On Journey to the Lower World by Marcus Coates (2007)

“Who is our protector for this site, and what is it?” This is the question posed to Marcus Coates by a handful of dwellers in a condemned tower block. They sit, huddled together in one woman’s flat, in an artificial twilight created by heavy green curtains pulled across the windows. Coates will – he tells us – summon forth animal spirits to answer this question. The only prop in this room is a small whiteboard, faintly displaying these surprisingly mysterious words. (There is a strange mixture of the banal and the overtly spiritual here – in fact, the artist was taken aback by the choice of question, anticipating something much more functional.) The group shifts in their seats; they are a little uncomfortable – cynical perhaps – and I’m not sure whether or not Coates sets them at ease when he tells them they should feel free to leave the room at any point. He generates mystique, innocently smiling all the while.

They react with muffled laughter as he prepares, sending jets of water from his mouth onto the freshly hoovered carpet, tying keys to his shoelaces and shouldering a large reindeer skin, attached with plastic buckles under his armpits. The mood seems to shift as he shuffles and stamps around the room producing animal noises – they are increasingly absorbed, a little frightened even (though there is an outburst of sniggers as one antler suddenly sets the lampshade pirouetting on its axis.) The camera focuses as much on the reaction of the group as on what Coates does, with the result that one starts observing individuals, laughing when they laugh, absorbed too when they are absorbed.
After cavorting around the room to very mixed responses, Coates sits and appears to calm down. Following what seems like a brief trance, he gulps water from a plastic bottle and removes his costume. At first he looks physically exhausted, but gains momentum as he describes a journey he took down in a lift at the core of the tower block, then through a forest, past a lake, in search of animal spirits.

Coates mentions animals he has seen along the way. Descriptions of birds point to a touch of ornithological enthusiasm, with little asides that show a knowledge of classification. After a reticent bird fails to come up with the goods he sits, waiting for a creature to come to him. Another bird lands with an ambiguous message – it stretches out one wing, its feathers moving independently from each other. Coates gives his own interpretation of this action and this is enthusiastically picked up by one woman sat at the front who has all along maintained an intent interest, regardless of the giggles and guffaws behind her.

Instead of answering the question in a straightforward way, Coates takes us on a journey that – though imaginary – seems to have more of an impact on the group of tower block dwellers than any rational response could have. His answer contains potential symbols which are open to interpretation and reinterpretation. The sniggerers and guffawers, having sniggered and guffawed, appear to leave the room with respect for this unassuming man. We too cannot resist being won over. Whilst his cavorting in a deer outfit provokes laughter, the description of what took place in his mind is utterly disarming (perhaps because we have laughed, got this cynical laughter out of our system.)

There is something interesting that happens here, in this cross between art and shamanism. Coates offered his services to the people of this Liverpudlian tower block, resisting definition though telling them he was an artist. Are they less likely to believe in this shamanistic process because he is an artist and it is offered courtesy of Arts Council England? The performance is based on a Siberian shamanistic procedure – specific, though we are not told how authentic. How much does he believe it, and does that in turn affect how much we believe? There is certainly a strength in this nature of crossover, at least if – as with Coates – we get the impression the crossover stems from genuine interest. His approach is sensitive, captivating at times and baffling at others. It takes a moment to come up with an idea like this, to act like a shaman in front of a group of tower block dwellers, but it takes much more to execute that idea in such a way that is appropriate and of artistic merit. This is what saves the work from being a one liner; there is a sense of real depth, a lack of hubris, a willingness to follow through with an idea no matter where it leads that disarms, allows us – for a moment – to enter into this imaginary world where animals speak in symbols and artists can be shamans too.