‘If you think you understood it, you didn’t understand it!’ bellows artist-activist Claudia Barth from above – the first in the breakneck barrage of didactic slogans in Agnes Scherer’s latest performance work, The Teacher (2019). Meanwhile, designer-musician Tobias Textor hammers out a merciless percussion score that sounds like a metal take on composer Julius Eastman. On the floor, performance artist Soya Arakawa thrashes in torment to bring the eponymous teacher into motion – a roughly three metres tall puppet, suspended from a rail on the ceiling.
At times, the teacher’s movements are staid, imperious, as he gestures to the board behind him; at others, they are violent, erratic, directly berating the audience. Eventually maniacal, the teacher careens back and forth, ventriloquized dogmas fired off breathlessly. The surreal diagrams on the board behind him come in blinding succession: primordial landscapes, crying machines, human-desk assemblages. After roughly ten minutes, the piece approaches its climax. Arakawa and Barth break out in chorus: ‘The bigger one is the smaller one! And the smaller one is the bigger!’ A childlike assertion of (master-)slave morality. Stagehands appear and sever Arakawa from his teacher; lost, he reaches out for his mentor. The musicians’ pedestal behind us produces a sarcophagus, and the former student is entombed in a gesture of eternal longing. After a brief silence, Arakawa emerges from the coffin’s side and stares blankly at the effigy of his former self.
Following on the heels of Scherer’s epic Cupid and the Animals (2017/18) – an hour-long procession of animated sculpture-costume hybrids replete with orchestra and flamenco dancers – The Teacher is decidedly more modest in scale and budget; though it more than makes up for this in its concision and unmistakable rage. Here, as in Cupid and the Animals, the body is subordinate to the image; now, however, instead of actors animating the costumes from within, the handcrafted puppet and painted backdrops take centre stage, with humans relegated to the sidelines. Though a fragile system of strings, sticks and tapes binds the puppet and puppeteer in mutual dependency, it’s clear that the teacher is running the show. More so than before, Scherer is keen to show us the body dominated, if not imprisoned, by its projected image.
Initially trained as an art historian, Scherer marshals a dizzying array of visual references. Baroque mechanical theatres and catholic processions collide with PowerPoint presentations and snuff comics. But, channelled through her pastel-hued handiwork, the effect is less aseptically cerebral than altogether otherworldly. Here, everything, even the floor, is obsessively handmade – to an extent that lends Scherer’s cloying craftiness an air of compulsive lunacy. Yet, the superficial legibility of her imagery belies a dense autobiographical symbolism that verges on the hermetic. Add to this the delirious pacing, maniacal percussion and frenzied shouting, and the lo-fi information overload quickly leaves you doubting your ability to understand much at all. Indeed, by the time the performance finishes, you almost feel rescued from the brink of total aphasia. But even at its most bewildering, The Teacher remains a lurid grotesque of our relationship to power: dependent as we are, convulsing as we do. More cartoonish than cathartic, it conjures a world where the figures vested with the authority of representation are little but ludicrously overblown puppets, and we’ve long ceased to be the ones pulling the strings. For all the folksiness of Scherer’s imagery, the sentiment at the heart of The Teacher is undeniably contemporary: despite knowing more than ever before, things have never made less sense than they do now.
Agnes Scherer, 'The Teacher' was on view at Kinderhook & Caracas, Berlin, from 12 April until 11 May 2019.
Main image: Agnes Scherer, The Teacher, 2019, performance featuring Soya Arakawa, Tobias Textor, and Claudia Barth. Courtesy: the artist and Kinderhook & Caracas, Berlin; photograph: Vasileios Zarifopoulos