Exhibition: Marcus Coates – Psychopomp, Milton Keynes Gallery, until April 4 2010
It is amazing what Marcus Coates gets away with. A film called Journey to the Lower World shows him inform tower block residents that he has been to the spirit kingdom to consult animals about their fate. To get there, he reveals, he made a psychic descent of more than 21 floors using the lifts in their building.
The Liverpool audience are by this point all ears. They have already seen the artist strap himself into a stag skin, complete with antlers that threaten to spear the light shade, and emit an alarming series of wildlife calls, to the accompaniment of a CD of tribal drums.
There is, of course, much laughter, but after a certain point that stops. Belief appears to take over, as if Coates’ performance has tapped into a primal credulity which goes deeper than rationalism.
And yet the advice he brings back from the lower world is straightforward. It defies his audience’s expectations that a spirit or person will come to watch over them.
Coates is a trained shaman who makes art from his encounters with the animal kingdom. On the evidence gathered by the Milton Keynes Gallery, each performance is a mix of humour, mysticism and plain speaking.
One can’t help but laugh at his outfits, for example, many of which are on display. He explores the Israel/Palestine conflict dressed in a blue shell suit and a Newcastle United shirt. In Tokyo he looks into bike parking restrictions dressed in a white Marilyn dress.
Yet on both occasions, footage shows him enter a trance-like state and provide a soundtrack of non-human grunts, yelps, shrills and barks. Something other-worldly definitely takes place.
And then there is the fauna-received wisdom. Much of it is pinned to the walls of the gallery and it all makes perfect sense. “Nothing in itself is artificial,” he explains to one perhaps sceptical questioner. “This is the gap between understanding the appearance and the purpose.”
If Coates is simply making it up on the spot, it is remarkable. No wonder he gets away with it.
Written for Culture24.