Category Archives: shamanism

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.

Review: Marcus Coates – Psychopomp

Marcus Coates, ‘Vision quest, Ernie’ 2009. Photo by Nick David. Produced by Nomad:

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.

Preview: Psychopomp by Marcus Coates

Vision Quest, Ernie by Marcus Coates. Photo by Nick David. Produced by Nomad.

Work by modern day shaman Marcus Coates is on show at Milton Keynes Gallery in the first UK public space to hold a survey of the artist’s work.

Psychopomp includes early film pieces, sculpture, sound, costume, photography as well as new work. In many of the pieces Coates goes to extreme lengths to commune with wildlife.

The London-based artist has said his work is “all about our relationship with animals and nature…there is humour in the work, but a serious side explores how we use our relationship with animals to define our humanness.”

Such humour can be seen in a film such as Goshawk in which a telephoto lens picks out a tree top in which Coates himself is perched. In Finfolk he assumes the identity of a seal and emerges from the sea speaking a made-up seal language.

There can be no doubting his commitment, as many films show the artist engaged in shamanistic rituals, wearing animal skins and entering a trance-like state in which he attempts to summon spirits.

In this way Coates has often worked with human communities to solve problems which have eluded the rational mind. In Norway he tackled prostitution and in Israel he explored the Palestinian conflict.

One of the most striking pieces in his latest show features everyday people singing like birds. Dawn Chorus was filmed with the help of a sound recordist who slowed down birdsong so that it could be mimicked and then speeded up the results to echo the original calls.

Milton Keynes’ infamous concrete cows were unavailable for comment on the show.

Written for Culture24.