Since the early days of the millennials, Australian artist Darren Sylvester has reflected on society’s symbiosis with pop culture and consumerism through various mediums – stretching from photography to sculpture, to even recording his own songs. “Many tabs open in a browser” is how he puts his multi-disciplinary approach, relating his often-changing work to the internet age of today. Yet, the large spectrum of his undertakings over the years paint a clear self-portrait in his upcoming and first major Australian exhibition, titled Carve A Future, Devour Everything, Become Something, opening March 1st at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
I’m not completely sure what to call you, Darren. You do photography, sculpture, video, music, installations, paintings – and the list goes on. A pop-culture-hybrid-artist? Or is that completely off?
I would still call myself simply ‘artist’. It feels natural to me to move from space to space, medium to medium. I try and stay true to whatever an idea is, so if that idea comes through best in song, then make a song. If it needs to be an elaborate set photographed, then I do that too.
Now, you first gained attention for your highly-staged photographs, which conveyed the feeling that “our lives could equally be a series of advertising moments”, as described by Art Gallery NSW. It’s this mixture of the banality of everyday life touching the saturated consumer culture that takes place in your work. It’s playful and absurd, yet very ordinary. Why were you interested in this from the very beginning of your career?
I would stage photographs because I’d want an idea to be, for instance, of people doing something in particular in a particular place – and you’re not always going to find that out in the street –, so I had to make it, usually in my studio. Even if it was a picture outdoors, I'd hire fake grass and use that. I’d call it B-grade set production.
Part of this meant I’d have some consistency, as I use the same group of old theatre lights to illuminate everything. The other aspect that made the images pop like an advertisement was that I’ve always used transparency film, which gives great colour saturation and clarity, almost cold. It’s a practice not used much because it’s expensive and takes time. Even in advertising it’s not used much anymore, I imagine.
Over the years, I’m sure you have experienced pop culture changing in many directions. The obvious example would be the rise of the Internet, which has changed everything completely. What would you say have been the biggest changes in our culture and how have you incorporated them into your work?
I think my practice with constant change rings true for an internet age. I’ve described my work as ‘many tabs open in a browser’ – lots of stories about different things at the same time. We’ve had newspapers, however, in the morning now, when I go through my run of daily websites, I take in a lot of information in the first hour of the day. It also means I can research something in great detail and really quickly. An example would be a video from 2008, I was the last in the Carpenters garden, where I rebuilt the Los Angeles soft rock group The Carpenters’ Downey California back garden to 1:1 scale.
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The object of social acceptance is to forfeit individual dreams 2003. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.
Could you tell us more about it?
Karen Carpenter had died there years earlier, and the house was up for sale to be demolished. I had the idea to rebuild it but only had a week to get all the details, so I signed up and contacted people who were attending a final open-house through a Carpenters online forum. I became friends and requested photos for reference. I used Google street maps to go above the house to figure the size and layout. YouTube had walkthroughs where I could see how trees were positioned, and so for a number of months, I made it. That would be impossible without the internet.
I think it’s safe to say that humour is one of the key ingredients in your work. What other ingredients are part of your work’s recipe?
Humour is used as a masking agent to something deeper going on, like a misanthropy towards people, fear of dying. Things like that. There needs to be a refracting of an idea so things can be read on the surface and underneath. I’d say that is the main recipe. Images, sculptures or pop music all have a glass-like surface, bright and intense, however, weeds underneath.
Why did you get into pop music? What is that about?
I always had a guitar and played in a band at university, so that was always laying around. However, in 2008, I pitched an idea to a museum: that I would make them a pop album. The album would be on vinyl as a sculpture with one side on repeat all day. I went to a music store and bought software, a synthesiser and a microphone, went home and started to put short stories to music. In four months, I’d written the album, played the instruments and mixed it. The album was picked up by a record label and released. Since then, I’ve released two further albums, Off by Heart in 2013, and Touch a Tombstone last year.
One project found in the upcoming exhibition and brought back from 2014 is the disco dancefloor titled For You. Here, you used colour palettes from high-end makeup brands like Yves Saint Laurent to create disco dancefloors for the audience to interact with. But it originally began with paintings. How did the idea evolve to what it is now?
For You began as paintings in 2001 that were titled, I Care for You. I wanted to paint but didn’t want to mix colours, so I contacted Clinique, who provided me with their cosmetic range for the season – colours I presumed would automatically look good as they had been market tested. I converted the cosmetics into paint and sprayed them onto clear acrylic, so when flipped around, they acted like mirrors. Because the colour was designed to look good on people, you did too, so the title was just that, I Care for You. I made other versions of these with updated colours from new seasons in later years.
One evening, I was at a club with a light-up dancefloor and people wanted me to dance; I didn’t because I was too shy and awkward. Sitting there I thought, ‘if only you could always look good’, so the idea was conceived to swap paint for light, and then a simplified title, For You. I asked Yves Saint Laurent to provide their range and converted lipsticks, eyeshadows and foundations to light. 
How do you feel an interactive dancefloor is perceived inside an art institution?
It looks like a stylised makeup compact washed in market-researched lighting. It’s a work that also speaks of consumerist trends: since the colours change every season, every time the work is shown, a new range of colours is seen. It looks out of place in a gallery, but I feel people are excited by the pulse of sound and colour. It’s just like a painting to me.
“I think my practice with constant change rings true for an internet age. I’ve described my work as ‘many tabs open in a browser’ – lots of stories about different things at the same time.”
Another one from 2014, but still very up-to-date: me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, That is all I think about. This is just a guess, but could it be about the ‘me-generation’? Tell us a little bit about the thoughts behind this project. 
Yes, this is from a series of towels that are embroidered with these sad/funny lines. The lines came from a script written by myself and writer Anthony Carew, titled, Me. Each line of dialogue was like a question or statement in the form of self-portraiture. There are hundreds of lines, and so for a number of these, I took to a bath towel as something in the morning that could be a mantra to your day. For example, another one is, ‘Is it depressing I spend more time wondering about what my cat is thinking than how to combat systems of oppression?’
Your upcoming exhibition Carve A Future, Devour Everything, Become Something, taking place at The Ian Potter Centre NGV Australia, will be your first-ever major Australian exhibition. Not only featuring forty-three of your well-known hyper-colourful photographs but also pop songs, installations and sculptures. How do you link all of these mediums to make sense of them as a whole?
I don’t consciously link them together, they just do when you put enough in a room. It goes back to following whatever interests you; if you stay true to that, themes automatically reveal. The amazing thing to learn with this survey is how works from 2000 to 2018 are so different yet discuss a similar subject. It's a massive self-portrait.
The title of the exhibition sounds like an American how-to-become-successful book. Why this title?
It is also the title to a photograph from 2006 that has a teenage boy talking to a psychologist. He is speaking, so I imaged this is what he is saying to a therapist. I feel the title is equal parts aspiration and desperation.
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To live 2016. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.
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?
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.
If you had to name three things that you find fascinating or exciting about pop culture today, what would they be?
How albums can now be streamed and altered afterwards, like a software update. Kanye did this with his last two. Whatever is released on launch day is different a month later, so you end up with these different versions and mixes. That’s a radical change from a life of purchased CDs and LPs. Second, I wonder how Instagram face filters will evolve. How far will we go with all the smoothing and eye-widening? They only change the ones not being used, so it’s the users that dictate what works, and they’re slowly pushed towards a new vision. Finally, it’s going to be interesting to see how the new Celine rollout goes with Hedi Slimane for 2019.
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Your heart never lied 2012. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.
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What happens will happen #3 2010. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Gift of an anonymous donor through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gift Program, 2016 (2016.137) © Darren Sylvester.
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Broken model 2016. Collection of Todd McKenney, Sydney © Darren Sylvester.
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If all we have is each other, that's OK 2003, printed 2004. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased through funds arranged by Loti Smorgon for Contemporary Australian Photography, 2004 (2004.552) © Darren Sylvester.
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Your first love is your last love 2005. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.
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Just death is true 2006. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.
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For you 2013, reworked 2019. Collection of the artist, Melbourne © Darren Sylvester.