. In this limbo-land, resignation is as appealing as rebellion. The trite self-help dictum that titles the work could be a sarcastic denunciation of the success imperative that has delivered her into this perfectly tidy affluence. But it could also be a poignant appeal – or injunction – uttered in the same idiom of stereotyping that forged her own appearance, and that is destined to suffer the same paralysis.

It’s precisely this ambiguity – this coincidence of accomplishment and happiness with yearning and self-estrangement – that gives Sylvester’s scenarios their unsettling sense of submission, as if some muted but inescapable doom is prefigured in the expressions and environments of the characters. Five years on from the desolate comfort of Everything In Life Depends On Yourself, the world in his photographs has become an even more alien zone.

In Our Future Was Ours a gang of good-looking college or university students spend their lunch break hanging about in the library. They sit
studiously at their books, glance around, idly converse, scope each other, maybe flirt. The drama is so understated as to be unfocused, or at least neutralised. Everything they do is equally motivated, and equally superficial. These kids seem privileged, stylish, polite, content. Their future, declares the title, is already in the past tense. Is that a pronouncement about their own sense of entitlement? Of their smug solidarity? Or is the name of the high school TV soapie they might be acting in?

The implications of this title are as profound as they are trivial. Promise and disappointment, success and failure… these are not just conjoined. That would be a familiar melodramatic device, used to play out moral dilemmas and invoke tragic penalties. In this image they are instead superimposed onto the physiognomy of emaciated ambitions. That’s unnervingly amoral, and it’s alluringly beautiful. These people are like this century’s “bright young things”, destined to be wasted in some kind of social inertia as devastating as a battlefield.

Sylvester insists that this effect of immobilised, evenly lit glamour and hyperrealist sheen is just an outcome of his technical methods, not a stylistic aim. “People feel my style has been derived from advertising photography, but that’s not where it came from at all,” he explains. “It’s
me wanting to control the scene as much as I can. I need to make everything crisp and clean, and I go for high production values to ensure that. I hire my gear and so I always need to manage a tight, regular shooting schedule. You don’t seek out spontaneity or distraction. It’s like hiring professional models from the agencies’ catalogues: I like doing that because I won’t know anything about them. They turn up only for an hour or so, once the set and lighting have been arranged. They remain anonymous, remote and controllable.”

Ironically, he likes to feel the same distance from his medium as he does with his models, adamant that, while studying graphic design at art school, he picked up photography as a convenience. In his graphic work, Sylvester had developed a labour intensive method of building up densely layered collages. “Dark, tortured, gloomy things that no-one could understand, at least not without a couple of hours’ explanation from me,” he says. At the same time, however, he passionately loved the music of the Carpenters. “Their lyrics were always sad and about emotional relationships but sealed beneath glossy west coast melodies. Pop songs like theirs communicate complicated sentiments simply and directly in a few minutes, and they stay with you for ages.” He realised he wanted his art to have that kind of impact, and so he knew he had to make art in a similar way. “Photography seemed the way to do it. An image and a title. It’s there in front of you.”

Sylvester uses his own short stories – written in the sort of lean, realist but compassionate style of Raymond Carver – as an equivalent to the pop song. “Usually I find a sentence or line from my story as a title for the art work, and from then I think: what would be an image to go with that?” This is a process of abstraction as well as contraction. The photographic image isn’t an illustration of the story, nor even of the title. Instead, the photograph is a type of performance or mimicry of emotion induced by a minimal yet emotive script. And if that script is like a pop song’s lyrics, then the photograph is like a karaoke performance.

Just before heading to his New York residency, Sylvester finished a piece for ACCA’s New 06 survey show that turned the performative aspect of his work explicit and spectacular. You Should Let Go Of A Dying Relationship is a meticulous and weirdly comic restaging of David Bowie’s 1977 music video Heroes and of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights (released a year later), running side by side. Undergoing make-overs that would rival the finalists of Starstruck, a transgendered Sylvester performs these two tragic love songs silently, as mime, at a pitch of stylised hysteria.

“The costuming was like a dare or gag, but the performance was demanding,” he recounts. “I rehearsed every night for six weeks, over and over again, to get the moves and the expressions absolutely right.”

What makes the performance right is the precision of the mimicry. All emotion – tragic or exultant, in love or anger – is a performance. We enact ourselves as models, posed in a scene.

In If All We Have Is Each Other, That’s OK (from 2003), three schoolgirls get together over a KFC feast after netball. It’s an image of idyllic teen friendship, but their stereotypical smiles become uncanny, overstated and almost grimaces. On a typical shoot, Sylvester goes through six rolls of medium format reversal film in an hour, which can average out at one shot every twenty seconds. That doesn’t leave time for even minor adjustments. “I put my models in the pose, and tell them to stay that way,” he states, “In that photo I told them at the start to look happy. Then keep being happy. Keep smiling. More happiness! The girl on the left, her cheeks are red from the expression she’s been holding for 45 minutes. It can’t be helped. We have to go through all that, because it’s only then that we get it right.”

Share this page: