Marcus Coates, Vision Quest:
A Ritual for Elephant and Castle – Workplace Gallery

Text by Zara Worth

Marcus Coates’ film Vision Quest (2012) arrives at Workplace Gallery almost five years after the final performance-cum-ritual at the Coronet Theatre in Southwark. During the documentary style film we follow Coates as he carries out pre-ritual preparations, culminating with a performance responding to the impending redevelopment of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, South London, performed collaboratively with Chrome Hoof, an ‘experimental chamber rock orchestra’.

Known for his distinctive interventions as ‘artist-shaman’, for well over a decade Coates has explored the role of the artist as a problem solver, a social agent to help communities overcome various issues. Despite no direct experience of traditional shamanism, he seems well equipped, and surprisingly often well received, as a modern-day witchdoctor. Armed with a dubious weekend qualification in shamanism, a life-time love of wildlife and apparent blind faith and commitment in what he is doing. Coates’ belief in his own spiritual journeys is both unlikely and unimportant, the veracity of his rituals is periphery to their success.

Dressed in a rather fetching silver suit and accompanied by a large stuffed buzzard, Coates carries out a ‘spiritual-survey’ in the lead up to the concluding ritual. Physically measuring himself up against the buildings, we watch him wander around, speaking to residents, attending sessions with the board responsible for the redevelopment and meeting with one of the original architects. People seem surprisingly forth-coming and often personal tales bubble-out, as if the ridiculousness of this strangely dressed man has broken the ice, allowing whole life stories of the people attached to Heygate to spill-forth. Coates himself asserts, ‘Sometimes it [absurdity] seems to be the only way we can stand outside of ourselves to see things clearly.’[1]

The closing ceremony is not disappointing, culminating in a theatrical and dramatic ritual in which Coates physically and vocally attempts to embody this period of change whilst wearing a horse’s head as a hat. The stories Coates relays ‘post-spiritual-journey’ and his endeavours to manifest situations seem ham-fisted and a little clown-like. Yet, moments where he struggles to fit the stuffed buzzard through a front door are humorous and touching. His metaphorical reference to swallows to signify the residents could be conceived as clichéd, however, his counsel is welcomed and the feelings of both parties are represented impartially. Nevertheless, the wider situation does not feel like an impartial fight, and the ritualistic resolution is tinged with defeat as, shaman or no shaman, change is about to bulldoze its way through.

We leave Coates crawling over rubble, hunched up like a crow, perched upon a small mountain of building debris whilst in the background a reptilian mechanical jaw gnaws at the extinct Heygate Estate. The success of his intervention will only be measured by time, but even this does not seem likely, as this kind of ‘redevelopment’ often causes diaspora amongst its communities, and as earlier shots of graffiti prophesied ‘…THE YUPPIES ARE COMING…’.

Zara Worth is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne

Vision Quest: A Ritual for Elephant and Castle continues at Workplace, Gateshead until 22nd February 2014.

[1] Coates, M. (2012) in conversation with Sweeting, S. for Run Riot [Online]

Published 12.02.2014 by Ali Gunn in Reviews

526 words