Humans are shit. If this needs further explanation, you have probably been living in blissful ignorance. This is actually how one begins their journey through Lexi Meier’s installation, Down to a Sunless Sea. Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, audience members crawl through a tunnel filled with a pretty, incandescent light. This light glows delicately through the jagged, cut-up milk bottles out of which the tunnel is constructed.
“Is taste a matter of desire or ethics?” asks a lady in sterile white, a mask over her mouth and gloves on her hands. She inspects your feet, as if grading your human flesh. A plastic-hoarding creature trailing bottle caps engages with you on your way, and green-tinted figurines eagerly watch you as you sip hesitantly on a cup of milk.
Slowly, you realize that you are the art; not pretty, not picturesque, not pristine. You are the human trash; the wasteful, happily unaware garbage that floats down an intestine towards the sunless sea of our own making. The world is in crisis, and we are the makers of the mess.
“The meaning came from the materials,” says Meier, who has spent the last six months collecting and sewing together the milk bottles. “When I started collecting the milk bottles I was struck by the sheer mass of them. It then became this tunnel of terrible beauty.”
The installation invites one to play, to fool around, and to feel. Tactile and knee-bruising, the work is centred on experience, rather than knowledge. “You make the meaning with your body as you go through, but only later does this become cognitive. You may question why you felt what you felt,” explains Meier.
It is a ‘dance’; a movement choreographed between the audience, performers, materials, space, sound, and light. “My interest is in how space and material affect bodies,” says Meier, “[In this installation], the space dictates where you move. The textures of the milk bottles are not comfortable to go over. That in itself manipulates how your body interprets your world. ”
One finds oneself enchanted by the glowing lights and pleasing aesthetics, but also aware of the sharp plastic and hard ground beneath the knees. Something feels off.
The installation reminds us how our frivolous pursuits of pleasure have slowly but surely consumed the world. Mass production, pollution, poverty, and pain are the underbelly of our human ‘progress’. “Mass production is affecting our collective psyche,” says Meier, “Objects that we think are so amazing and useful are really terrible.”
The installation invites the audience to look back at themselves, quite literally. The conversations between audience members are recorded and played back to them. Swishing sounds of water and deep electrical drones travel around the tunnel using immersive sound technology.
These sounds themselves are linked to space and materiality. Performer Geoffrey Smuts and sound engineer Sean Devonport created the sounds using field recordings of waste-filled rivers, milk bottles, and an electrical box.
Daring and strange, Down to Sunless Sea has deservedly won a Standard Bank Ovation Award. It pushes the boundaries of both art and the comfort zone of its audience.
But important to note is that this interpretation is not the only one. “It’s not meant to be prescriptive,” says Meier, “And I like to leave it that way so that each subjectivity can make their own meaning. It is fascinating to watch how people interpret it so differently.”
Enter the tunnel and become a part of the dance. Explore. Play with the textures of the space and your psyche, and see what you find there. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us humans yet.
By Sam van Heerden