The phrase ‘renaissance man’ is bandied around a bit. But Darren Sylvester, who’s launching his second album, overseeing the installation of a major new artwork in the NGV, while finalising marks for his students at the Victorian College of the Arts, is closer to earning the title than most.
Off by Heart is a slickly produced inhabitation of ’80s pop, cribbing Iggy, Bowie, Ferry and (Robert) Palmer - and by some miracle doesn’t sound like he’s taking the piss. “I have no sense of irony,” he admits. “People think I’m being ironic, but there’s no irony in my music. It’s completely heartfelt. It’s not an angst-filled sound with angular guitars, or even Melbourne jangle-pop. It’s glamorous, fantasy pop music, and that’s what I’m interested in.”
Equally glamorous is Sylvester’s new artwork for Melbourne Now: a light-up dancefloor modelled on an Yves Saint Laurent compact with original music by Conrad Standish of Standish/Carlyon, James Cecil from Super Melody and himself. “We’re literally walking inside a compact,” explains Sylvester. “It’s almost like a ready-made, using the ready-made that exists in the Yves Saint Laurent compact and transforming it into a dance-floor. It’s a transformation of medium.”
Taking a break from the installation, Sylvester took us on a guided tour of some of his favourite pieces in the NGV, starting with his own contribution to Melbourne Now.
‘For You,’ Darren Sylvester, 2013
I’ve never been on a light up dance floor before, so I thought it’d be great for everyone who enters the NGV to get on the floor.
Instead of me choosing the colours, I’ve chosen the colours of a multinational that spends a lot of money in choosing the best colours. Yves Saint Laurent gave me all their make-up, I chose the ones I liked, then scanned and turned them into those palettes on the floor. So I know, already, before the work is made, that it’s going to be successful, that the colours are going to be perfect. But not only that; when they reflect on the body, they’re guaranteed to look fantastic.
The dance floor is called ‘For You,’ it’s because it is for you. I’ve spent a lot of time to make this gift so that when you walk in, you’ll feel good about it. Arts communities have always thought I’m trying to say something about something. I’m not. I’m just saying this is the reality of what we use. This is all what we use. People like products.
‘Portrait group: The singer Farinelli and friends’, Jacopo Amigoni, c. 1750-1752
A band photo! Who are they? Which band would they be? For some reason they remind me of Phoenix… They could be Chromatics! That could be Johnny Jewel. That’s Ruth, the singer. And they’re the other anonymous players. The two singers are always bright and the rest of the band is always blurred out, Anton Corbijn-style.
He’s a castrato, and he’s famous. We’ve got a photo-bomber in the background, the painter himself stepping in for his portrait, and a sad, sad dog. It looks like they’re signing over his new song to be sung, his contract if you will - when music was worth something, perhaps…
He looks very handsome. They were all good looking people. But they’ve got too many clothes on by today’s standards. If they want to make a success of this pop business, they’d want to get rid of some of those clothes first.
‘Untitled (Red)’ Mark Rothko, 1956
A Rothko painting is similar to the dancefloor. It’s fields of colour. The dancefloor is a modern day Rothko. You walk up to a Rothko and you’re meant to be awash. I’m sure that’s the same of what the dance floor is, and what a dance floor actually is, when you go to a nightclub after some drinks. You stand on the dance floor and you’re lost in a fantasy.
‘Edward Henry Lee, 1st Earl of Lichfield, and his wife Charlotte Fitzroy as children’, Jacob Huysmans, 1674
We’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring but this goes a few steps further - a recently betrothed nine and 10 year-old dressed in absolute finery. They’re good stage outfits. And I guess the dog is the meme of your pets everywhere. These kids are showing off and they’ve got too much money.
No. It doesn’t appeal to me. It appears overworked. But I guess this is the style of the time. There’s something creepy about a nine and 10 year-old getting married.
‘Study from the human body,’ Francis Bacon, 1949
Bacon is tough. He’s an artist’s artist, because he’s such a great painter. I particularly love all his later works that work with colour fields and the big, bright oranges and coloured walls. They’re almost camp, but also ridiculously sinister.
This one here, with a naked man passing through an abattoir curtain… You know this is bad news. We don’t know what it is, but something bad is about to happen on the other side. Or maybe something really good!
Darren Sylvester is launching his latest album, Off by Heart, at the Kelvin Club in Melbourne on Friday 8 November, and at the Golden Age Cinema in Sydney on Saturday 16 November.
‘For You’ will be on display at NGV International as part of Melbourne Now, which opens on 22 November.