British Artist, Marcus Coates published The Trip (Serpentine Gallery, 2011) last year — a book documenting Coates’ project with terminal patients at St John’s Hospice in London. Coates interviewed patients, asking a a single, preliminary question: “What can I do for you?” Embedded in that question is an acknowledgement of mortality. Death is on the horizon and Coates offers to accomplish a task this patient can no longer see too, a task this patient regrets never having done. In particular, the book focuses on Alex H.’s request; H. asks Coates to go to the Amazon on his behalf. The first part of the book is dedicated to the proposal, wherein this request is made. The second half is written like a play, where Coates describes the experience of his travels. In one sense The Trip is a travel book. Coates is articulate about his experience with the Huaorani tribe, relaying answers that H. had prescribed. In another, the project raises questions of identity, location of self and self-lessness. It’s an incredibly altruistic project, and yet of course its couched as an art project, a gesture that seems to muddy the waters a little bit. Then too, if you take this work in the context of Coates’ earlier works, it fits into his ouevre as a public shaman. As a reader, participating in the nuances of this dynamic relationship is interesting, particularly when the presence of the Amazon is mediated entirely through a the guise of a written play. In other words, it’s possible Coates might never have gone to the Amazon at all. (The Trip has also been presented as a 35 mm film).
Coates has interested me for a while now; most of his work operates in a liminal space between somber and slapstick. Often the result is a little suspicious, and maybe even for that suspicion, the more compelling. His tongue-in-cheek approach to shamanic mimicry seems to illustrate the desire to step outside reality, to connect to non-human (and perhaps more primitive) modes of being, while admitting the impossibility of that desire. The fact that shaman classes are offered so casually (I imagine a sign up sheet tacked to the bulletin board of one’s local book store) is just another reflection of cultural desire. ”Coates was inducted into the ancient techniques of shamanism on a weekend course in Notting Hill, London. The workshop trained participants to access a ‘non-ordinary’ psychic dimension with the aid of chanting, ‘ethnic’ drumming and dream-catchers.Coates has explained the process as essentially being a form of imaginative visualization. Historically the shaman would have been employed to solve the daily problems of the community; since these usually involved the finding and killing of animals, shamans were valued for their ability to communicate with other species in the spirit world,” (Jonathan Griffin, Frieze, 2007). Coates has made a series of performances where he claims to communicate with animal spirits in the underworld, and after returning from their realm, delivers messages of truth. Or common sense? It’s hard to say. “I think firstly I should say that I am deeply skeptical myself, particularly about new age culture,” Coates said in an interview with Mark Sheerin. “Usually I kind of expect people to walk out,” he says of his rituals, “and I’m quite open to people calling me a charlatan and laughing. I quite like people not to be so reverential.”
Graham Coulter-Smith described Coates this way in art intelligence:
“In one work Coates buried himself in the earth in a consciously theatrical attempt to get close to the forces of nature. He has jumped into the sea on the English coast and on emerging attempted to adopt the mentality of a seal while being videoed—one must have something to show in a gallery. In the remarkable Journey to the Lower World, 2004, he took on the role of shaman dressed in a deer skin complete with antlers. This was a participatory performance situated in a room in high rise tower block in Liverpool—it was also videoed and so there must have been a camera crew present at the occasion. This performance required considerably performative skills in encountering working class Liverpudlians living in a high rise tower block awaiting eviction. The proposal was that Coates would help the residents come to terms with their problem via a shamanistic communing with animal wisdom. In the performance he give an introduction to his audience of working class men and women and then covered his everyday casual clothing with a deer costume complete with antlers. In so doing he mixed the ordinary with the extraordinary in a manner that does seem well suited to contemporary existence. He then delivered a curious and somewhat absurd performance in which he appeared to take on the spirit of the animal acting in an animal-like manner and making animal-like sounds. All of this was incomprehensible to the audience and the video camera turns on the audience to register their expressions of amusement, surprise and disbelief. Perhaps the most extraordinary/ordinary aspect of the performance is when he descends to the ‘lower world’ via the tower block’s lift (elevator). He returns to give the audience an account of his chthonic experience in normal language telling them what the animal world had conveyed to him about their predicament and hopefully providing them with some therapeutic comfort: the advice was not bad encouraging them to sustain their community in the wake of the eviction.”
And, in the same article (aptly called “Simulacral Shamanism” by ) Coulter-Smith puts Coates in the context of late capitalism:
“But set against romanticist inclinations is the inexorable mercenary pragmatism, the superficiality and homogeneity of late capitalism. It is impossible for contemporary artists to escape their cultural context and this is the case for Coates who freely admits he is not sure whether his artistic practice is spiritually significant or merely playacting.” (read the whole article by going here.)
I have been interested in a similar “Hipster Shamanism” idea for a long time now. It’s a phrase that came to mind four or five years ago for me when I’d walk around town and see all these 20-something kids wearing dream catcher t-shirts and moccasins. There were echoes in the deer heads at art fairs and hipster galleries, and a kind of feral youth aura emanating out of popular comic books. While it connecting that chain of icons to Native American spiritualist tropes would do for its own essay, let me just say here that Coates taps into that same zeitgeist, claiming to have access to an alternate reality while nevertheless admitting an uncertain ability to do so. It’s not quite ironic (he offers fair advice to those about to be evicted from their housing complex, for instance) and yet it’s is not quite serious either. It has a disquieting effect. While the hipster-moccasin trend has become less pronounced since, I believe there is still something to it. And somehow I think it’s tied to a sense that nature no longer exists because a) America is a domesticated suburb and b) separating humankind from “nature” is impossible. Without nature, though, there is no “elsewhere” to turn to. The network of global capital is impossible to step outside of — even if one dislikes its values and consequence. Under this light it’s as if Coates just embodies a fantasy to escape, but let’s go back to The Trip again: something real is at stake, just as some exchange is being made. Regardless of the framework that caused such an occasion, it’s a project that dives into the most basic maelstrom of humanity.