Live Review: Sugar Mountain 2016

Words: Felix Garner Davis

Photos: Eddie Goldsmith

Melbournian selector Roland Tings’ skilful fader-nudging is an apt metaphor for the way in which the two major components of Sugar Mountain 2016 interacted. Of course, there was the music. On one hand — or, rather, finger — was the Dodds Street stage, packed out and massaged into frenzy by local favourites Total Giovanni and Courtney Barnett; on another, the Boiler Room area, alternately a disco haven and a dungeon of dark house; on another, the Car Park stage, whose air pulsed with both the fearsome low end of Kelela’s grimy PBR&B and, later, the curses of an exasperated Dâm-Funk.

Then, there was the art. Two galleries, both of which explored colour, texture, light and form: one, thickly-curtained and thrumming with transportive ambient music, contained a host of video installations, and the other, rimmed by white walls and windows, provided the sun-kissed denouement to its sibling’s murk, sparkling with a found-sound accompaniment of plopping liquid.

On top of this, littered beyond the confines of these two divorced spaces, was an array of large-scale stage decoration, sculpture and painting. Some was weird. Some was ambitious. One resembled a colossal feather boa. Overall, though, from the music to the art, there was variegation, diversity and miscellany, which — I’m cautiously assuming — was the mysterious element that made Sugar Mountain so sweet.

But was it the taste of stevia or cane that it left? Was it a smorgasbordial mishmash that succeeded in sticking the cake to the wall, or was it a carefully-plotted master stroke? Doubtless, in its wake, there are patrons on both ends of the spectrum. And some in between, of whom I’m one. In my mind, these two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Part of the reason that Sugar Mountain succeeded was that it all felt simultaneously sprawling and strategised. The festival grounds flowed pretty seamlessly, the food was good (not whipped-kale good, either — droopy-burger good), and it began to feel like a bit of a sanctuary after only a handful of hours, laid beneath the looming metal teeth of the CBD.

So, without further ado: the music. As the afternoon sun warmed Dodds Street, whose stage was ringed by a snowy wreath of tendrils courtesy of design collective SIBLING, Alpine’s mild indie pop clacked into Total Giovanni’s usual polyhedron of oversexed mania, the latter much more compelling and well-received than the former. Elsewhere, in the Car Park, Dâm-Funk, so frustrated by sound difficulties that even his menacing keytar-wielding fell a bit flat, picked up where Kelela’s atmospheric crooning left off, eventually making way for a tight set from Harvey Sutherland/Bermuda.

Back on Dodds Street, Courtney Barnett, draped in an oversized tee, stepped onstage and squeezed the living shit out of her forty-five minutes. Her grungy poetics translate very well to a live context, and it doesn’t hurt that she augments that glorious deadpan with some pretty merciless guitar work. There’s not a whole lot more to say; as the sky deepened and dusk crawled closer, all eyes in the vicinity were affixed.

Within twenty minutes of Barnett’s closing rendition of ‘Pedestrian At Best’, Julio Bashmore had mounted the desk at the Boiler Room, easing his way into a polished two hours that drew a tightly-packed crowd. Unfortunately, the elusive figure whom the organisers were hoping to ensnare — Towel Guy himself — never materialised, but we did spy some cotton-clad mimics, all displaying far inferior technique even in the midst of the comfortable groove set by Mister Bashmore. 

‘You merely adopted the towel. I was born in it, moulded by it.’ 

There are some things you can’t teach.

Back on Dodds Street, Hot Chip closed proceedings with a powerful hour of what I heard one observant chap describe as ‘good shit!’ Yep — they even pulled off a Bruce Springsteen cover to finish, triumphantly spraying the combined sonic spermatozoa of their seven-piece into the strobe-lit mass of spectators. I’m not a huge fan, but this one still tied with Courtney Barnett for set of the day in my mind; admittedly, they snagged an excellent slot, but they really did throw everything they had at us.

Speaking of, multicoloured torrents of spray paint were what Ash Keating threw at the soaring concrete wall in the Car Park in his second outing at the festival. The mural, a fusion of orange, purple and yellow, provided an eye-catching backdrop (sidedrop?) to the action in this area. Onstage, Angie Pai’s mirrored chain mail glittered in the sun, catching sunlight at different angles and beaming shafts into the droves from behind crowd-pleasers like Kate Tempest and Viet Cong.

A few minutes’ walk away, inside the bowels of the humming cave just up from Wrangler’s Denim Exchange, a four-screen series of video art by Daniel Askill — the man behind Sia’s massive visuals for ‘Chandelier’ and ‘Elastic Heart’ — acted as centrepiece, flanked by a motorised mirror sculpture from Paris-based duo Nonotak and another video installation by Yahna Fookes and Martha Zakarya. The gallery’s dark soundscape complemented the languid pace of Askill’s collection, which depicted slow-revolving nude men and women frozen, mid-leap, in coloured curtains of water. It made for a pretty mesmerising concoction.

The same was true of Fookes and Zakarya’s installation, which featured two adjacent screens — one placed deeper in the room than the other — emblazoned with arresting video sequences of a white-clad dancer, alternately contorting her body into coils and pausing to lie still and hyperventilate. The vacuum rendered by the space’s bleached walls and relative darkness added to the piece’s captivating feel, and most people seemed to sit, quite enthralled, through at least a couple of rotations. Whether it was an exploration of vulnerability, dislocation or power, it was damned good.

Nonotak’s mechanised sculpture, a small forest of whirring panels, lay atop a white pillar under a concentrated beam of light, which it flicked around the chalk-walled room as each of its limbs flipped back and forth. The work’s dynamic movement, which brought the liquid ascents and declines of many varieties of electronic music to mind, provided an interesting analogue to the world outside the gallery. Though it wasn’t quite as hypnotic as the other pieces, the sounds it produced laid interesting texture to the solemn drone wafting around the room; it was an apt closer to this circuit.

Unfortunately, Nonotak’s larger warehouse installation, which was apparently the highlight of last year’s festival, was closed all day due to unforeseen technical difficulties. This was a shame, as the mirror sculpture didn’t necessarily do their contribution and skill justice. Nonetheless, there are several videos of the duo’s past installations and collaborations on Sugar Mountain’s website; take a peek and hype yourself up for next year.

The second gallery, which housed a photographic collaboration between local trio Prue Stent, Honey Long and Clare Longley, displayed an array of close-up photographs of women’s bodies and body parts — the palette almost exclusively a cloying salmon-pink — accompanied by a soundscape of watery trickles. In the middle of the room sat a flesh-coloured waterbed. 

Equally an immersive arena of (intended?) discomfort and a commentary on sexuality, fetishism, femininity and censorship, Stent, Long and Longley’s space simultaneously clutched my aesthetic esteem, flushed my cheeks with vagina-overload-embarrassment, made me feel horrible for even experiencing such a thing and, now, has again forced me to muse on how ridiculous it is that anybody should ever feel intimidated by boobs and clitorises. It might be amusing to preserve this gallery for Tony Abbott’s next official tour of the VCA and gauge his artistic opinions.

And, so, as it began with a metaphor, perhaps this self-indulgent warren of a review should close with another. Like the cyclical regurgitation performed by Carla Milentis’ shell-pink, amorphous sculpture in the middle of one of the courtyards, the flow of well-curated art, food, music and space at Sugar Mountain this year was quite seamless, albeit occasionally disrupted by overzealous, thirsty and, by now, typhoid-ridden punters, as every good shindig is. 

A truly splendid day out.