Since Bram Stoker penned Dracula as a Eugenicist/Lombrosian fantasy —a tale of a Slavic interloper come to sully lily-white England with his tainted, criminal blood— the vampire has occupied a prime place in popular narratives. From comedies to tragedy, underworld to high-school, these bloodsuckers have been strewn across page and screen, symbolising all manner of social ‘others’; from German invaders to sexual libertarians, queers, AIDS victims, teenaged rebels, and, finally, by the time of Twilight, Mormons.
For his latest body-of-work, Balustrade Stake, Darren Sylvester —an artist fresh off an NGV career retrospective, Carve A Future, Devour Everything, Become Something— plays with vampiric imagery/mythology.
He re-purposes a promotional photograph of Carroll Borland, for the 1935 Tod Browning film Mark Of The Vampire (where she plays the daughter of Bela Lugosi’s bloodthirsty count), and matches it to a stylised, self-made spider-web. The spider-web sits in a window in an ersatz street-scene, as do neon lights abuzz with a superstitious candle-burning and the hawking of psychic services. A model, straddling a staircase in stilettos that themselves look like a weapon, clutches onto a broken balustrade. Three other stakes —balustrade, baseball bat and bone— are fashioned from different objects, then dipped in gold. This makes them opulent, but lacking functionality; in vampiric lore, only wood can pierce the vampire’s heart, and kill the undead.
As always, Sylvester’s intentions in this work seem opaque. Is he up to mischief, or exploring these images with sincerity? Is this work mocking superstition in a time of capitalism; or is the nexus between superstition/capitalism effectively Sylvester’s essential artistic metier? And most pressingly, is Sylvester —fashioning stakes and summoning psychics— the vampire hunter? Or is he as —as artist whose career retrospective title included the command Devour Everything— the vampire?