The first thing you’ll see in the Darren Sylvester retrospective at the NGV, titled Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something, is a photograph of three teenagers enjoying KFC.

At first glance, you might search for some ironic, subversive element. But you won’t find it. Teenagers enjoy KFC, and this photograph shows them doing just that. The work is called If all we have is each other, that’s OK (2003).

“Years ago someone said to me, ‘You’re fighting the system from the inside’,” Sylvester says. “I’m not. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be fighting.”

Sylvester is a photographer, musician, filmmaker and installation artist who makes glossy, dramatic visual art and glossy, dramatic pop music. It’s simple, but not simplistic. Fake, but not facile. In the artist’s words, it’s “many tabs open in a browser”, which is a relatable, contemporary state of being. He’s dismissive of the idea that there has to be some grand intention behind his work. He finds inspiration anywhere and everywhere: on TV, in catalogues, in shops.

“There’s a lot going on, and I don’t care where the images come from,” he tells me.

The result is a series of beautiful falsehoods inspired by his pop culture obsessions. Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something is a greatest hits package, including photos, sculptures and videos created over his 20-year career.

In an effort to get behind the shiny facade, I visit Sylvester’s studio in a vacant shopfront in Brunswick East. It’s basic, a bit cramped, and full of the paint spills and dusty containers of building materials that typify an artist’s working space. It’s far from the gleaming white photographer’s studio I expected.

In the middle of the room Sylvester is building a set for a new image. He’s built a bank teller’s window, where, on the day of the shoot, a hand will deposit a large wad of cash. It doesn’t look like much yet: plywood, reflective paint, liquid nails and some counterfeit cash ($50,000 of fake American currency costs $12 on eBay). But at the right angle, under the right lighting, it’ll be as shiny and slick as, say, Broken Model (2016) a dramatic, cinematic image of a woman collapsed on a stage, which was also shot in this small space. It’s ephemeral. It only needs to work for a moment, then it will be consigned to an eternal image.

“It’s literally all smoke and mirrors,” says Sylvester. “Everything is B-grade.” As if to prove the “literally”, he shows me the image Silver Lockheed (2017). The clouds were achieved by setting off dozens of boating flares, filling the studio with smoke.

Silver Lockheed was based on a shot of a plane from Die Hard 2. A print-out of the latter is gaffer-taped to the wall. Next to that is a shot from a cartoon he’s using as a reference image for the new bank teller work. His images often have these inauspicious starts, based in fictions. Broken Model references an incident on a catwalk at a Jean-Paul Gaultier show, when a model fell off the stage – Sylvester later discovered the fall was a publicity stunt.

“I have no cultural history of my own,” says Sylvester, who grew up in Byron Bay. “American TV is my cultural history. The lighting in the photos doesn’t come from a photographic history, [late fashion photographer] Richard Avedon kind of thing. It comes from watching sitcoms.”

Sylvester’s having something of a retrospective moment. He’s simultaneously working on the NGV show and a new series, set to exhibit at Neon Parc, in which he revisits images and characters from his archives. The hand in the bank teller shot, for instance, will be the same green hand on the cover of his third album Touch a Tombstone.

“Some images stay with me,” Sylvester says. “I can’t budge them. Often the next day I’ve forgotten about [some images]. But if it stays, it will become an artwork. I don’t care if it’s a McDonald’s chair or a KFC packet. I’m just going towards it.”

He shows me a pair of hospital-grade double doors in a PDF catalogue from a door manufacturer. He loved the way there was another door behind them, so he restaged it. “That stuck with me. It’s about death. It’s opening up, and there’s a tunnel behind it. I want to know why it has that pull.”

There’s a shadow of death over all of Sylvester’s work. Pop culture is not designed to last. In a matter of weeks, a pop song can climb and fall out of the charts and a TV show can be cancelled and forgotten. He’s photographed hospital beds, made a replica of Dee Dee Ramone’s tombstone, and rebuilt the late singer Karen Carpenter’s long-since-destroyed garden. The Silver Lockheed plane flies ominously into darkness.

“I have this huge fear of death,” Sylvester says. “I just don’t believe it’s going to happen to me. If something dies in pop culture, I grab it out. ‘I’ve got you! You’re not dead!’”

Several of these little pop cultural deaths are memorialised in the NGV show. Old McDonald’s burger wrapper designs have been transformed into upholstery for a pair of psychiatrist’s couches (the Filet-O-Fish one caused a stir last year when Katy Perry draped herself across it at the Melbourne Art Fair). Sylvester loved the designs as a kid, and remembers saving the labels on a school excursion sometime in the ’80s. Now he’s immortalised them, moving them to a gallery, a space we’re taught is for valuable imagery.

“McDonald’s has changed, and I’ve changed,” says Sylvester. “McDonald’s will die. I’ll die. Celine will die.”

He’s talking about luxury fashion label Celine which, depending on who you ask, may already be facing the end – new creative director Hedi Slimane recently sparked controversy when he changed the branding from Céline to Celine, losing the accent over the ‘e’. The fashion world was aghast.

Sylvester’s own tribute to Celine is a huge sculpture replicating the marble plinths that stand by the entrance of every store. The sculpture was made in 2017, before the rebrand controversy, so the accented ‘e’ remains. Now, it’s a tombstone, a memorial to what was.

Darren Sylvester: Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something is at NGV Australia until June 30.