The Trip, 2011
In collaboration with Alex H.
HD Digital video, 16:9, 34:28 min
Audio recording by Marcus Coates. Camera and edit by Bevis Bowden
Commissioned and produced by the Serpentine Gallery in collaboration with St. John’s Hospice, London
In this project, Coates worked with patients at St. John’s Hospice in London. Wondering what skills and reflections on the world an artist might offer to people in the final stages of their lives, he asked patients, ‘ What can I do for you?’. Many proposals emerged and Coates chose to fulfil the instructions from one patient, the late Alex H., to travel to the Amazon Rainforest and ask the inhabitants of a remote village a set of pre-arranged questions. On his return, Coates recounted his experiences to Alex H. from memory, written notes and audio recordings.
The video shows the same fixed camera view of the hospice room and the street outside both before the trip and on Coates’s return. Coates and Alex H. can be heard in conversation off camera.
[Conversation between Marcus Coates and Alex H. in St John’s Hospice in 2009, where Alex H. proposes a trip.]
MARCUS COATES: Earlier, we talked about ways to say goodbye to the world, and how this could perhaps be a performance, or a journey, or perhaps the resolution of an outstanding issue or an unfulfilled fantasy. Because of your condition we talked about how I could perhaps do this on your behalf.
ALEX H.: Yes.
MC: Have you had any thoughts about that?
AH: Quite a few, as most people in my condition would have. And I ended up thinking, first and foremost, that I had no regrets, because I think that if you do, it can be a stumbling block for taking things a stage further. I obviously offended a number of people over time, but I usually did so unintentionally, so I can forgive myself for that. Although, I do perhaps have one regret – that my travelling has been curtailed – because travelling was an essential part of my life. The great thing is, I have had the experience of being to various places, done various things, maybe they were slightly off the beaten track occasionally, but at least, sitting back, I’ve got my memories. What I haven’t got are the memories of the places that I wanted to go to, but never made it to.
MC: So those are unfulfilled memories?
MC: Do you think that you could sum up why travel has been important to you, in your relationship to the world?
AH: It has been a bit of a quest for knowledge. I don’t feel that you can judge people or a country to any extent or any degree, unless you have been there. It helps you develop a more sympathetic understanding of other peoples’ plight.
MC: And have you thought about a place that you would like to go to on this last journey?
AH: Yes, a trip along the Amazon River, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do. When I was younger, I couldn’t afford it and didn’t have the time. Then you get older, and can afford it, and find the time, but you are restricted not only by health, but occasionally by age as well. And that is something that, if you like, bugs me; something that I should never be able to do, regardless of any miraculous cure or anything ike that.
MC: What is it about the Amazon that intrigues you?
AH: The unknown.
MC: OK, so it would be an experience of travelling by water, upstream, rather than in the air?
AH: Yes, and not in a very modern boat.
MC: If I am to do this I need to know what to bring back to you.
AH: The challenge. It’s very important.
MC: I think this is something very important. Not just the physical trip, but the attempt to bring that journey back to you – that’s really my challenge. Do you think that this trip would have challenged you?
AH: I couldn’t do it now, because of my health.
MC: But even if you were healthy, do you think it would have challenged you?
AH: Oh yes. It isn’t so much about overcoming fears, it’s trying to prove to yourself whether you could cope or not. It’s about trying to find out something about yourself or your personality; how far you can push yourself. If you did this trip – you would have to overcome some of your own basic fears.
MC: I don’t think I have any particular fears. Rather, I have more basic, human fears about getting ill, and the unknown.
AH: Don’t we all – where do you think I’m going!
I think we all need a bit of a challenge in life, and when you know it’s not going to be that long, maybe even more of a challenge.
MC: Yes, I do think I want to be challenged by it. For me, it’s just as much about giving you the opportunity, as it is, for me, about having the opportunity to go and do this. That’s quite important: the privilege to be able to explore your imagination, and enrich it.
AH: To do it with someone else’s eyes and mind.
MC: That’s the slight fear for me: to go and do all this, and risk that what I tell you might be inadequate for your imagination.
AH: I can’t think it will be disappointing, because it’s something that I want to know about.
MC: Is there anything that you’d want me to bring back, apart from my experiences? Do you collect anything?
AH: If you’re talking to people with a terminal illness, why say ‘collect’? What do material things do for you? What’s the point of it? Are you going to look down or upon it later on?
MC: The idea of a souvenir is totally redundant.
AH: In my opinion it is. My policy now is to get rid of clutter!
MC: If this journey goes ahead, it will have to be planned relatively soon. I think we need to be honest with each other about the time scale for this.
AH: I have no idea of my time span.
MC: Hopefully I’ll be able to do the journey and get back to you relatively quickly.
AH: I’m not planning anything, but I’m not in complete control!
MC: Can you imagine that this journey, if I did this for you, would be helpful or beneficial or somehow worthwhile for you?
AH: That’s a hard question. I think it would, but in a very selfish way. It would be important that someone had put themselves out to do it on my behalf. That I could re-live for a few seconds or half an hour, whatever it is, something I’ve wanted to do. But then I don’t know if it matters one iota if I’m going anyway, to have that extra experience or a second-hand experience. It’s not going to alter the whole finality of my life.
MC: It’s just another experience?
AH: I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone can tell you what experience you carry on with you, providing you carry on in some aspect or another.
MC: Thank you, that was very interesting.
AH: I bet you will edit this conversation down and think ‘What a load of crap!’ [Laughs]. Anyway, one can only try to be as honest as possible. It’ll be a challenge to you as well, which I quite like the idea of! [Laughs].
MC: I think that’s good, just as much as you need challenges in your life, I think you need to challenge other people.
AH: Yes, I think that’s a truism.
MC: Great, I think I’ve got my brief and my mission, thank you very much Alex.
AH: Not at all.
[On his return, Marcus Coates discusses his trip with Alex H.]
AH: How was your trip, or should I say, our trip?
MC: I don’t really know how to start explaining, it was…
MC: Well, it was wonderful.
AH: I can believe it!
MC: It was incredible, seeing all that green, seeing that canopy stretch for as far as you could see. The rainforest is so immense.
AH: I should think that it’s quite awe-inspiring.
MC: It just makes you feel very, very small. Then you start picking up details when you look down (from the small plane), you see rivers, small tributaries, and occasionally you see a huge, white tree.
MC: Almost like it is dead; a huge, white tree. I learnt later it’s the Kapok tree, a very important tree for the tribe I was going to see. We landed after about half an hour. We started descending, nearly to the canopy – it felt like we were touching the trees – and then the plane just dropped onto this grassy landing strip, and the wheels were skidding, and we were going all over the place, until it finally stopped. That was all quite dramatic. When I got out of the plane it took off again immediately. I looked around and could just see green – just green everywhere! Everything around me was new to me, and so exciting. I thought to myself, I could spend a day talking to Alex just about this. You don’t know where to look, you don’t know what to focus on – it’s just a green mass, and then suddenly a huge dragonfly that’s about ten inches long would zip by and that would take all of your focus, and then you’d move on to another thing. To start with, I couldn’t really see any details because the atmosphere was just so pervasive. What really hit me was this green – the intensity of it, and the sounds – of the insects, even in the middle of the day, and of birds all around us. They were really, really present. The insects were very loud, buzzing and chirping around me. If you imagine the sound of different types of cicadas all around us, but intensified, that’s what it felt like.
AH: Did they attack you?
MC: No. I imagined that I’d be bitten as soon as I got off the plane, but as it happens, no. It felt like a friendly place – quite benign.
AH: Sometimes in that type of environment, did you ever feel totally insignificant?
MC: Absolutely, I felt totally insignificant!
AH: That’s good, because I definitely would have.
MC: Then we got into the canoe, which was quite long – maybe about six metres or more, cut out of a single trunk – a beautiful object, with very basic wooden seats cut out for us. Huemi (a Huaorani Guide) was at the back and his son was at the front; they had poles, so they were punting the canoe. I asked the translator, ‘Why don’t they use paddles?’, and he replied that they don’t use paddles, they’ve never used paddles – they only use poles. So both of them were punting, putting all their force onto the poles and just pushing us along.
AH: So the river is not that deep?
MC: It’s not deep at all, no. We punted down for about an hour along this river, and the river is just strewn with debris of trees and branches. Huemi and his son navigated all of this so skilfully with this very long canoe; it was quite impressive. I’d imagined that the river would be very wide and open, but it was quite enclosed. On either side of the bank, the trees just stretched up – a cathedral of trees, overhanging the river. You’d get small grasses and palms at the bottom, then really tall thin trees, palms, and Kapok trees and Balsa trees – all sorts. The guide then started talking about all the different types of wood we saw, the variety was just enormous. There were vines hanging down into the water – thick vines and thin, string-like vines. All the time, there were birds flying around us. Kingfishers were flying alongside us, and swallows. All the time you could hear birds singing on both sides.
AH: And in the meantime you’ve got the movement of the canoe of course?
MC: Well, the canoe was quite stable, but you do have its constant movement from one side of the bank to the other. And the river did really bend around, drawing S-shapes. So much so that quite often they form Oxbow lakes, so you find lagoons on either side of the river. These are often inhabited by small Caiman crocodiles, and amazing peacock-like birds called ‘Hoatzins’, which are quite smelly! [Laughs.] There is a really interesting mixture of habitats, but I think I just really wanted to get across this lushness, and the snaking of the river which flows back on itself with hair-pins bends. It seems that the Huaorani measure distance along the river by the amount of bends. If you ask them how long there is to go, they will answer in the number of bends. We travelled for maybe an hour or so, until we reached the place where we were going to stay. The Huaorani territory is vast, made up of a number of villages. Probably about three thousand people live in these. But the Huaorani are relatively nomadic and move between the villages quite often.
There were lots of families there just sitting and chatting, with a fire going in the corner. There I was introduced to Moi’s (leader of the village) mother, she’s in her eighties, and she only speaks Wao, the Huaorani language. So I asked her your question. This was translated for me into Spanish by my Ecuadorian guide, who then asked a Huaorani man in Spanish, and he translated that into Wao for the woman. So there were four of us in this chain of questions!
AH: I hope it wasn’t like that party game, where one ends up asking the wrong question!
MC: That was my worry, really, that my question would end up a bit diluted and changed – but I don’t think that was the problem. Not that there was a problem – but I do think that there was just a different sense of things, so some of the questions were quite difficult to get across. The first question that you had asked me to ask them was about what makes them tick. I really wanted to ask her, and not someone like Moi who had travelled, someone who could remember what it was like in the early 20th century.
AH: Yes, quite.
MC: I wanted to ask her what made her tick, but thought that might be a problem – translating ‘tick’. So I asked her what made her happy, and that was translated into Spanish, and then into Wao. And she said – I’ve written notes here just so I remember – that what makes her happy is when everybody is alive and together, and that when someone dies, many, many people feel very sad. But when they are alive and in good health, she is happy. And also, when people come and visit her, and visit the Huaorani, this makes her happy.
MC: Well, I came away feeling really, truly privileged to have been able to meet them.
AH: Exhilarated or not?
MC: Totally exhilarated. I was sad that I had to leave, actually. Very sad to leave. Even though I had ant bites on me and infected wounds on my hands. I did feel very energised and really clear-headed.
AH: There was an enormous amount to absorb in just a few days though.
MC: And I think a lot of that reluctance to leave was the total desire to be able to absorb more information. Almost like being a child in a sweet shop, seeing all these things that I wanted to learn about and understand more. And experience. I was desperate to become more intimate with their way of life, to understand that more. But I felt that they were quite considered about the time that they put aside for meeting people from the outside, and then the time that they got on with things for themselves, the things that they would and wouldn’t share. I thought that that was quite good.
AH: It does sound absolutely fascinating.
AH: Did you find that doing this on my behalf, sometimes you wanted to dominate and take over? I don’t think one could have resisted it, and I can’t imagine that you are that self-controlled. I could be wrong.
MC: Yes, I kept thinking, ‘Is this something that Alex would be interested in, should I focus on this, or this over here? I’m getting really interested in this, but would Alex get interested in it?’ In the end I had to just go with what I would do, in a way, and just imagine that whatever sparked my imagination, those would have to be the bits that I brought back to you in the end, because those are the bits that are most lived through, and the things that are the most vibrant for me. I just assumed that I would be able to talk to you in a way that transmitted that vibrancy and that life. I thought that, because I couldn’t help living it for myself, this would be the best way to live it for you, and that hopefully it would inform your own imagination, and you going up this river into the unknown.
AH: The unknown for some people is way out in the distance, and for other people it’s a little nearer. One is always going into the unknown. You don’t have to have an illness to know that. With your interpretation, I’ve been able to experience something, not completely as if I was doing it myself – you can’t expect that – but it’s got very near it.
MC: That’s great. Shall I play you some sounds now?
AH: Yes, please.
MC: I don’t know if you remember, I told you about the Kapok tree. Well, the harpy eagle nests in it. Their story of the origins of life come from the relationship between this huge tree and this impressive bird. When Huemi showed me a Kapok tree he told me this story, and when the Huaorani speak of this tree they have to sing this song. So this is him, telling his tale, and then singing the song.
[Plays recording of song.]
AH: Thank you.
MC: Thank you, Alex.
[Artist’s note: Alex died not long after this interview. In our last conversation we continued to talk about our trip. He said that he often went down the river and into the jungle when he needed to.]