Interview: Marcus Coates

Marcus Coates, The Plover’s Wing, 2009. Courtesy the Artist and Workplace Gallery.

Marcus Coates arrives wearing neither badger fur nor stag antlers. He drinks tea, not peyote, and does not bark, yelp or fall into a trance. In fact there is no evidence at all this man has a hotline to the animal kingdom.

His genial conversation is a far cry from the spooky rituals which have made the artist’s name. In order to tackle social issues, Coates has after all consulted with plover, moorhen, sparrowhawk and deer.

The resulting performances might suggest he has a true gift and you could speculate there were years living with some remote tribe, learning their ways, but no.

Of his shamanic training, he says, “I haven’t really had any.” Although he does have a weekend course under his belt. “I think what I possibly take is an idea called core shamanism. The idea that the fundamentals of the shamanistic technique are open to everyone.”

Instead of magic, Coates uses meditation in what he describes as a “watered-down” version of indigenous tribal practices. The sceptics among you were right all along.

“I think firstly I should say that I am deeply skeptical myself, particularly about new age culture,” he says. Disappointment soon gives way to relief.

“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.”

But those who stick around until Coates snaps out of his trance may be surprised at the vivid descriptions he brings back and even benefit from the advice he dispenses.

“When I went to Israel I did a series of rituals in a shopping centre and people would come and ask me questions which were very serious,” he recalls. “One woman came up to ask me about her anorexic daughter and that’s when I realised I had an enormous responsibility.”

The same day Coates was besieged with long queues, despite the deeply held religious beliefs of people from that part of the world. It was enough to make him consider giving up shamanic work. “Maybe religion isn’t extreme enough,” he muses.

Faced with real problems of any scale, Coates looks to his imagination for a solution. The possession-like trance is in fact a creative process

“It’s really just an elaborate and extended form of meditation where I conjure up an imaginative world where I don’t control it. I don’t run it. I’m just very separate to my imagination. I’m guided by it,” he explains.

His art background is what he claims has given him “some fundamental skills” to do shamanic work.

“It wasn’t like one day I thought I’d be a shaman. For years I had this strategy as an artist to become animal. I suppose that was to reconcile the gap between myself and another being.”

In doing so, Coates was influenced by a 1974 enquiry by philosopher Thomas Nagel: What is it Like to Be a Bat? “There are degrees to which we can know each other and know of each other,” says the artist.

Which prompts the questions of what our native fauna might make of contemporary art: “I think the fact about wildlife is its indifference to us. It reacts to us. It responds to us, but in terms of caring, that doesn’t really come into it.”

Art in turn is not just cut off from the natural world, according to Coates: “I see it as cut off from the world generally. I think lots of artists are very interested in art itself. I’m not particularly interested in art. I see art as a by-product of what I do.”

What primarily he does is explore the present day resonance of indigenous belief systems, the power of ritual, and the leaps of faith needed to create and enjoy art.

It needs pointing out that humour is another strong by-product of his endeavours. But, says Coates,”That is totally undeliberate. The attempts are very serious, but I think the incongruities that are formed create the humour.”

But the strength of his performances lies somewhere between mischief and make believe. Indeed, he says, “Most of the work comes from the idea of being an 8 year old.”

Written for Culture24.

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