Marcus Coates: A Quest for Visions – Contemporary Art & the Church

One of the most intriguing individuals at work in the art world today is Marcus Coates, a curiously atavistic figure, part-shaman, part-performance artist, whose most recent venture has been a long-term residency in and around London’s Elephant and Castle, documented in film as Vision Quest – A Ritual for Elephant and Castle. Coates presents himself as a modern urban shaman, an intermediary who performs ritual journeys into animal and bird spirit worlds on behalf of a community in need of spiritual guidance, in this case the soon-to-be-evicted residents of the estates around this area of London, in preparation for its proposed redevelopment. He uses ritual performance to interrogate the boundaries of the human by experimenting with ‘being’ an animal, entering into a trance-like state in order to travel through a spirit world of birds and beasts. As he journeys he mimics the sounds of the creatures that he visualises, summons and consults, taking on their characteristics the better to facilitate spiritual access to their world. The artist becomes both a traveller and translator between alien worlds (human, animal, bird), undertaking shamanic rituals on behalf of an attendant audience, often composed of representatives of a particular community, in order to seek answers to serious questions put to him by his audience, questions that he insists must be of significant personal concern to the questioners.

In 2008 Coates was invited to bring his idiosyncratic form of ritual practice into the environment of the church, as part of Wallspace’s programme of church-based art events.[1] Dressed incongruously in a blue tracksuit and mirror shades (replaced in Vision Quest with a silver suit) and adorned, on this occasion, with alternately a deer and badger’s head and skin, Coates performed a series of rituals, each undertaken in search of an answer to a single question proposed by a member of the audience. Following each ritual phase, as if filling the shoes of the priest Coates went up into the pulpit and delivered his response. Although he gave an answer of sorts to the question asked he tended to describe rather than decipher what he had seen, offering descriptions of journeys made and creatures encountered.

An intentional result of such unconventional enquiry is to put into question our perceptions of being human through imagined non-human realities, seeking access to forms of knowledge outside the realms of the human. He describes it as a way of inhabiting the animal, or put in Deleuzian terms, a process of becoming-animal. It is a process that is both performative but also informative, a form of imagination or visualisation. Coates actualises a virtual world, a world inaccessible to his audience, a world different in kind to that with which they are familiar. But through the ritual process he allows that other alien world to impinge upon the world to which we are habituated. The crucial element is not only the production of something different, far removed from mundane reality, but that the audience encounters and engages with this difference. Pastoral Spirit was highly reliant upon the audience’s complicity in, and receptivity to, the premises of the event. Following the exit of a sizeable section of the audience after the first ritual performance, those who remained to see the piece through displayed an apparent willingness to accept its unorthodoxy through the serious attention they gave to it.

For Coates this is always a risky business. His practice challenges the willing credulity of the viewer confronted with the peculiar logic of the strange and otherworldly. The potential for mistrust, alienation or perplexity, compounded by the ever-present risk of failure, always threatens ultimately to undermine the performance through scepticism, where engagement is of the essence, hazards no doubt magnified when brought into the church. Nevertheless, loyalty to the art event, to its premises and purpose, need not be misconstrued as a belief in Coates’s ability to communicate with bird and animal spirit worlds. Indeed, this is entirely beside the point. Instead it requires, in a very real sense, an act of good faith. The artist Mark Wallinger, an admirer of Coates’ work, assumes that no-one seriously believes in these rituals, and yet their plausibility is somehow unquestioned. Faith in the project, he concedes, ‘doesn’t reside…in the presence of actual shamanic powers, but rather in something credible and authentic that takes place between artist and audience.’[2] By this commitment the answers given seem less indebted to the artist’s imagination and more to the possibilities evinced by this encounter with a non-human world of animals and birds producing, as Art Monthly put it, ‘a form of social engagement which manages to be both bizarrely ridiculous yet poignant,’ a source of ‘estrangement and disorientation,’ but equally of fascination and delight.[3] However ridiculous or risible it sounds, in reality it is one of the most affecting events I have ever witnessed.

Photographs courtesy of Meryl Doney.

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has recently completed a Ph.D. at Goldsmiths College on the subject of contemporary art in ecclesiastical spaces.


[1] Wallspace was an art venue within a London church which aimed to promote close ties between the artistic and liturgical life of the church, and whose sad demise, yet another casualty of the funding shortfall in the arts, has left the London scene bereft of an exciting and often ground-breaking initiative.

[2] Forward to Marcus Coates, Journey to the Lower World, ed. Alec Finlay, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Platform Projects and Morning Star, 2005 (no page numbers).

[3] Dan Smith, ‘New Maps of Heaven,’ Art Monthly 338, 2010, p. 14.

3 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    Frankly, this kind of combination of performance art and ritual worries me. Truth be told, ritualizing performance itself concerns me, because it appears to be based on the premise that the only two actors in ritual are the priest/performer and congregation/audience. However, I would argue that in true ritual, there is a third actor – God, or the gods, or the animal spirits, or whomever. The entire meaning of the ritual is dependent on the action of that third party.

    So if a piece of performance is being presented as a true ritual – especially if performance ritual is being presented as a valid substitute for religious ritual – it really does matter what the performer and his audience believes about who or what they’re interacting with in the ritual. If there’s really no third party, why name one?

    If, on the other hand, it’s clearly being presented as just an artistic performance, why the self-identification as a shaman outside of the performance frame, and why require the audience to ask important personal questions that they seriously want answered? Is it because of a belief that an artistic performance ritual, when performed as if it were true religious ritual, can have the same effect as a true religious ritual, or become one (even if the third party party with whom one purports to be engaging does not exist)?

    If the operative belief is that performance can be effective to the same degree and in the same way that ritual is effective, I would have to disagree. And I’m very, very wary of mixing the two categories, or identifying them with each other, especially within a worship space.

    Now that I’ve finished being completely conservative and reactionary, I have a genuine question: Do you think you, or any other member of the audience, expected or received anything more out of Coates’ performance than an artistic performance? Did it become ritual for anybody, and if so, who were the acting parties in that ritual?

  • Jonathan Koestlé-Cate says:

    Your reservations about the uses of ritual performances of this kind raise some serious questions. It is probably true that I am willing to forgive (or ignore) some of the discrepancies such rituals present when witnessed in a church context. Nevertheless, there is an important distinction to be made between worship-based ritual and art-based ritual performances of this kind.

    To begin with, it is perhaps important to point out that Wallspace, though operating within an active church environment, was primarily an art space, but one where the art on show aimed to develop a relationship with the space of the church and the occasional services that took place there. All Hallows has no congregation, situated as it is within the heart of the City of London, but remains a consecrated space. Once or twice a week a simple lunchtime service would take place for whoever wished to attend. This service aimed to integrate the art currently on show into its form and content, without necessarily expecting the art to conform or accommodate itself to the prerequisites of the church.

    There is no sense in which Coates’ performance replicated or replaced the functions of the church. Rather, a work of this kind was closely aligned with the vision of Wallspace as a place where other realities, or alternate perspectives on the world, might be expressed, often but not always within a religious framework. The value of an artist like Coates, aside from his genuine engagement with whatever community he happens to be working with at the time (for ‘Vision Quest’ he spent three years with the inhabitants of the Elephant and Castle estates due to be demolished), is his equally genuine interest in the lessons to be learned from non-human realities. If the birds and beasts of his rituals are effectively imaginary, and therefore, as you say, an absent third party, his knowledge of their behavior, habitats and inter-relationships lends his rituals an affecting degree of credibility, even legitimacy.

    I am not prepared to say outright that Coates’ rituals are a stage-managed art spectacle with no basis in real experience. I am prepared to take him at his word, to show good faith if you like, because in my own experience I have gained, through them, a very different perspective on the world in which we live, one in which the ever-dominant logic of the human is set alongside, even set aside for the sake of, the world of animals and birds.

    My feeling is that for Coates this is not merely art performance. Though in interviews he frequently expresses his own reservations about his appropriation of the shaman tradition, conscious of the dangers of appearing to be a charlatan exploiting the real situations of the groups with whom he works, and painfully aware of his inadequate training, competencies or credentials, he also expresses a heart-felt desire to serve those who invite him to ritually respond to their particular problem or question. Like other socially-collaborative artists (Stephen Willats is another obvious example) his ‘art’ is tailored to real social concerns, and, if nothing else, expands the possibilities for thought around, or solutions to, those concerns.

    My own reservation about your criticisms is that you appear to be comparing like for like, as if performance is here claiming to be equivalent to religious ritual or ‘effective to the same degree’. I do not believe this to be the case. As I note in my piece, in ‘Pastoral Spirit’ Coates acted ‘as if filling the shoes of the priest’, not actually doing so. Though I would not discount the possibility, I can see that a very different discussion would be necessary were this to be performed within a church with an existing congregation, or performed as part of the regular services of the church.

    In answer to your final question I have given some sense of my personal experience above. Whether it ‘became ritual for anybody’ I cannot say. For myself, I accepted it as ritual, consenting to its premises, and ultimately left the church feeling richly rewarded by the event. I felt I had been offered an insight into another way of experiencing the world. As to the acting parties, as an audience it could be argued we were merely passive onlookers rather than participants in this event. Alternatively, it could be said that our participation in the ritual was our acquiescence and attentiveness; our willingness to assent to its process.

    In conclusion, one of the questions that permeates Deleuzian philosophy (from which I took the concept of ‘becoming-animal’) is ‘how might one live?’ In my opinion, it is artists like Coates who attempt some kind of response to a question like this, expanding our all too limited horizons beyond the merely human to acknowledge that there are many ways one might live, and many lived realities.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Jonathan, thanks for the thorough response, and apologies for taking so long to reply myself. It’s interesting to hear about Coates’ own ambivalence about his work – about the blurriness of the question as to whether he’s playing a shaman or is a shaman. I guess it’s the tension that makes me nervous, though it seems to be the source of the work’s power. It’s a tension that’s worth exploring, but very, very carefully, and I think your follow-up description of Coates’ intentions indicates that he is aware of the need for careful thought, and the danger of claiming too much. It seems, maybe that he wishes to heal and help through the art, as opposed to healing directly (through actual ritual non-artistic shamanism) or only presenting an illustration of a healer (by “acting a part”).

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