Coates, Marcus

Coates, Marcus – British artist whose work explores the interface between what it is to be human vis-à-vis “nature,” particularly through video installations. In Journey to the Lower World (2005), Coates made a shamanic journey for a group of residents in a Liverpool tower block (apartment building). In the video, we see the community gather in one resident’s small living room, while Coates prepares himself by donning a red-deer-antler-and-hide costume. With an audiotape of shamanic drumming in the background, Coates begins his journey, which is viewed on a second videoscreen. Taking the elevator to the ground floor works as a metaphor for the journey to the lower world. Footage of various birds (a moorhen and sparrowhawk, for instance) represents the creatures Coates encounters as spirit helpers in his journey. Returning to the ordinary world by elevator, Coates then recounts his shamanic experiences to the audience, and the community seems uncertain as to whether the neoshaman has offered anything of value to their needs.

Unlike other artists who engage with shamans as romantic visionaries in synch with community needs, Coates’s installation raises issues of uncertainty and humor in shamanic practice. The reason for the journey is community oriented, but the community, with giggles and whispers, is uncertain about this neo-shaman and may not be convinced he is genuine. This might compare with the down-to-earth, everyday, and sexual humor in some indigenous rites. Coates’s performance itself is tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time there is a tension in the air, and the artist seems committed to the efficacy of the rite. Here, too, the tension, uncertainty, and unpredictability of the performance is not unlike indigenous shamanisms and is reminiscent of Michael Taussig’s (1987) deconstruction of the traditional Western model of shamanisms perpetuated by masculist observers in which shamans are perceived to be largely male, dominating figures who control social relations and charismatically master their communities and whose rites always end in success.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007