Marcus Coates: 185x49x29cm
Workplace Gallery, Gateshead
1st December 2012 - 19th January 2013
Review by Rebecca Travis
Marcus Coates’ latest solo show (his second at Workplace Gallery) continues the artist’s eccentric preoccupation with the natural world, how we relate to it, idealise it, sanctify it and attempt to categorise it. If you are familiar with his previous projects, specifically the endearingly absurd performances in which he dresses as various animals in shamanistic attempts to channel their spirits, the new sculptural work ‘All The Grey Animals’ (2012) may come as an understated surprise.
It comprises of over 80 grey cuboid forms that greet viewers upon entrance to the gallery. Each is labelled as a creature defined simply by its ‘greyness’, the scale of the sculpture reflecting the scale of the animal - from the sixteen-foot baby Grey Whale to the tiny Grey Dagger Moth. Reduced to their very simplest of attributes, Coates’ menagerie lack any hint of fin, fur or feather and instead render a modernist landscape of abstraction, enhanced by the exposed concrete flooring of the gallery. Upstairs, the work ‘Marcus Coates, White British, 185x49x29cm’ (2012) sees the artist apply the same formula to himself. The resultant self-portrait - a stoic white box - is devoid of personality or human feature. Both works comment on the human need to bring order to the vast individualities of our existence and the creatures with which we share it, obliterating the specifics in the process.
‘Turtle Mountain’ (2012) documents the human strive for the ultimate ‘man vs. nature spiritual experience’. Shot as the sun rises over the sublimely beautiful Rocky Mountains, the film’s hapless naked protagonist is on a mission for the perfect spiritual alignment, to be captured on film by his cameraman (both played by Coates). As the attempts to create such a life-affirming connection are thwarted by uneven ground and mosquitoes, the film becomes increasingly humorous. This absurdity is further amped by the hash of clichéd new age language used by the performer as he despairingly laments to the cameraman ‘I’ve got to find symmetry, harmony, that’s what this is all about.’ The irony of course is that by trying so very hard to construct this heightened, spiritual connection, the act is rendered entirely profane.
By contrast ‘The Trip’ (2011), is deeply moving without showing more than the bland view of a hospice window. Created as part of the Serpentine’s project ‘Skills Exchange: Urban Transformation and the Politics of Care’, Coates held a series of conversations with hospice residents in the final stages of their lives. ‘The Trip’ focuses on the dialogue and proposal created with the late Alex H. in which Coates undertook a trip to the Amazon Rainforest to ask indigenous peoples a set of pre-decided questions. Instead of showing any documentation from the trip, this single channel video piece is fixed upon the window of Alex’s room, recording conversations before and directly after Coates’ trip. The fact that Coates tells his experience from memory enhances Alex’s already imagined scenario and in turn we imagine it too. The conversations from the pre and post stages are poignant and profound, and in the intimate setting of the gallery attic, viewers will find themselves utterly engaged. It is a more than fitting climax to an exhibition through which Coates examines human responses and demands of the natural world, from scientifically objective means of understanding to the drive for spiritually profound connection.