Meanjin | Is Art Pop? On Darren Sylvester’s Promises

Darren Sylvester, Who you are or how I meet you, I don’t know, 2007, digital type C print, 90.0 x 120.0 cm. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.

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…

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