The point of difference between Sugar Mountain and almost every other festival in town is the inclusion of an extensive visual art component to the bill. While the list for some may read like a who’s who of the art/design/skateboard fashion realm, for many (myself included) it’s simply a question of whom? Still, the concept intrigues, especially given the glorious locale of the Forum’s inner maze. The possibilities for spatial utilisation and (literally) off-the-wall exhibiting techniques are seemingly endless; and the promises of live painting, social experimentation, and a live, band responsive projected visual and light show are enticing to say the least.
There’s no art in the foyer on arrival. Ok, we think, we’ll catch a band and explore, rubbing our hands with delight. In the upstairs entrance hall there’s a poorly lit plywood structure covered in a hotchpotch of paintings, photographs, drawings and prints alongside a large half-painted canvas we recognise as Thomas Campbell’s work. There are two hanging mobile sculptures at the opposite end of the high school-like display and that seems to be it. No work is credited, which makes for a pretty fun guessing game of whose is what, but equally adds to the feel of an ever so slightly slap-dash approach. I’m told that the exhibiting technique is in line with the aesthetic of the selected artists whose work is often created from found or round-the-house objects, that the Forum’s ‘no wall hanging’ policy has led to the festival necessitating their own hanging space and that there are associated exhibitions in other spaces nearby. Valid as these assertions may sound, the outcome feels rushed, incomplete and a little light-on.
Thomas Campbell works the crowd, occasionally slaps a couple of lines on the canvas, sips a drink and vanishes. There’s a door adjacent to his work where moustachioed cape-wearing ladies maintain straight faces as they tell us to return at four.
Downstairs, the band-responsive visuals kick in and they are nothing short of astonishing. At times the projections twist and swell beyond the limits of the back-of-stage screen, engulfing the entire back wall and morphing over the gargoyles and statues of the stage frame. Throughout the night, Kit Webster and James Wright’s light and visual extravaganza reinvents itself and truly adds a fourth dimension to the music on show. Flat musical sections are lifted and turned on their heads; such is the power of the display.
The connection between the aural and optical components of the day are supposedly further evident through the selection of artists but despite obvious examples like Owl & Moth’s Oliver Hunter exhibiting visual works along with Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker
cover designer Leif Podhajsky’s kaleidoscopic visions, with scarce information the parallels are difficult to draw. The bulk of the works on show smack of a modern skate/design aesthetic but they lack any cohesion in any other way. Bright and sloppy fantastical paintings sit alongside pin-ups, photographs and crisp line drawings (Mel Kadel’s fine line ‘eyelash’ drawings a particular highlight). A more inventive approach to using the available labyrinth of nooks and niches would’ve made for a far more engaging experience and you can’t help but feel disappointed for an opportunity wasted.
We find the mysterious upstairs room houses a form of ‘social experimentation’ by Tape Projects Collective. The room’s inner sanctum remains a mystery for some time as at subsequent visits between musical acts we are turned away with little explanation or asked to queue for unendurable amounts of time. Once inside the experience is personal, engaging. Upon completion of a form, you’re taken in to a waiting area, fed blue liquid and put through a series of ‘tests’ amongst boxes of shredded paper and fluorescent tubes of light while an ethereal looped soundscape lulls you. Your rank determined, you’re issued a badge and released back into the world. Perhaps better ease of entry and a little information would’ve allowed a less frustrating experience, but it is a pretty trippy way to kill ten minutes.
In all, besides the fabulous and immersive visions created through Webster and Wright’s projections and the Tape Projects Collective ‘testing’ room, the visual element of this first Sugar Mountain Festival is a mixed bag in terms of organisation and content. There are many positives to be taken from the attempt—the concept being strong and coming from all the right places—but you’re left with the feeling that for whatever reasons, in a lot of ways the organisers failed to reach their aesthetic goals. There is too much disparity between visual arts and the music on show and the space is sadly under-utilised. That said, there remains the potential for future events to strive to right this and if Sugar Mountain is indeed scheduled to return, there can be no substitute for experience.
By Samson McDougall