[click image to enlarge] Coates communes with nature in a totally artificial manner. The difference between Coates and more romantically inclined artists lies in the fact that he is fairly pragmatic about his chosen strategy which is to attempt to communicate with the animal kingdom, the forces of nature, if you will. On the face of it this is very romantic notion, but Coates isn’t especially romantic. Of course we can intellectualise his strategy with references to Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘becoming animal’ but it is also the case that Deleuze and Guattari are influenced by romanticist philosophy such as that of Nietzsche and Bergson. But we can just as well refer to the animism of African art that inspired artists at the turn of the nineteenth century and the interest in animals evident in Douanier Rousseau and Blue Rider artist such as Franz Marc and Kandinsky.
The background is evidently the turn to nature as a creative force that begins with Romantic Naturphilosophie and is forcefully emphasized by Darwin’s theory of evolution and the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Now all that is historically distant, but it still has resonances in the counter-rationalism of French theory: Lyotard’s notion of the sublime as a subversive force, D&G’s concepts of nature in terms of molecularity and a machinic mise en abyme, and their notion that schizophrenic experience (and psychomimetic subtances) can provide a deeper insight into the ‘intensities’ of nature both inner and outer.
But set against romanticist inclinations is the inexorable mercenary pragmatism, the superficiality and homogeneity of late capitalism. It is impossible for contemporary artists to escape their cultural context and this is the case for Coates who freely admits he is not sure whether his artistic practice is spiritually significant or merely playacting.
In one work Coates buried himself in the earth in a consciously theatrical attempt to get close to the forces of nature. He has jumped into the sea on the English coast and on emerging attempted to adopt the mentality of a seal while being videoed—one must have something to show in a gallery. In the remarkable Journey to the Lower World, 2004, he took on the role of shaman dressed in a deer skin complete with antlers. This was a participatory performance situated in a room in high rise tower block in Liverpool—it was also videoed and so there must have been a camera crew present at the occasion. This performance required considerably performative skills in encountering working class Liverpudlians living in a high rise tower block awaiting eviction. The proposal was that Coates would help the residents come to terms with their problem via a shamanistic communing with animal wisdom. In the performance he give an introduction to his audience of working class men and women and then covered his everyday casual clothing with a deer costume complete with antlers. In so doing he mixed the ordinary with the extraordinary in a manner that does seem well suited to contemporary existence. He then delivered a curious and somewhat absurd performance in which he appeared to take on the spirit of the animal acting in an animal-like manner and making animal-like sounds. All of this was incomprehensible to the audience and the video camera turns on the audience to register their expressions of amusement, surprise and disbelief. Perhaps the most extraordinary/ordinary aspect of the performance is when he descends to the ‘lower world’ via the tower block’s lift (elevator). He returns to give the audience an account of his chthonic experience in normal language telling them what the animal world had conveyed to him about their predicament and hopefully providing them with some therapeutic comfort: the advice was not bad encouraging them to sustain their community in the wake of the eviction.
Coates’ Journey to the Lower World is not the kind of situation experienced for example by the Surrealist Michel Leiris when he embarked on a major anthropological expedition that crossed Nigeria, Cameroon, the then French Equatorial Africa, Belgian Congo, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Ethiopia and the French Somali Coast. (Tythacott 2002: 204). The fruit of Leiris’ experiences were recounted in L’Afrique fantôme based on a journal which he had kept throughout the Mission. Tythacott notes:
The importance of religion, the sacred and the divine penetrate his thoughts and everywhere he goes he wants to experience the other-worldly beliefs of others … Just as the Surrealists experimented with self-induced trances in the 1920s, so Leiris yearns to experience ‘true’ African possession. (Tythacott 2002: 208)
But Leiris came to the conclusion that it was not possible to engage with and understand these cultures in anything except a distanced, intellectual manner. It is not possible to be assimilated into any culture unless one lives with it for many years, and even then one is never fully assimilated. The longest stretch Leiris spent with a single culture during the Mission was five months which is essentially akin to an extended vacation: he was fundamentally a tourist who could only glean a superficial understanding. And from a contemporary standpoint in the early 21c we can note that the cultures that Leiris experienced are now gone, totally permeated by the overwhelming power of globalised capitalism.
Tythacott notes that in his journal Leiris “is all too aware of the barriers to cross-cultural communication. She cites Leiris stating that he had: “an ardent sensation of being on the edge of something whose depths I will never touch … the result of diverse factors very hard to define but amongst which figure predominantly questions of race, of civilization, of language” (in Tythacott 2002: 210). Furthermore referring to himself in the third person Leiris reported that “Despite his disgust with civilized people and the life in the big cities, toward the end of the trip he too is looking forward to going back’ (Tythacott 2002: 212; Leiris 1989: 46).
Tythacott also notes that after the expedition Leiris’s interests indeed shifted from Africa to thehybridization of African, American and European cultures on the islands of the Caribbean. Leiris’s attention to syncretic, hybrid, heterogeneous cultures is consonant with his view of anthropology as a multi-vocal, multi-directional, hetero-discursive discipline. In his article ‘L’ethnographie devant le colonialisme’ ( 1966), he spoke of the need for other cultures to ‘write back’: the silence of the ethnographic other must finally be broken (Tythacott 2002: 214)
The case of Leiris is instructive when considering Coates’ practice. Like Leiris Coates is attempting to reach the sublime but at the same time he is a product of his own culture. He will never reach the sublime in the manner of an actual shaman and he doesn’t pretend to do so. He is an artist working within the fine art system with its influences of sublimity, Dadaist absurdism, conceptualism and the project of bringing art into life. And in spite of the long standing desire to bring art into life art is to a significant extent a discourse unto itself, it is specialized and professionalized like most disciplines in our culture. Nevertheless, despite falling short of the high objectives of Dada, Surrealism and Situationism, the project of bringing art into life still retains considerable validity, despite the necessity of being encompassed by what we might call an art-situation.
Participation is an essential part of a significant number of Coates’ performances and this is important because it involves a social dynamic which can be called ‘sacred’ in Durkheimian terms; which is to say it steps outside the profane dimension of practical functional interaction into something beyond commonsense, beyond the hegemony of conventionalized rules and beliefs. In fact Coates’ work helps us understand the Durkheimian ‘sacred’ as not bound to any religion but more fundamentally a dimension of human interaction that escapes the constraints of social convention in a manner designed to have a positive liberating psychological effect: one that might make us question the manner in which we are programmed by the culture we live in to the point of ignoring the complexity and sublimity of internal and external life.