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Marcus Coates


Marcus Coates, Pub Shaman, 2007, Performance Still Lamp Tavern in Birmingham.

In his  work  Journey to the Lower World Coates wears an animal skins, enter a trance state and communicate with indigenous animal spirits to answer questions posed by residents of a Liverpool tower block scheduled for demolition.

Comic in manner but serious in intent, Coates’ performance was a means of evoking the mystical or otherworldly to inspire or encourage an imaginative response from its participant community.

Coates, by descending into the ‘lower world’ and consulting the birds and animals that he encounters there, attempts to answer to question like ‘Why do cats understand what you say?’ ‘Where does hair go when you go bald?’ ‘How can the city control illegal bicycle parking?’. Usually the animals respond in cryptic clues.

Coates looks for uncharacteristic behaviour, which he then does his best to interpret for his audience on his return.






Historically the shaman would have been employed to solve the daily problems of the community; since these usually involved the finding and killing of animals, shamans were valued for their ability to communicate with other species in the spirit world. Shamanism’s contemporary abstracted form in the West still relies on animals as ‘guides’, but it encourages practitioners to project personal spirit worlds in terms that are familiar to them.

Coates is also keen ornithologist and naturalist; the animals that he encounters in the ‘lower world’ are usually from areas of British landscape that he knows intimately. Much of his past work has reflected his sense of alienation from such places, a frustration that manifests itself in the sentimental yearning to ‘get back to nature’.

In Coates’ film Lower World, residents from Linosa Close, a tower block awaiting demolition, watch with a mixture of anxiety, faith and good humour as Coates performs a shamanic ritual.

The video / performance pieces of Marcus Coates take us away from our anthropocentric perspective and return us to a time when ritualistic acts called upon animal spirits as a form of guidance; a time before rampant industrialisation and its destruction of habitats.

Dressed in a deerskin complete with head and antlers, he stumbles around in a trance-like state, barking, while this small audience watch with varying degrees of scepticism, amusement and fright.

Within the confines of a room in one of the flats he moves awkwardly rubbing his antlers along the doorframe as his noises become louder and his movements more intense. He sits down and drinks some water which he lets fall from his mouth and spits onto the floor. Returning from this other world he recounts the details of his imaginary journey and explains what his encounters with animals along the way signify for the group. It is not clear whether the residents are convinced as he politely shakes their hands at the end. One cannot help feeling some discomfort at the contrast between the harsh reality facing the tenants and the art performance as a means of salvation.


In Coates’ film Lower World, residents from Linosa Close, a tower block awaiting demolition, watch with a mixture of anxiety, faith and good humour as Coates performs a shamanic ritual.

The video / performance pieces of Marcus Coates take us away from our anthropocentric perspective and return us to a time when ritualistic acts called upon animal spirits as a form of guidance; a time before rampant industrialisation and its destruction of habitats.

Dressed in a deerskin complete with head and antlers, he stumbles around in a trance-like state, barking, while this small audience watch with varying degrees of scepticism, amusement and fright.

Within the confines of a room in one of the flats he moves awkwardly rubbing his antlers along the doorframe as his noises become louder and his movements more intense. He sits down and drinks some water which he lets fall from his mouth and spits onto the floor. Returning from this other world he recounts the details of his imaginary journey and explains what his encounters with animals along the way signify for the group. It is not clear whether the residents are convinced as he politely shakes their hands at the end. One cannot help feeling some discomfort at the contrast between the harsh reality facing the tenants and the art performance as a means of salvation.

Marcus Coates, Journey to a Lower World, 2004 Performance still

In his work Dawn Chorus (2007), the most recent and accomplished of an ongoing series of works in which he teaches people how to mimic birdsong by copying slowed-down recordings of birds, filming them and then speeding up the footage to avian pitch again.

The multi-screen video installation shows 19 people caught alone in quiet moments, intermittently breaking into birdsong. While the ornithologist in Coates clearly relished the challenge of reproducing the sequence and positions of a dawn chorus in the gallery, the real magic lies in the videos’ knack of not only creating highly convincing birdsong but also accelerating human movements into the nervy fidgeting of birds.

The melancholy of Dawn Chorus is born of the solitary figures’ isolation,not only from the world of the birds and the beasts but also from each other

In this work, Dawn Chorus, Coates projects the animal spirit onto others rather than arousing it within himself.

Having recorded a number of different birdsongs in a Northumberland forest he then asked members of the public to mimic those recordings at a sixteenth of their original speed.

The resulting film was then sped up so that although the song plays correctly, the movements of each individual are much faster than normal. Their heads move erratically and their chests expand and contract at a speed similar to that of the bird they represent. The merging of human and animal is extremely potent, vividly conjuring a sense of the half-man half-beast from ancient mythologies.

Marcus Coates, Down Chorus, 2007, video installation

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