Confronting Death at the Workplace

Had the pleasure of spending an evening at the opening of the new Marcus Coates work at the Workplace Gallery in Gateshead on Friday. The exhibition includes new and existing work by the artist and like all his previous work is funny, full of humility, mockery, al_coates_the_trip_koenig_bookssadness and generosity. In particular the 35 minute video work ‘The Trip’ developed with the Serpentine Gallery and St John’s Hospice in London in 2011 which portrays the artist fulfilling the wishes of a dying man. The film is compelling because you are constantly reminded that Alex is dying yet he appears to enjoy discussing an intimate unfulfilled dream of visiting the Amazon rainforest and meeting local communities that still live there. Yet the film also sometimes feels uncomfortable with the omnipotence of death you feel the responsibility of listening to a dying man’s wishes and the hope that Coates will deliver on taking the journey for Alex and recounting it back to him in a meaningful way. Most of the twenty people in the gallery when I was there, stayed to watch the whole video, probably because it is a brilliant bit of collaborative storytelling between these two men.

We started our reading group on participatory and socially engaged art this week and after reading Claire Bishop’s new book ‘Artificial Hells’, the exhibition provided a perfect counter-point to the largely antagonistic approaches of participatory practitioners described in the book. At the same time Coates doesn’t strike me as an artist who is propelled by moral or ethical concerns alone. He fully embraces the mystical role of the artist often with ironic ambiguity as contemporary healer and shaman in his performances and films. His latest set of works ‘185x49x26cm’ produced in association with the Southern Alberta Art Gallery as part of their Intersection International Residency program, sees him standing naked on Turtle Mountain in Canada, trying to align his chakra’s, his inner core energy or his ‘love handles’ with the setting sun. Amidst his quest for inner peace and harmony, balancing on the edge of the mountain he is swatting the mosquitos and whinging to his camera-man, who turns out to be Coates himself. There’s something of Beckett’s absurdity here, the externalised inner dialogue, painfully idealistic, brutally honest; the ‘That’ll do’ resignation as he gives in and gets dressed. The reassuring mantra that he’s done enough to align himself with the natural world and find inner peace. Even if you don’t know anything about Coates, the video is funny and self-deprecating in its absurdity and honesty, full of joy, failure and contradiction.


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