Darren Sylvester’s photographic practice has consistently operated between mysteriousness and plain fact. In this exhibition, the artist’s photographs comprise closely cropped deadpan portraits of people foregrounded by dark and blurry concentric bands, as if representing their telepathic projections. The ephemeral quality of the works plays off the expectation of factuality that is suggested by the portrait genre and the photographic medium in general. Long after photography has lost its reputation as the ‘pencil of nature’, it remains perennially associated with its capacity to depict what Roland Barthes called the ‘that-has-been’.
In the mid-2000s, Sylvester became one of Australia’s better-known contemporary artists, receiving critical praise for his works that drew from the banality of advertising. Over the last few years, however, he has distanced himself from the cynical and narrative undertones of his earlier work, becoming more interested in the ability of his images to manipulate and confuse. To this end, the three central motifs of his latest exhibition – telepathy, masks and outer space – are used more for their collective quality of otherness than for their specific historical genealogies. Sylvester then juxtaposes this otherness with a concrete treatment of materials.
In My Place in the World (all works 2012), a contemplative man in a partially unbuttoned shirt lies on top of an unmade bed, as if having just returned home from work. Concentric bands in the foreground radiate from the man’s forehead, providing viewers with a supposed peek into his internal processes. Similar bands surround a spaced-out looking young woman in No Goody Goddy, shown with her head turned to the side in front of a blue-pink gradient. On one reading, the works are facetious digital distortions that reflect on the truth of photography, promising not only to expose physical reality but mental reality as well. Upon closer inspection, however, the bands are revealed to have been captured in real-time rather than in post-production. Sylvester did, in fact, create this telepathic effect by making sculptural constructions out of Perspex and placing them strategically in front of his subjects. In so doing, he renders the works illusions that also reveal the ‘smoke and mirrors’ behind their trickery, questioning just how much reality a photograph can depict.
In the rear section of the gallery, four bronze masks on custom-built stands were turned towards viewers entering the space. Initially, these evoked the costume masks featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), as symbols of the public and private sides of sexuality. Sylvester’s masks are only polished on one side; their reverse reveals the burnt bronze and kiln-firing processes through which they were made, again presenting both the illusion and its material reality. Whereas the masks in Kubrick’s film were modelled on Venetian designs – referring to an Italian tradition that enabled sexual freedom for bourgeois society – Sylvester’s masks are modelled on ‘beauty masks’ used for the application of facial cream, mixing commodity signifiers with carnivalesque and tribal motifs. Hisamitsu Lifecella takes its name from a beauty mask produced by a Japanese pharmaceutical company, its circular head and anguished mouth resembling a cross between the facial expressions of Kabuki theatre and Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).
In Space Blanket, the most enigmatic work in the exhibition, a buttoned white blanket made out of contemporary spacesuit material is positioned on the floor of the gallery. The blanket has a zip that would enable someone to be fully enclosed inside, symbolizing respite from the vacuity of outer space – or, perhaps, from the sense of social alienation, to which Sylvester’s work frequently refers. Bringing to mind the sculptures of Robert Gober, Space Blanket is at once a spectral object loaded with mysterious metaphors and a fastidiously made object that emphasizes its own materiality. Epitomizing the exhibition as a whole, Sylvester emulates an acutely contemporary urban sensibility in which most of our time is spent exploring our internal worlds while only being intermittently reminded of the rule of nature and physical environment. Without a digital trope in sight, Sylvester presents an existence marked by mental exploration and the assumption of personae, responding to the highly mediated sensibilities brought about by the digital era.