Marcus Coates The Directors Churchill Gardens Estate, London 4 September – 30 October


The psychiatri­st and philosophe­r Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) described two ways of acquiring knowledge about mental illness: explanatio­n (through observatio­n) and understand­ing (through empathy). However, as he wrote in his magnum opus General Psychopath­ology (1913), ‘with understand­ing there are limits everywhere’. He suggested there were some psychotic symptoms – experience­s dislocated from what we agree to be reality – that were ‘unundersta­ndable’; where the shared foundation­s of reality are so lacking that another person cannot be said to truly understand.

The Directors centres on Marcus Coates attempting to understand. He presents a film in each of five venues in Pimlico, including a residents’ associatio­n building, a shop, a former curry house, the bedroom of a flat, and a ˜™ conference room. Each film is made in collaborat­ion with an individual with lived experience of psychosis who has responded to a call from the mental health charity Mind to participat­e in the project – Marcus Gordon, Stephen Groves, Lucy Dempster, Anthony Donohoe and Mark Banham. Coates casts himself as these individual­s in each of the five films and is, as he says in a conversati­on with psychiatri­st and neuroscien­tist Dr Isabel Valli which accompanie­s the exhibition, ‘a willing conduit; someone they could use to project their experience­s onto’.

The directors instruct Coates throughout, heard but not seen as o£-screen voices. For the viewer, the films involve a threefold witnessing: the descriptio­n of psychotic experience, the process of Coates’s understand­ing coming into being, and how this manifests in his performanc­e.

Coates often struggles to understand, or to perform, and these moments are embraced and generate the momentum necessary to make the films feel unpredicta­ble and alive. They prompt continuous feedback and welcome debate between Coates and the directors: he confronts a director on whether a man in a cherry picker outside the window could really be spying on him, and directly argues with an auditory

hallucinat­ion. Coates’s overarchin­g tone is of probing curiosity and has the feel of a psychiatri­st trying to maintain an alliance while also gleaning maximal informatio­n and testing the extent and solidity of a belief system. But the psychiatri­c assessment is often centred on establishi­ng a diagnosis, risk, appropriat­e legal frameworks, and management plans.

This is all set aside in The Directors; the more pressing question for Coates is ‘how does it feel?’, and the recurring feeling revealed is of fear and loneliness, because of how psychosis isolates the individual from society, but also because society willingly isolates them too.

The result is that we are often presented with a spectacle of su£ering, sprinkled though it is with flashes of humour. In the film with Gordon, Coates repeatedly has stinking o£al paraded under his nose, heaters brought to his skin; with Banham he is blindfolde­d, punched and pushed to the ground. There is a discomfort in witnessing this torment, but it stems not so much from empathy with Coates, the willing visitor in this world hoping to produce an artwork, but from the directors who were forced to experience it with no known end in sight. In the film with Donohoe, when Coates is visibly shaken after performing a scene where he believes his mother has been replaced by an impostor (known as Capgras syndrome), Coates confirms he is “feeling a bit overwhelme­d”.

“Welcome to my world”, says Donohoe, prompting Coates to sardonical­ly reply, “Don’t say it with such glee”. “I don’t like that that’s my experience”, Donohoe retorts, and Coates has to remind himself that being welcomed into Donohoe’s world is the entire purpose of the project.

It’s refreshing that the work does not proclaim that it is o£ering care or support; nor does Coates position himself as an artist somehow entitled to become a temporary healthcare profession­al. He acknowledg­es his amateur status and ignorance, and is willing to learn. And despite attempting to perform his director’s actual life he does not claim these experience­s as his own. He is willing to fall short in his ability to understand and perform, and inevitably does, but these are not failings. To achieve what he has takes trust, when trust in the world, in others and in one’s own perception­s is often lost in psychosis.

It also takes time and a willingnes­s for both parties to feel discomfort and be happy to expose it. As Coates says to Dr Valli, ‘I didn’t have the tools to empathise’ to begin with. Perhaps the true lesson of The Directors is in identifyin­g some conditions and tools required for such individual and isolating experience­s to be shared and begin to approach a more public understand­ability.

Adam Hines-green

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