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. 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.’ 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. 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.
 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.
 Forward to Marcus Coates, Journey to the Lower World, ed. Alec Finlay, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Platform Projects and Morning Star, 2005 (no page numbers).
 Dan Smith, ‘New Maps of Heaven,’ Art Monthly 338, 2010, p. 14.