Can artists help people? It’s an open question for Marcus Coates, Britain’s favorite eccentric artist. Part shaman, part showman, Coates acts as intermediary to the animal world to help solve the problems of a community, from consulting a mayor in Israel on youth violence to addressing the trafficking of prostitutes into Norway. But can artists really help people? Perhaps the answer belongs to the late Alex H., the terminally ill hospice patient who told Coates his lifelong dream of a trip to a remote village in the Amazon—where Coates soon journeyed on his behalf, creating a film (The Trip) about the experience. In a chat with Artsy, Coates reflected on seeing the world through Alex’s eyes, the potential of art to touch others’ lives, and, on the occasion of his solo booth with Kate MacGarry at Frieze London, why his portraits of animals are yet another attempt to experience the world as someone else.
Artsy: We’d love to hear more about The Trip. How did this project begin?
MC: Well, it’s a commission from the Serpentine Gallery in London. I wanted to work with people who are terminally ill. So I did a residency at St. John’s Hospice in London, and I went every week for maybe a year, just meeting people and developing ideas with the patients there. And I started to question what I could offer them as an artist that was really useful and helpful to them, and my role as an artist, just sort of generally in life. But they really brought this idea to the fore for me, which is that of my relevance, and my role. So I started to say to the patients: “What can I offer you?” Or more to the point: “What do you need?” And they started talking about things that they needed because their physical circumstances were so limited, because they’re so ill. And then we went on to talk about other things that they dreamed of doing, or always wanted to do, like fantasies in life or things they never really got around to but that they definitely can’t do now. And this was a really interesting conversation that I started having with quite a few patients, because it really opened up a whole world that they seemed to live in within their imaginations. Their physical worlds were very restricted but their imaginations were still very vibrant and lively, and it compensated for their lack of physicality. I saw how awesome this was, that they could still live in their imaginations.
Artsy: And how did you arrive at the idea for The Trip?
MC: I realized as an artist I could help them extend that life, extend that world, extend that imaginative journey, and enhance it and give it information. So I offered to have an experience on their behalf that they couldn’t do anymore, but that they really wanted to do, and about five or six patients came up with really interesting ideas. Unfortunately I could only do one of them, and it was for this one particular man named Alex H. He’s always wanted to go to the Amazon region and meet some indigenous tribe of people, and he specified how he would like to go on this canoe—not a large boat—and it needed to be fairly remote, and how he wanted to have respectful contact with these people, and some of the questions he wanted to ask them. And I said: Well, you know, I’ll go and do that for you, and then I’ll come back and tell you what happened and give you the answers to your questions. He kind of said: “Well, what am I going to get out of this? Because, you know, you’re going to do it and I’m not.” [Laughs]. And they all asked that question, and I struggled with it for a but. But in the end, the night before the trip, Alex said: “I can’t wait for us to go on our trip.” So in a way I really felt like I was doing something vicariously. I was really becoming him. And that kind of fitted in with a lot of my other work, which uses this idea of “becoming” as a strategy to test the idea of consciousness, and your human limitations, particularly with animals. But here for the first time I was attempting to become another person.
Artsy: You’ve just touched on it, but how does The Trip relate to your work as a shaman?
MC: I think this idea of empathy, and taking on the perspective of another person, and using your imagination as a source of knowledge or truth in a way, to share that. And a source of a kind of joint or shared consciousness. That was quite interesting. The imagination as a shared place that we could both enter into and explore at will.
Artsy: What was it like to “become” Alex H. and see the world through someone else’s eyes?
MC: So basically I went off to the Amazon and spent time with these amazing people called the Huaorani, in the Ecuador part of the Amazon. And they have this unique language and amazing relationship with the animals around them. So it was an amazing experience for me, someone who’s interested in shamanism, or indigenous rituals, and people’s relationship with animals—and their language and how that was related to animal noises. It’s just incredible. So I did sort of struggle with this idea of, I’m supposed to be Alex here, looking through Alex’s eyes. I talked to him quite a lot about that when I came back. I sort of decided to go with what I wanted to look at and what I wanted to see, and in a way I felt that was the best way to translate the experience in an authentic and fulfilling way, in the best way for his imagination.
Artsy: And can you tell us why you decided not to film the actual trip?
MC: I didn’t take any photographs or film—I didn’t film anything. So I got back from Ecuador and I went straight to hospice, and Alex just started asking me about The Trip. I started telling him, and basically I felt like he was directing the questions, he was directing this journey that he’d had, and looking for the information that he needed to fill in the gaps. He’d been on this journey a million times in his mind. He’d just wanted to go a bit further up the river, or a bit more around the corner. So it was great that I didn’t show him any photographs or film, because I felt like that would be erasing what he knew already.
Artsy: And what was your relationship with Alex after this experience?
MC: We had that conversation, and really, that was it. We talked a bit a few more times before he died, which was quite soon after that. And he talked about how his world had expanded because of that. He found he had somewhere else to go, especially when he was in pain, and it was difficult, he had a whole other room he could go to, which was lovely for me; it was amazing to give him that gift. It was an amazing exchange, but it really got me thinking about what I could do as an artist and what is possible, what art is, how art can really benefit people.
Artsy: And can you tell us about the photographs you’re showing with Kate MacGarry at Frieze?
MC: They are in a way another attempt, however futile, to become someone else or something else. For this instance I’ve used photographs that I’ve taken all around the world of different animals, I guess you’d say classic portraits of animals. They’re sort of National Geographic-style animal portraiture, which is fairly anthropomorphic, in that you like to see an eye, you like to see a face— you like to ultimately see the human portrait or human eye in the animal. So it’s a sense of this photograph—however beautiful, and I’ve had them printed up in this really pristine way—the sense of this photograph being dishonest in a way, or my frustration with that as a representation of my encounter with that animal, and how I’d really like to experience the relationship. So I’ve basically screwed these photographs up into a really tight ball in my hand; I’ve kind of ruined them. But in this physical nature of performance, I’ve made my hand a small vessel to try to contain them and envelop them. In that sense, I find a physical relationship with this image which is, if transient, more satisfactory than this illusion, which I feel doesn’t convey the encounters I had with the animals. So it was quite literally about trying to become the animal through making it material again, making it physical, scrunching it up, being quite violent with the image. It’s a kind of ritualistic action, I suppose, and in the end I unfurled these scratched-up photos a bit, and put them on the wall. They are remnants of this performance, and what you don’t get in the end is that National Geographic picture; you get a ruined photograph. [Laughs] It’s evidence, perhaps, of a more subjective experience, or of a personal encounter—a relationship, which is what you’re representing all the time.
Artsy: Can you talk about some of your past self-portraits? What does the idea of a self-portrait mean to you? They seem to belong to a theme that that you’ve dealt with quite a bit.
MC: Yeah, it’s interesting because I’ve never really talked about it but it’s really obvious, I suppose, because I’ve always worked with the self-portrait. I’ve always done that because I’m really looking at this idea of limitation and how society and culture defines us as rational beings in an irrational society as having a defined consciousness and defines our relationship with each other and other species. So the focus of my work has been to test this limitation, this definition. And a lot of the time I’ve used myself as the experiment. I started off just on my own doing it, and then I thought, well, maybe I should photograph this stuff I’m doing. They’re like performances, but no one’s seeing them; I’m just in the woods doing them. So I started photographing them and filming them, and became my own lab, in a way, to test my ideas and theories.
It was also to do with a quite personal endeavor to reconcile a gap I see between myself and nature, particularly, but also other people. And then it became more extreme. I started at first just trying to become a fox or a tree or whatever, and then now it’s more like insects and inanimate objects like rocks and stones. The latest one is my proposal for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, which has just been shortlisted, which is really a huge rock formation in Northern England [in Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire] which you project your imagination and project yourself onto. It’s the idea of everything being a canvas for our own meaning and how we project ourselves onto everything in a way. So that’s self-portraiture. It runs through everything in a way.
Coates has been shortlisted for the next two Fourth Plinth public sculpture commissions for London’s Trafalgar Square. You can view his proposal at St Martin-in-the-Fields church through November 17th, 2013.
On view at Kate MacGarry, Frieze London 2013, Main, Booth H1, October 17th – 20th.