'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Monday, 7 March 2011

I’m trying to write about Marcus Coates again but I’m finding it almost impossible. Every time I try to write about Marcus Coates I become stuck, the words don’t flow the way they normally do.

I think it’s because Marcus Coates is really, really great and I find myself possessed of an over-excitable desire to say simply that, over and over. Marcus Coates is really, really great. Then I begin to tell myself, "oh you can't say that, Beverley," and once I've begun to tell myself what I can and can't say that's it, the game's over and it hasn't ended well. So I suppose I shall have to put the internal censor back in her box and do what I usually do, which is to say wing it, vaguely hoping that I don't make too much of a tit of myself. And if I do make a tit of myself I shall be consoled by the fact that it won't be the first time. Nor probably the last.

The embarrassing truth is I have a slight crush on Marcus Coates, although I’ve never even met him. But then that’s usually the best sort of crush, the sort that hasn’t yet been dragged kicking and screaming to its horrible, bloody end via a good pummelling from reality. Marcus Coates is my George Cluney - the art historians bit of crumpet.

What’s not to like about a forty-odd year old man wearing a turquoise shell suit, reflective aviator glasses and a badger on his head, clucking his way around the office of the Mayor of Holon in Israel, emitting notably realistic bird calling sounds. Alarmingly, I'm not even joking around here. I've noticed this tendency in myself, to fetishise a certain sort of individual who appears to have much self-awareness and at the same time very little self-consciousness. At once intellectual and off-beat, eccentric perhaps, or one might go as far as to say, a little odd.

Marcus Coates' work is possessed of a curious magic that seems to defy my every attempt to capture it. Its delicate and perhaps unintentionally ambiguous ethereality lies somewhere between childlike naiveté and knowing post-modern wit and for the most part proves too subtle for the absolutes that words desire. However there seems to be a generosity to Coates’ work, an enigmatic humility, that feels meaningful. Given the particularly idiosyncratic nature of his modus operandi, even by the current standards of contemporary art, it might be tempting to dismiss him as a piss taker, but I suspect that would be a misinterpretation.

Coates is interested in what he refers to as 'becoming animal'. His work often takes the form of a documentation of his attempts to physically embody animal in a ritualistic Shamanic fashion in order to help various groups of people to answer problems they may be experiencing in their lives and their communities.

His latest work though is uncharacteristically taxidermy free. Tucked away in the long room behind the Nancy Spero show at The Serpentine is a 35 minute film entitled The Trip for which Marcus Coates worked with St John's Hospice, and particularly with patient Alex H, to answer the question: 'What can I do for you?'

In a way 'becoming' Alex H, Marcus realised Alex's long term ambition to travel to the Amazon rainforest by following a very precise set of instructions issued to him by Alex. The film documents the conversations between the artist and the patient before the trip and after the trip. Rather than show film of the protagonists engaged in their conversation, or film from the trip itself, the image Coates chooses to show us for 35 minutes is an almost static view from the window of Alex's room. As the two men talk, we watch, at a distance, a critical remove if you will, various road and pavement users going about their anonymous everyday London lives.

Although this latest work may at first glance seem to be quite different to Coates' ongoing Shamanic oeuvre, I think it probably isn't. As with his earlier work The Trip is dependent upon a conscious engagement of the interconnectivity between apparently separate beings, a highlighting of the shared imaginative and symbolic space, in order to bring people and communities together and provide, probably not solutions to problems exactly, but discourses around events; discourses that might, over time, begin to allow space to open up and positions of identification to be seen. And as a thing is seen the possibility for it to begin to consciously change slowly comes into being.

Maybe it's about presenting things to people in such a way that a different perspective becomes available to them. Maybe it's offering the loosening of a fixed and imprisoning position that may have ceased to serve a useful purpose. As Coates suggests in The Plover's Wing, "What the bird represents here is the idea of identifying with a certain position, identifying with a victim position."

Like all truthful ways of engaging with the world Coates' work takes itself lightly but it does so with a sense of great seriousness. It may be ornithology but it's also art. It may be art but it is also life. Yup, Marcus Coates is really, really great.

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