Marcus Coates makes Amazon journey and brings back The Trip to Serpentine Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 09 March 2011
Colour photo of a canoe resting on the bank of a river in the rainforest
Marcus Coates, The Trip. 2010, Documentary photograph© the artist
Exhibition: Marcus Coates – The Trip, Serpentine Gallery, London, until May 2 2011.

Journeys have long been a signature of the work of Marcus Coates. But until now such travels have all taken place through an interior landscape. He filmed his first shamanistic ritual in 2004 and never left the front room of a council flat.

With a stag’s hide draped over his back and bells clipped to his ankles, Coates made an unlikely visitor to the Liverpool tower block. And so Journey to the Lower World struck a comic tone, which found its way into later performances in places as far flung as Israel and Japan.

But while there is still some humour in the artist’s new film, The Trip represents a much more serious attempt to use art to improve people’s lives. The setting for the performance, if that is what it might still be, is St John’s Hospice. His audience, Alex H, is a man with a terminal illness.

First we listen to a discussion between Alex and Coates in which they plan a real-life journey for the artist. Second we listen to Coates relate his adventure to the bedbound Alex. The viewer sees neither. Once again the camera, being trained on the street outside the window, never leaves the room.

In part one, this is quite bleak. Alex coughs in a harrowing way, seems reasonably skeptical about the project and is quite abrupt about not wanting a souvenir.

But in part two, the light changes. It is morning and both patient and artist sound to have genuine excitement in their voices as Coates describes his experiences.

Colour photo of a view across a muddy river in a rainforest
Marcus Coates, The Trip. 2010, documentary photograph© the artist
The trip in question is a journey by coach, plane and canoe, and it finds Coates once again immersed in a natural kingdom not unlike the imaginary landscape of his Lower World of 2004 and subsequent psychic wanderings.

He encounters giant dragonflies, kingfishers, astonishing white trees. The landscape is green, even psychedelic.

So with gratifying cheer his audience asks him if he felt ‘insignificant’ when he found himself in this heavenly place. Coates assures him that was so and Alex says: “Good, because I would have done too.”

The film ends with a field recording of a song about the carob tree, known to the Huaorani as the Tree of Life. By this time, the tale has reached a peak of vividness and the screen darkens to allow each viewer to ponder his or her own final moments.

One hopes this experience helped Alex who has now sadly passed away. If the serious aim of much previous work has been finding a socially useful role for art, Coates has now clearly demonstrated its utility. This 35 minute film is both a successful one off project and a powerful argument for funding public art. It is exciting to think where The Trip might lead.
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