Makes the skin crawl: Milk bottles are stitched together to create a plastic intestine. Picture: SUPPLIED
Makes the skin crawl: Milk bottles are stitched together to create a plastic intestine. Picture: SUPPLIED

What happens to the people in the tunnel?" This is the question on the poster for Down to a Sunless Sea, a provocative new experiential installation by award-winning choreographer Lexi Meier, at the 2017 National Arts Festival Fringe.

So what does happen? Well, imagine crawling and crouching through a giant intestine forged from plastic milk bottles and chickenfeed sacks. As you journey into the depths of this 50m-long, 1.2m-diameter internal organ, the sound track emulates the plastic pollution in our seas, as it pushes past you or brushes up against you as if you were a dolphin or a whale.

Adding to the atmosphere is a recording of your time in the tunnel. What you say and how you respond to the visceral experience becomes part of the installations’ soundtrack.

Taking up two rooms and winding through the restaurant and bar area at the PJ Olivier School Basement venue in Grahamstown, it will be hard for people not to be lured into the gut. Without giving away the surprise elements, you will emerge with a sense of unease about how we live and how we are asphyxiating ourselves on the milk of paradise.

Plastic cannot decay.  Every piece of plastic ever produced right up to this moment is still in existence

"Feeding and nutrition is supposed to be something life and wellness and vitality promoting, with milk as a symbol of primal infant nutrition. But when I looked at how many 1l, 2l and 5l plastic milk bottles are produced and thrown away without a second thought once the cow’s milk has been consumed, the context of ‘feeding’ changes to waste, mass production and carelessness," says Meier, who has an MA in choreography from Rhodes University and who named her installation after a line in Coleridge’s iconic poem Kubla Khan:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea.

"The poem is laced with unease, as we should be," says Meier. "So many of us think we’re fantastic and amazing and we think we wield power and influence, yet any interrogation of how we live and what we are feeding ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, is pushed beneath the surface by our unstoppable feeding frenzy.

"This same feeding frenzy is producing unbelievable amounts of physical waste in our consumer-driven society. And everything is packaged in plastic — from fruit to cigarettes to cows’ milk. Plastic cannot biodegrade. It cannot decay. Every piece of plastic ever produced right up to this moment is still in existence. Yet this waste is removed from our living spaces, carted off, sanitised, blocked out, not seen."

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,/ Then reached the caverns measureless to man,/ And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;/ And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/ Ancestral voices prophesying war! The shadow of the dome of pleasure/ Floated midway on the waves.

"There are so many layers to Kubla Khan and I am hoping that people who come and experience my installation will delve into some of the layers of their own subjectivity and subconscious and that they will question nutrition, feeding and excess," says Meier, who took five months to sew the milk bottles together on an old Adler industrial sewing machine.

She regards the "sewing together" as an important part of her creative process, literally constructing the intestine, bottle by bottle, as she interrogates her own subconscious and attitude to the world.

"I’m in two minds about the world. There is a very pessimistic disappointment at what we are doing to our world, the cruelty, gluttony and carelessness and then there is a wonder at the kindness and magic that still exists. These feelings are right next to each other, always fighting each other for dominance."

With the National Arts Festival Fringe around the corner, she completed the installation with a few days to spare. "I am so excited now that it is done, and I have such incredible support from the artists I am working with on this installation. They have such a strong work ethic, they give so much of themselves and it is going to be such fun to set up the installation."

Meier’s team includes musician and performing artist Geoffrey Smuts, who has composed the sound score and who is working closely with sound engineer, Sean Devonport, a computer science master’s student at Rhodes University, who came up with the installation’s three-dimensional soundscapes.

Acting in the production is experimental choreographer Sonja Smit and Rhodes University drama and Afrikaans student, Meyrick Tree.

• Down to a Sunless Sea is at the PJ Olivier School Basement from July 4-8 at 7pm.

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