Competing Visions for the Inner City

Competing Visions for the Inner City

Arts May 03, 2012 / By Mark Sheerin
Competing Visions for the Inner City

Artist and shaman Marcus Coates has been on a quest in South London, but can his imagination match that of the property developers?

For more than 10 years now, developers have had their eye on Elephant and Castle, a strangely named part of London just a stone‘s throw from Tate Modern. The plan is all too predictable: demolish the council flats; build chic apartments; sell to a better class of resident.

Councillors and property tycoons will talk up the project in grand terms. It is a vision. “Don’t you have a model or something you could show me?” asks Marcus Coates in his film about the area. Southwark Council do not, so it falls to the meddling artist to supply his own vision. The result is a 50 minute film of rare humour, pathos and ritual power.

To describe Coates as a performance artist is only half the story. He is to some extent also a shaman. The film Vision Quest sees him bear aloft a stuffed eagle as he walks the South London streets. He explains to bemused locals this is his spirit guide. There are friendships struck up with residents on the near deserted Heygate estate. Coates explains he wants to pit himself against the built environment in a physical way. So resulting clips where he shoulder charges garage doors and salivates onto the asphalt occupy a thin line between comedy and the real magic you half expect from him.

Needless to say, the vision of a shaman, even that of a tongue in cheek shaman, is at once more powerful and yet much less effectual than that of capitalist land grabbers. Coates works himself into a frenzy towards the climax of the project and performs a trancelike vocal for the psychedelic drone band Chrome Hoof. His imagination soars, and when he revisits local councillors to debrief them on his project, they are at a loss for words. He tells them he has met seals nearby and let swallows nest in his armpits.

In our disenchanted modern age, these must be creatures of the artist’s own invention. They stem from a good knowledge of wildlife and intensive time spent in the locality. But Coates does go on some kind of journey and a journey which appears to be as old as art itself. Was it not the very first painters who invoked a world of animal spirits on the walls of Chauvet and Lascaux? Vision Quest may document the wanderings of a wilful eccentric who plays it for laughs with an avant garde rock band, but the content of this art has roots dating back 30,000 years.

Of course, the meaning of cave art is a much disputed area. But in a fascinating book by Gregory Curtis, The Cave Painters, it appears that at Lascaux, at least, trancelike states were an intrinsic part of art making. This cave’s most distant chambers are to this day flooded from time to time with carbon dioxide. Odourless, invisible, deadly even, CO2 can disorientate, overwhelm, and indeed give rise to hallucinations. Even scientific researchers have reported seeing thousands of dots or holding conversation  with a shade.

This would have seemed magical indeed in Upper Paleolithic times. But science, which finds a reason for all things, has nailed the chemistry behind it. That’s why to a degree Coates can only play at shamanism, exploiting a tension between our desire to believe and our inability. We really only smile at his silver suit, his mirror shades, his horse’s pelt, even as we feel a sense of loss.

But one mystery still surrounds the Vision Quest project for which there seems no satisfactory explanation. How did a man with a film crew and a stuffed eagle on a stick manage to spend three years on the mean streets of Elephant and Castle without getting set upon and seriously hurt. Much of the filming took place in the early hours of the morning, and Coates admits there were risks. Perhaps on some primitive level this artist was accepted as an intermediary from the other world. The power of myth, urban or otherwise, will always endure.

Featured Image: Marcus Coates, Vision Quest: A Ritual For Elephant and Castle. Commissioned and produced by Nomad (2012) Photo © Nick David

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