Darren Sylvester Review: Touch a compass

When a former hand model releases an LP where the cover depicts a pair of painted hands caressing a tombstone, one appreciates the revelation of glamour and playfulness apparent. With his new recording release, Touch a Tombstone (2018), Darren Sylvester has a way of pulling a certain sophistication out of thin air, a breeze of wind made into something irreverent, uncanny. A banality reframed in a way that seems otherworldly. An instant chicken soup turned into a souffle.

This way of subtly framing the infinite possibility of everyday things is characteristically exuberant and refreshingly optimistic. Curious potential can be seen not only through Sylvester’s music, but his art practice, for which he’s somewhat more well-known: Fillet-O-Fish (2017) included a danish mid-century style couch that Sylvester upholstered with fabric taken from McDonald’s infamous fish burger, and his most recent exhibition, Out of Life (2018), documented a circulation of works inspired by a space-suit Sylvester discovered at a Hollywood costumes auction. Forgotten objects, moments and utterances act as curiosity triggers about what remains unknown and unknowable in our mortal universe—about what is fake and what is real, the nature of authenticity and the smoke and mirrors inherent to everyday life.

Orson Welles states in F for Fake, the magnificent documentary he made with Oja Kodar, “What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is ‘art’.” Although verbose, Welles point is such: it is the artist’s role to paint the truth for the viewer, or to unconceal what may lie dormant—to reveal those smoke and mirrors, and to perhaps flaunt and illuminate what could perhaps lie beyond. Sylvester’s book Compass Point (2011) continues this lineage of discovery through his attempt to document and explore a mythologised place in popular culture, Compass Point Studios. Sylvester travelled to Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, to discover the island where the studio was located—the location where AC/DC recorded the album Back in Black, but also artists as disparate as Grace Jones, Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Tom Club and Bjork. The studio was closed in 2011 as local crime was apparently putting artists at risk, according to the owner. The book was published the very year it closed for business.

There are no artists present in Sylvester’s book. The images work as imaginative triggers of the sensual aural delights that lay scattered in a place you may least expect; through colours, shades, subtle indications of a rich past. One sights the very studio once filled with musical luminaries as now dormant, ghostly, unknowable. Sylvester states in his introduction to the book, “What was it about this location that worked? I admit after climbing from my cab my thoughts are ‘Is this it’?”. Admittedly, it is a strange concept having expectations of a place and then seeing it for the first time—what exactly are we expecting to confirm? There is no landmark to clarify here, instead a rich aural history that emanated from somewhere within.

Perhaps it was the solitary notion of the island that made it so fruitful—there was no ‘scene’ or hangers’ on, as Sylvester further poses in his introduction. Perhaps it was the fact that the artists working here simply thrived in isolation, without distractions of a big city. There is lots of ponder about such instances and the proliferation of documents that remain, as Welles describes: 

Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

Art is made, but where does that magic or inspiration come from? Does it matter? Is it something you can’t really explain? Or can you? Compass Point poses all of these questions. Does it lie between worlds or walls? Can a place possess a certain je ne sais quoi? Or is that something that lies within people alone?

The visual artist who makes records or a musician who makes art can be both intentionally and unintentionally sidelined into the field they are most known for. Such partitions seem awfully irrelevant, as the intentional creative act cast down with either a pen or pipe is often the intention or comment. The creative act, seeking to disrupt and distort the world as we know it, is argued by Lewis Hyde, who elaborates: “Those who panic and bind the trickster choose the latter path. It would be better to learn to play with him, better especially to develop skills (cultural, spiritual, artistic) that allow some commerce with accident, and some acceptance of the changes that contingency will always engender.”

An artist can do anything, their expression can take any form—and sometimes swiftly, a universe can be created from stumbling accidentally down a particular street, reading the details in the liner notes of an LP, or finding a secondhand, previously discarded object, as Sylvester did in fact do. The pressure to box people in is a laughable trait exercised so often by music journalists, where a “swift change of direction” could be in fact resultant of a guitar being around instead of a keyboard. Many of these things are serendipitous accidents. In effect the sound and the intention is the same, but its execution is simply with a different tool.

For Sylvester, his musical output could be said to be arguably the same as his visual work—it continues his wider project of playing and experimenting with popular culture, mythology and authenticity; but only through the medium of music does it promote the individual listeners’ imaginative faculties to conjure their own images. His act of creating also comments on such ideas of popular culture, what it means to be an artist, and the notion of artist authenticity though his ability to not be defined—his practice is and can be anything he chooses. With his visual work, it could be said to conjure images that could be evocative of sounds, smells, touch and even taste—his aural work, conjuring of images of rich and deep colour, landscapes and small moment and intimate interactions with long lost figures and places.

Touch a Tombstone is glamorous, but there is also an imbued sadness, perhaps described best not in the lyrical fragments the listener gathers, but maybe by simple gestures, a sly intonation of a particular word: “I’m out of this world…” / “Nobody knows one thing about me…”  Everything in life is constantly in flux, and perhaps cultural artefacts are things that can seemingly and effortlessly paste things still for a moment—particularly photographs, songs, poetry. The song also holds the power to transport us back as listeners, to that time when we heard that melody, and humorously consider all that has passed since that moment. Touch a Tombstone has the irreverent power for that moment to begin at first listen. There’s something so nostalgic about the songs within, like the sheen of 80s cinema. In the case of this author, the visceral experience is comparable to moving through a car wash while you ponder your own past—the immobility of the car as cocoon becoming its own imaginary time machine. Or visiting a house you used to live in, just sitting outside, hypnotised somewhere between your past and future worlds. You never turn the ignition off, and most certainly duck if the current occupant comes home from work at that exact moment. Like Charmian Clift’s lustful literary fronds of a Greece in her past, one she would never return to, we are all in flux, in a state of conjuring sideways glances, of unfinished prepositions, of places imbued with nostalgia.

I am of the conviction that the sense of place that Sylvester is conjuring in Touch a Tombstone isn’t quite real but imagined, but perhaps imagined in the way Sylvester imagined Nassau before he went there and discovered it in its tarnished glory. Such imaginings, such considered fantasies, such various pasts, are often so powerful when created through music, marking perhaps one of the reasons why Sylvester continues his musical explorations while continuing a visual output.

It is often the role of the artist to evoke, to promote dreams, to conjure up the past, which is something that Touch a Tombstone does indeed do. Sylvester is a dreamer, but one who evokes imaginations around histories and things: he’s an interrogator who ventures into the act of demystifying mythologies. The studio within Compass Point is strangely business-like—it’s what was outside that makes it somewhat magical. The air, the wind, the natural elements, the ones that you can’t pin down—arguably those are what make the place special. Perhaps the musicians there felt that too?

I think a lot about how musicians and artists are designers: they cultivate, ferment and brew ideas until they are ready, and present them as a universe of their own, neatly packaged into a film, a record, a particular artistic form, that becomes at that instant an example of a culture at a particular time and place. Sylvester uses his real name, but also there is a strange mystery surrounding his persona, particularly exemplified through his choice not to play live. I’m wondering, is it because the record as it’s frozen in time, as cultural object, has too many things come into the fray when it’s attempted to be replicated? Like the way expectations lie around Compass Point and the reality of its vanquished empire? This is a question perhaps only he can answer.

Sylvester remains enigmatic, but so humble in his worldly curiosity—a one person powerhouse, hosting a miniature masquerade.


Darren Sylvester—Touch a Tombstone
Released February 2018

The author would like to express thanks to the traditional owners of the land that she works, lives and writes upon and express the fact that the area known as Sydney is stolen land, where sovereignty was never ceded.

 Angela Garrick is a Sydney based artist and musician. 

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