Stepping through the front door of Bus Projects and being met by Darren Sylvester’s Céline, I am reminded of Anna Viebrock’s set design for the exhibition The Boat is Leaking. The Captain Lied at the Fondazione Prada in Venice. Viebrock, a stage designer by trade, was invited by curator Udo Kittelman to take part in the exhibition alongside Thomas Demand and Alexander Kluge. She completely transformed the site of the Fondazione Prada, and visitors could peer through the door of an apparent hotel entrance, or walk through a meeting room of Trump’s White House. The viewer was transported to another world. However, while these sets were believable right down to the most minute detail—the hotel entrance even had a Demand ‘decorating’ its hallway—there was a major element that betrayed the true nature of these constructions: and that was that the entirety of most sets could be completely circumnavigated by the viewer, thus allowing them to see the support structure—the trusses and beams—at the rear of the sets. One might say that the structural aspects of the sets were just as important as their illusory aspects; they were required to undo the fallacy of the presented narrative.
Céline also presents as a stage prop. Sylvester is obsessed with the artificial backend of the narrative created by design. However, in comparison to the decadence of Viebrock’s multiple sets, Sylvester’s work at Bus is much more pared back in that it comprises just a single work—a three-panel monolith of imitation marble that extends out to most of the length and height of Bus’s entrance gallery, and that is impressed with the neon backlit logo of the French luxury fashion house, Céline. The work is supported by an artificial wall that sits about a metre from the rear of the gallery space. Rather than pushing the piece right up against the wall, Sylvester gestures towards the importance of the work’s verso, and the viewer is encouraged to spend just as much time here as with the face of the piece. True to Sylvester’s style, however, nothing is left to chance. Four extension leads that power the neon sign have been perfectly and self-consciously cable-tied in the exact same way. This small act reminds me of the phenomenon of always being ‘on’ that we have become so accustomed to in an age of constant connectedness and consumption: it extends to feeling like we need to present ourselves as though somebody is always watching.
Sylvester has said that the inspiration for his work was the marble in the Céline stores. Each store is characterised by clean, white lines that are punctuated by thick, luxurious slabs of marble in all imaginable colours. The message is clear: when you’re buying luxury clothing, you’re buying into a luxury lifestyle. Of course, this signature design is part of a concept created to seduce consumers just as much as the products themselves. I’m sure I’m not the first to admit that I slow down every time I walk past David Jones’ tiny Céline outpost, as if to soak in the luxury that is unobtainable on my modest part-timer’s income. Once or twice I have even stepped inside, feigning interest in purchasing something, seeking to get closer. Certainly, the want to hold luxury exists in a utopian vacuum, where the reality would most likely fail to match up to the desire created by longing and absence. And this is precisely what the viewer experiences when they come to the back of Sylvester’s piece. Instead of luxury goods, there is only an empty, lifeless shell: a theatre set.
Sylvester’s approach is reminiscent of Callum Morton’s 2016 Reception at Anna Schwartz. Here, Morton recreated the reception area of the Melbourne gallery, complete with an animatronic Schwartz clad in what I presume was a marriage of Rick Owens, Issey Miyake (mainline) and Comme des Garçons. Stepping behind the reception, the viewer was presented with a dark and hollow space that was the rear of Morton’s replica set. Indeed, strong parallels can be made between the blue chip gallery and the luxury fashion store. And though Sylvester’s gesture might be slightly less poignant at the not-for-profit Bus than it would be at a commercial gallery, he still hits a few home truths. For even ARIs are not without their pretensions and I am certain that many readers will relate to the anxiety of working out outfits for gallery openings, for instance.
However, the smoke and mirrors of Sylvester’s Céline façade have already begun to fade—even before the viewer realises that it is a set. Of course, this is not marble. On closer observation, the ‘marble’ is somewhat repulsive. It’s sickly green and, being extremely shiny, pretty much resembles slime. What’s more, the lacquer that Sylvester has used to finish the work has slipped and dripped down the surface of the left-most panel. At the top, the panel is pockmarked, whilst long lines of lacquer have trickled downwards, pooling as a small slick on the gallery’s floor. Apparently, Sylvester did not intend for the lacquer to perform in this way, but the result is that the work shifts from slick simulacrum to a gnarled embodiment of consumption’s by-product: decay.
Familiar to the high production value of Sylvester’s practice, I feel as though the artist would have preferred to maintain the cool, even varnish finish across all three panels. Having said that, this slight material disruption also actually works within the larger picture of Sylvester’s practice, which, in the past, has seen him cover models’ faces in green glitter (Green Editorial, 2016) or cover a chaise lounge with a McDonald’s design (Fillet-O-Fish, 2017). His desire to understand consumer culture is by means of fucking with it. This fuckery is all the more poignant in the artist’s sculptural pieces and Céline demonstrates the artist’s desire to think about the potential of redefining architectural space with sculpture, not unlike his sand sculpture, In Time, that was exhibited at Neon Parc earlier this year. For a decade, Sylvester has been working more and more outside his traditional medium of photography. With this decision, Sylvester has managed to maintain relevance as a trans-catagorical contemporary artist, while photography has fallen into a slump similar to that which painting experienced in the eighties.
One must also wonder how many copyright laws Sylvester is breaking with the exact replication of the Céline logo. But, if the fashion house were to come after him, it would be extremely ironic given that artists consistently have their own intellectual property snatched up by multinational companies. A friend once observed that the cruellest paradox about being an arts worker is that we are taught to enjoy beauty and luxury, while our meagre salaries prevent us from ever having access to it. The humour of Céline is served with an equal amount of bitterness. Equally as shocking as the exposure of that which should be invisible is the knowledge that the visible face attracts us by means of consistently eluding our grasp.
Amelia Winata is a Melbourne-based arts writer with an Honours degree in Art History. She is also the Sub-editor of un Magazine, a Research Assistant and an Arts Administrator.
Title image: Darren Sylvester, Céline, 2017. Courtesy the artist and Neon Parc.)