By Anthony Carew
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?
Who is your favourite on-screen vampire?
He wasn’t a vampire however close second to me was Robert Smith of The Cure in the clip Fascination Street(https://youtu.be/7ZsQdLlvuk4), he had the band stand round like fashion-street-toughs in bellows of smoke machine, a rumbling bass line wearing a spotty shirt and eyeliner. As a teen kid in shorts and t-shirt, this was romanticism to a degree I couldn’t comprehend. This character, a cartoon vampire to me with ruined red lips was otherworldly, and yet Bobs hair at times becomes trapped over his face and he has to flip as he sings, so perhaps the immortal becomes mortal after all.
What attracted you to this kind of occult imagery?
It’s been there for a number of years, possibly beginning with my album Touch a Tombstone (2018), that then fell into creating a bunch of works about speaking to or resurrecting dead-pop moments such as Dingbat and Lucky Charms Ouija(2018) or Stacey (2018) involving a discarded movie spacesuit. Last year it went further with Forever twenty one and Fortune teller (both 2019), which were deliberate references to earlier works with the Gap clothed teenagers in The object of social acceptance is to forfeit individual dreams (2003); or re-hiring the same hand model from my album cover to return in Fortune teller. The last few years has been a time to take stock because of the NGV survey show, it’s been a head spin to go through all that, so perhaps that’s it, a sense of otherworldly-ness.
Do you think the idea of ‘undeadness’ is a natural fit for your work, which is so preoccupied with mortality, and rescuing old cultural/pop-cultural ephemera from death?
Yes, very much so. It’s a game I play in making work, in-jokes with myself to keep me interested and excited to go further. For example, the bronze stakes in the show began when I noticed the faux-punkishness of Cartiers nail bracelet, Juste un Clou, this literal nail wrapped around your wrist in rose gold. It’s pseudo dangerous. I then saw a vampire stake in a movie fashioned from a baseball bat with instructions that only organic material like wood can kill the undead, if made from metal or gold it’s useless just like the nail in a Cartier bracelet. I joined these two ideas, purchasing a wooden baseball bat – funny story – the guy in the sports store really wanted to convince me as a beginner I should buy the aluminium bat and not the wood variety I was after, however I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was to be carved up. In the end we have this useless weapon, yet it glimmers like jewellery.
Do you ever feel vampiric? As if you’re sucking the lifeblood from ideas, models, dead heroes, or corporate branding?
These are all subjects that lure and pull us. Corporate brands co-op trends and feelings to make you feel like we’re all one and the same, every corporation seems to be saying of late; ‘We’re in this together’. That sounds vampiric to me. I want to make work that is aimed at the individual – you, however speaks to everyone and be universal. These techniques are similar to those of corporations, popular songs and aspirational models, so yes, I guess I am.
How do the buzzing-neon-sign windows relate to this theme?
The neon signs in Psychics window and Burning candle (2020) are essentially advertisements for services. They glow and flicker in the night and I love seeing them around the streets of New York. The window in dream symbology signifies new opportunities, or a sense of freedom, it is the boundary between two states. These new works are true to scale, standing as real buildings, you walk by them just as you would and look in. They’re about dreaming of new opportunities and the desire to learn more about yourself. Both are very positive works to me.
Do you see connections between this evocation of the ‘psychic’ and your previous exploration of ESP/telepathy/prayer with works as Listen to me or Don’t be afraid, from 2012?
Connections run all through the work, nothing is a project, which is a terrible way to describe practice. Each show is a chapter and everything builds organically, which is exciting for me. I’m living through the exhibitions, from one to another with no answers only more questions, so often I don’t know why in the moment of an exhibition what it all means. To think back eight years on those works creating this ESP style photographs I think now they’re about having no regrets. They ask; Can you hear me? I hope you do. Don’t miss me. I’m here. I think these are the type of questions you would ask of a psychic about another, so yes, very much connected.