I’m standing in an under-construction gallery space inside NGV Australia at Federation Square eating a McDonald’s chicken nugget with dipping sauce. It’s not right. I mean, it tastes and looks just like it – a golden-brown, deliciously salty fried parcel of mild shame. But I am being fooled. The “nugget” sliding around my white cardboard tray is a deceptive vegan treat.
The cunning nugget is the entree to a fancy, invite-only “fast food” lunch by Broadsheet and the NGV to celebrate the arrival of Melbourne artist Darren Sylvester’s new exhibition, Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something. Running March 1 to June 30, the show is a retrospective of Sylvester’s 20-year, multi-disciplinary career exploring the uncanny valley between our everyday grind and the glossy, romantic desires of pop culture and advertising language. Heady stuff. Today’s lunch, being held even as the exhibition is being built around us, mirrors it – we're going to eat technically marvellous “crappy” food.
So says Shannon Martinez, the chef behind vegan doyens Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli and creator of the “Secret Shame” nugget I’m chomping on. “McDonald’s is so processed, and this tastes identical. Is the real thing any more real than a vegan version?” she will ask us later. My brain knows the "chicken" blob is a thoroughly researched combination of tofu “for bounce” and wheat protein, but the answer is no: you wouldn’t blink if it were slid through a drive-thru window. And I am also really eating it right now.
Today the installation of Sylvester’s exhibition is very much still underway. With opening night still three days away, finished artworks hang beside tentacles of bubble-wrap, plywood plinths and technicians scooting up and down on mini cherry pickers. A few walls have only a photocopy of the forthcoming artwork taped to it – an unintentional facsimile of the sleight of hand Sylvester trades in.
And he is wonderful at it. Around us a glossy assortment of photographs, sculptures, video installations and more, initially scans as a curation of ads and stock imagery, music videos, and rare instruments. But it’s all handmade, the majority of it in Sylvester’s small Brunswick studio – even the grand stuff.
A twilight photograph of a plane descending through clouds is actually a specific ode to a scene in the 1998 action movie Die Hard 2, created using a miniature model aeroplane and dry ice. For you, is a light-up dance floor (you might remember it as a highlight of Melbourne Now in 2013) adorned with “this season’s” Yves Saint Laurent colours and a soundtrack tethered to a 108bpm tempo (“the same tempo they use at fashion shows so the models know what speed to walk”). One sculpture, Moon rock, is a collection of the metals that make up the moon, purchased online and bound together in a Melbourne science lab – “the impossible made possible”. As we follow Sylvester around the gallery, learning the details of each work's creation is akin to the slow bloom of a dark room photograph.
After a thorough run down we’re seated at a long communal table laden with funereal near-black roses, white linen and tablecloths stitched with social-media speak pulled from Sylvester’s works (“I’m gonna live on after I die. In a search engine for all eternity, there I be.”; “Every time I read comments on the Internet, I shed a tear for humanity.”). Then – our "Happy Meal" arrives.
Dishes beyond the “secret shame” canape include a main “Happy Feels” meal containing a “cheeseberder (sic) with extra pickles; fries; a smoked “vanilla coke” (which tastes somehow of both cola and barbeque); and a “Rumour Files” dessert that involves a boozy, thick “lardshake” made from chocolate, malted milk and spiced rum, and an “apple pie”, containing no apples.
Martinez points out that while McDonalds ingredients are largely automated, “this has all been made by me in my kitchen at the deli, so everything comes from real ingredients and real vegetables”. Sylvester features fast-food packaging in some of his work, but Martinez also drew inspiration from his bending of the truth in advertising. “The rumour with McDonald’s apple pies was always it was actually made from potato or choko,” she says. “So I made it with kohlrabi. It’s got a bit more of a savoury taste. Then the shakes – which were always rumoured to be 75 per cent horse fat, which is just ridiculous and absolutely disgusting – [have] silken tofu in there to up the fat and hold that really dense texture. There’s also a lot of booze in the thickshake, so if you’re driving be careful.”
It all looks and tastes exactly like McDonald’s. The magic is – though I’m a 95 per cent committed vegetarian and this is all plant-based (dehydrated porcini mushrooms and soya beans make up the otherwise familiar brown burger pattie) I’m still flushed with hot guilt from eating it.
I grew up fetishising the McDonald’s Happy Meal. As a teen, a McChicken meal was a kind of personal reward. Now I avoid – okay except maybe once a year in a 5am drunken shame spiral. So here, surrounded by white linen, esteemed colleagues and fine art, the guilt and disappointment my body associates with the fake stuff is still very real. And that’s on me. As a line from Sylvester’s exhibition catalogue goes, “banal products can sometimes deeply affect my life.”
This kind of viewer baggage is the hinge on which Sylvester’s work swings. “I imagine it comes to a recognition and connection,” Sylvester tells me. “Often when I’m using brands you know, it’s because they’re ubiquitous. Like a McDonald’s wrapper – they’re everywhere. Most people know what McDonald’s is. So that becomes a big subject, it’s broad enough for everyone. And of course death is the main subject. That’s why I have death in here too. That’s one that you will recognise. I’m not being niche, it’s very pop.”
Appropriately, a misremembered quote from Smiths frontman Morrissey goes some way to explaining it. “It was from the Morrissey autobiography and it was something like, ‘In pop music there’s nothing scarier than teenagers singing along to songs about death’,” says Sylvester. “Because in their eyes, and so in pop culture, death isn’t going to happen. It’s not until later you accept it is, and then those songs take on a very different meaning. So … using mortality as a main element in my work combined with pop culture – death is everlasting, but pop culture is fresh and new and for the young – is a really interesting dynamic.”
So it is. As is sharing a fake meal deal with the artist and guests at a yet-to-be-opened exhibition in the NGV. Stripped of meaning – ultra-convenience for the time-poor – the fast food lunch is both a technical revelation and a bit empty; fun but unfulfilling; banal yet brimming with nostalgia. You really had to be there, but you weren’t. You'll just have to imagine it.
Carve a Future, Devour Everything, Become Something runs March 1 to June 30 at NGV Australia, Federation Square. This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with NGV.