Marcus Coates: Man + Eagle + Horse + Elephant + Castle

Last Saturday, the Whitechapel Gallery hosted a day of screenings and talks as a build-up towards the announcement of the Film London Jarman Award. For a very pocket-friendly fee of £5, there was a whole day’s worth of screenings, with two programmes running concurrently in different studios and three galleries worth of moving image installations. As with these events, you can only see so much, so I made a rapid-fire choice (I was ushered in hurriedly and the lights were switched off) and sat down in the auditorium for the screening of Marcus Coates’ Vision Question: A Ritual For Elephant & Castle.

As with any viewer to a film or artwork, we bring our own tangled web of associations to whatever we receive. My own synapses were firing – Elephant & Castle – I have oft ridden a bus past that monstrosity of a shopping centre and gotten lost in its up and down corridors and alleyways when forced to make a connection there. I also remember being jammed in the infamous Coronet after a Hot Chip gig, and quite literally, stumbling out, gagging for air, and other long lost nights, coming across with curiously dressed folk,  spilling out of fetish clubs. Finally, as the film unfolded, despite the silver suit and dead bird, I recognised the artist from a long ago serendipitous boozy evening, and recalled the words “shamanistic” used to describe his work.

Putting two, three and a bit more together, I was thus less fazed by the concept of a tall, lanky chap in a silver suit with silver-rimmed specs, walking around the urban grittiness of south of the river, with a taxidermied eagle on a stick, but rather curious, as to how he intended to dig deep enough or transcend above ordinary life to express any sense of the uncanny or supernatural.

The film is described as “part documentary, part performance, part art” –  and is in response to the Council’s formal vision and master plan for Elephant and Castle, which involves demolishing Heygate Estate.

The film sees the artist sauntering around while carrying the eagle like a upright umbrella, and meeting and chatting with local inhabitants, who at first are bemused, then warm up to someone who’s happy to seem a bigger fool than anyone else. He tells them that he wants to hear their stories, to take on their memories, to eventually embody the spirit of the place. He meets the every day residents, whose cheery idiosyncrasies bring curious warmth to the film. The artist then takes on the local council workers, seated in a circle in one of those drab government meeting rooms, getting them to meditate with their palms on the table. He meets the greasy long-haired property developer – and gets him to direct him in a painfully funny physical expression of how he envisions changes to happen in the area.

In between interactions with the people of the area, the artist poses a series of interactions with the space itself; hanging from a ledge by his hands, running repeatedly into a row of locked garage doors, lying prostrate and breathing heavily and expelling bodily fluids through his nose and mouth. These actions are awkward, contrived and never quite take on enough suffering to induce the transcendental. In preparation of taking on the horse animus, the artist sucks the juice from a raw lemon, before wandering into the back stairways into the Coronet theatre to deliver a squealing, panting, growling, guttural and surprisingly, not un-thrilling performance with backing experimental electronic orchestra, Chrome Hoof.

Somewhere during that five or six minute performance, I lost track of time but it wasn’t brief, it all came together for me. Somehow all the moans and cries brought forth a deep sadness for past and the present, which is already fading. The rock-star like performance embodied the energy of change, so relentless and brutal, and somewhere in the strangeness of the horse-shaped shadows, there’s a shadowy sense of place and time being far larger than the sum of any one person.

Vision Quest – A Ritual for Elephant and Castle 2012, is produced by Nomad

Duration: 53 min

Featured image is a production still, photography by Nick David

by Annie Jael Kwan

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