1 Mar 2011
Source: This is London
Marcus Coates could be our most eccentric artist at work today. In a series of performances and
videos with which he has become an increasingly prominent figure on the British contemporary art scene, he has attempted to reflect on his audience's problems, from prostitution in Stavangar, Norway, to illegal cycle parking in Japan, through elaborate shamanistic rituals in which he communes with an animal world, drawing lessons from the behaviour of the sparrowhawk or the plover that might help questioners with their dilemmas.
But recently Coates took on a project that throws other human concerns into sharp relief. As part of the Serpentine Gallery's ongoing Skills Exchange programme, in which artists work with the elderly to "develop ideas for social and architectural change", he has collaborated with terminally ill patients at St John's Hospice in north London. The result is The Trip (2011), a new film and sound installation that goes on view on Thursday.
"I talked to lots of the patients, and that in itself was a wonderful experience," says Coates, a tall 42-year-old with silvery grey hair, a beard and piercing green eyes behind black-rimmed glasses, when we meet in the Serpentine's sparse meeting room overlooking Kensington Gardens.
"These people were incredibly pragmatic about their futures, and very positive in the way that they talked about their lives - their past lives, and their future, in a way. And they really wanted to make the most of their present experience."
After nearly a year of visits, Coates came up with his idea, born from a poignant memory he had of talking to his late grandfather about his projects and journeys as his career burgeoned.
"I could see that he was almost reliving it through me," Coates remembers. He realised that he could offer himself as an "agent of experience" for the St John's patients, asking patients if he could perform activities that they had never been able to engage in, or carry out ideas that they had not been able to fulfil.
"Their physical worlds were somewhat diminished but their imaginations seemed to compensate for that," he says. The dream that most fired his imagination was that of Alex H, a patient who loved to travel but had never visited the Amazonian rainforest. And last year, Coates made the trip to Ecuador on Alex's behalf.
The installation at the Serpentine consists of two conversations between Coates and Alex accompanied by a static video shot of the window of Alex's room in St John's, looking onto the street below. The first part is shot as the light fades outside, as the pair talk about the impending trip and what Alex would like to see and do, the questions he has for the indigenous people and the way he would like to travel through the forest. "It's quite specific really, his idea of what this trip would be like," Coates says, "almost as if he's gone on this trip already in his mind." In the film's second section, Coates returns to tell Alex of his experiences.
"The initial idea was to take a camera, and film it, and show him this experience," Coates says. "But after talking to him, I realised that so much of this is already in his imagination. It's quite a vivid place for him already, and the last thing that I want to do is show him some pictures, and say, 'Actually, your imagination is wrong, this is what it looks like, you've got to start from scratch now with this.' I just wanted to add to his experience."
With the same view in a cool winter morning light, Coates remembers the vivid colours, sounds and feelings he experienced, the indigenous Huaorani people he encountered and their response to Alex's questions. Frequently, Alex himself chips in, seemingly wanting to savour every detail. Movingly, as Coates recounts his experiences in a kayak along the bending river or walking along jungle paths, the view along that north London avenue seems to be coloured by our own projection of Coates's rainforest journey.
The Trip was a departure for Coates, but he sees it as entirely consistent with his wider work, which despite its acclaim has been strangely overlooked for major accolades such as the Turner Prize. His compelling films and performances are largely informed by the lifelong passion for wildlife that emerged when he was a child in Harpenden, Hertfordshire. He is best known for "shamanic" works such as The Plover's Wing (2009), a film shown at the Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain in 2009, in which, wearing a stuffed badger on his head and an Adidas tracksuit, he takes a question from an Israeli mayor about youth violence, before descending into a trance, and emerging to use the plover's behaviour as a key to unlocking the problem.
"There is a very strong connection between The Trip and the shamanic work, really, in that there is some sort of exchange and transformation there, and the idea of living through an imaginative world and using that to interpret conscious and rational reality," Coates says.
"And that idea of becoming - I had to attempt to become Alex, however successful it was. The attempt to put yourself in someone else's shoes or see the world through someone else's eyes has become very important."
This empathetic theme is also central to the series Coates calls his "becoming animal" works.
In one of these, Dawn Chorus (2006), he asked people to mimic birdsong that had been slowed down to human pitch, before filming them and speeding up the footage so that they sound uncannily like the original yellowhammers and chaffinches. Shown together, they emulate the remarkable daybreak cacophony of the title.
Behind the obvious whimsicality, these works have serious intent. "That experience of inhabiting another world or person or species has become an important strategy for me," he says. "It seems to offer up an alternative way of seeing our position as humans." But don't expect Coates's next work to feature the toucans and other birds he encountered in Ecuador: "I have got enough on my doorstep to learn about," he says.
One thing Coates will take with him from the Amazon, however, is the experience of having lived Alex's dream, and enriched it for him.
"Alex and I carried on having conversations," he says, "and just before he died, he talked about how he had often found himself in the jungle. He was pleased that he had this other place to go to."
Coates could not have known when he accepted the invitation how deeply he would be affected by his experience at St John's. "Whenever I talk about it, I feel incredibly indebted to Alex," he says.
"For him to give up his time at this critically important moment in his life, to talk to me about this, and share with me his last experiences, I felt incredibly privileged. He didn't know me, I was a very recent friend in a way, so he was incredibly trusting and quite brave, I think, to do that. As an exchange, I think we both got a lot out of it."