Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Tales of the Imagination

Are you stuck in a rut? Are you struggling to find a way forward? Are you continually coming up against the same problems? Then the answers may be provided by consulting an artist. That was what I was promised when agreeing to see one of the country’s up-and-coming artists and would-be shaman Marcus Coates. He put his theories to the test by providing his “Unblocking Service” to invited guests in Kendal, Cumbria. He outlined to me why he believes skills learned by artists can be used by the rest of the population. “Art is a solo activity, necessarily self-indulgent, but the skills we use can be very helpful for other people. “The trick is to find a way to communicate those skills in a functional way, teaching people to use their imagination to explore a different way of looking at rationality.” Coates has outlined his theories in a book Practical Guide to Unconscious Reasoning, about how to use the imagination for practical purposes. He holds workshops for people “encouraging them to go into their unconscious world, and allowing solutions to appear in front of them.” He believes that indigenous peoples naturally use this method of thinking, and it is a skill that the Western world has lost. “Only 2% of decision-making is conscious, meaning 98% of the unconscious does the work. It is a matter of tuning into that.” During his sessions at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Coates had one-to-one sessions with people helping them resolve issues. I was his first victim. As a journalist based in the Lake District, I was interested in how to overcome the London-centric view of most of the national media. He related to that as an artist. “The Art World has a set of set ideas about what is valuable. That comes from a cultural elite propagated in London. “The answer is to forge something new outside of London, which is now happening all the time, but may not be recognised. “More and more artists are no longer looking to London to valuate what works. We should all bypass London, especially in these days of the Internet, to Europe and the Rest of the World.” He also predicts that artists will have to leave London as they will not be able to afford to live there. “They will be a cultural backlash where the producers will no longer live in London and form their own groups and networks elsewhere.” Coates works with video, photography, sculpture and performance. His extensive knowledge and understanding of wildlife has led him to create unique interpretations of the natural world and its evolving relationship with society. At one point in our session, we both yielded to our imagination. True to type he conjured up wild animals behaving strangely. This represented a lack of understanding, a sort of chaos, he explained. He then drifted into a dark, sub-marine environment that culminated in him taking on the form of a sea-otter anchored to a strand of kelp. He said this made him feel relaxed and it brought him relief to be at the mercy of the current. Coates was born in 1968 in London and graduated from the Kent Institute of Art and Design in 1990. He completed his MA at the Royal Academy in 1993. He is recognised for his performances and installations that employ shamanistic rituals and contrast natural and manmade processes. A key element to these explorations is his use of shamanism and rituals to help resolve social issues, such as Journey to the Lower World (2004) in which Coates sought guidance from animal spirits for tenants in a condemned Liverpool tower block, At the Baltic in 2007 he showed Dawn Chorus, in which the human voice accurately mimicked birdsong. In this multi-screen video installation 19 singers reproduced a recording of a group of wild British birds singing at dawn. In The Plover’s Wing (2009) Coates performed a shamanic ritual to help answer questions put to him by the Mayor of Solon concerning the Israel/Palestine crisis. Underpinning all his work is an absurdist streak and deadpan humour that allows him to communicate complex and difficult questions to a wide audience. Marcus Coates has exhibited internationally and was awarded with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Artists in 2008 and the Daiwa Foundation Art Prize in 2009. In 2013, he was shortlisted for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. He needed all his ingenuity at Abbot Hall. His sessions were due to be held in a wooden structure, a bit like a space-pod on stilts, designed by the architectural practice Sutherland Hussey. Called Anchorhold, it was built from 25 sheets of ply, precisely machine-cut in such a way so that all pieces interlock with minimal wastage. Unfortunately it wasn’t up to the Cumbrian weather and let the rain in. So Coates had to carry out his sessions in a small room in the gallery.