Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

'I'm interested in all forms of object theatre as a way to lend artifacts agency’ – in conversation with artist Agnes Scherer 

Issue no5
okt-nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

In 1646 the New Testament has become an underwater operetta. Artist Agnes Scherer elaborates: ‘the religious realm that Christ has to offer is literally a submerged state. That's why I thought his followers had to be a group of divers who follow him so far that it gets dangerous.'

On the window ledge of 1646, I sit with Agnes Scherer. The blinds are slightly drawn and to our right the installation Final scene of the Salty Testament (Gethsemane) looms in the half-light. Scherer has been making operettas since her first such endeavor (Cupid and the Animals) was granted the Nigel Greenwood Art Prize in 2015.The exhibitionin The Hague is a ghost stage for what should have been a collaborative live performance in which pearl divers repeatedly follow a triton Christ with 'fishy' motives deep into the sea. Drawing on a past project–The Teacher (2019)– the exhibition explores the notion of discipleship that is seen in the former as a belief forged on an intellectual level and is here presented as a spiritual journey. Forced by circumstances that need not be named, Scherer derived The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles to explore the prolonged state of latency in which both she and the characters of the story she aims to tell find themselves.

—Lena van Tijen Can you tell me a bit about your background?

—Agnes Scherer 'I didn't go to art school right after high school. First I went to study art history, cultural anthropology, and classical archeology. While I was finishing these first studies, I started attending Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. At the time there was no bachelor master system and today still, you study with just one professor.'

—Lena van Tijen Who did you study with?

—Agnes Scherer 'I ended up studying with Peter Doig in a total painter's class with just a few exceptions. I wasn't really painting; I was mostly drawing.'

—Lena van Tijen When I look at your installations here, I see that you didn't abandon painting entirely.

—Agnes Scherer 'I have been painting again and doing it more seriously than when I was a student. But I think I'm more excited about an expanded concept of painting, the way all these different painted objects come together. This notion of painting is more interesting to me than the idea of one singular object being identical to the painting. It becomes a commodity right away.'

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

—Lena van Tijen Did your theoretical background influence your artistic practice as well?

—Agnes Scherer 'It's part of what I draw ideas from, what informs me, but I never produced my artwork with the attitude of a theorist. The perspective of a historian is always at play in some form,but at the same time I never go as far as to actually approach my work in a theoretical mode.'

—Lena van Tijen Your work is often described as baroque, grotesque, comical, even satirical at times. This makes it reminiscent of the classical operetta and theatre. Are these kinds of performing arts something that inspires you?

—Agnes Scherer 'I'm generally very interested in all forms of object theatre as a way to lend artifacts agency. I think people quickly jump to associating my work with the baroque because they feel that it's not really in line with modern art performance, which is very much about the body. In a way what I do is closer to the spectacle.'

—Lena van Tijen What do you mean by the spectacle?

—Agnes Scherer 'There is this Good Friday procession in my hometown where people carry around large wooden figures. This is something I saw at anearly age and I saw it every year. I come from a rural area and that's probably one of my first encounters with theatre. But that's something autobiographical and personal, now I choose my references more consciously. When I studied art history, I learned more about such traditional practices, and becoming an artist in the present I saw some potential in these formats that I had use for. I want to find ways to really draw people into an experience or, at least for a moment, create circumstances that allow for a different intensity of experiencing art.'

'I want to find ways to really draw people into an experience or, at least for a moment, create circumstances that allow for a different intensity of experiencing art'

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

—Lena van Tijen All your projects have a strong narrative component. Where does this hankering for telling stories come from?

—Agnes Scherer 'A certain impulse to tell stories has probably always been there,but in more strategic terms it is a way for me to incorporate all the objects into a larger picture that you can only really experience when you're actually near it. It still matters to me whether people actually go and see an artwork in the space in which it is presented. For me, it is a way to make it harder for people to capture and commodify my work inone single photograph.'

—Lena van Tijen In your work, you often connect a historical or mythical event to contemporary issues. How do these connections between past stories and the present circumstances come about?

—Agnes Scherer 'It's an old method to use historical reference, parabolas, or past events to point out something about the present. I work with these anachronisms in a targeted way to indirectly make aspects of the present more apparent.'

—Lena van Tijen Do you think this makes your work didactic?

—Agnes Scherer 'Maybe there is a bit of didactic ambition but more when it comes to the performances. I'm interested in a repetitive form of didactic narration that you know from, for instance, old children's books or liturgical drama. For instance, in the performance of The Salty Testament, the divers follow Christ into the water several times, deeper every time. There is something didactic in this repetition. In a way, I'm playing with the didactic form but I'm not really trying to be didactic.'

In the performance of The Salty Testament, the divers follow Christ into the water several times, deeper every time. There is something didactic in this repetition

—Lena van Tijen Can you tell me more about The Salty Testament, how it was originally intended, and how its execution changed in the end?

—Agnes Scherer 'I was invited by 1646 to do a performance and came here for a two-month residency in February. Everything was to be built and rehearsed here. I was relatively far into that process when the pandemic broke out. There were a number of weeks when my collaborators and I were still working onThe Salty Testament but knew that the game was lost. Everyone was sort of in two parallel universes; they were committed but at the same time their confidence in the future was fading. In mid-March I returned to Berlin, there was a while when we kept wondering if we could and should plan to stage this and, in the end, we decided against it. We thought: before we plan the performance, have to call it off, and have nothing, let's just release this project in stages. That's why I call this exhibition Melancholy of the Apostles. After Christ ascends into heaven the apostles are in a complicated state where they are looking back on his activities on earth but at the same time, they are awaiting his return. I found this an interesting parallel because I feel like I'm remembering The Salty Testament in terms of something that happened in the past but at the same time the real thing is still something that needs to happen in the future.'

—Lena van Tijen Why did you restage the New Testament in a symbolic underwater setting?

—Agnes Scherer 'It's based on a misconception of mine. I was in the ceramics section of the Victoria and Albert Museum six years ago. Just in the corner of my eye, I saw a baroque dish that was supported by a figure that had long hair and a beard, a typical Christ face, and I thought there's Christ holding a dish; weird. At second glance I saw the figure had a fishtail and was actually a triton of sorts. What I found most interesting about the idea of the New Testament as an underwater story is that the religious realm that Christ has to offer is literally a submerged state. That's why I thought his followers had to be a group of divers who follow him so far that it gets dangerous.'

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

Agnes Scherer, 'The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostles' photo: Jhoeko 2020, courtesy of 1646

Scherer gets up and walks me through her dormant narrative, explaining what it could have been: a true spectacle in five acts. In its current stillness, the exhibitionstands as the Wicker Man waiting for the torch of live performance to light it up. As we again reachthe front room of 1646 and settle before Final scene of the Salty Testament (Gethsemane) I wonder if this firewood even needs to spark. As with the other present installation (Healing of the Fish) the dome of sheer blue fabric seems fully ablaze.Inside the imagined flames, suspense is building. Minh Duc Pham (who plays the role of Christ of the Ocean) seems to appear on the cardboard hillock. For a brief moment,the dolls behind the sheet turn into Ella Hebendanz, Paul DD Smith, and Pamela Varela (who play the divers). From the back-room music composed and performed by Ornella Balhi and Tobias Textor can be heard coming out of the only moving component of the exhibition: the video Healing of a Madwomen (cinematography by Kurt Heuvens) in which the artist herself receives an exorcism. Although Scherer decided to step into the limelight by featuring in this video, she emphasizes that she sees herself as the director of this project. If it weren’t for her collaborators neither the live-performance nor its haunted shell would have existed. Be that as it may, the later seems no less spellbinding than its yet to be realized counterpart. As long as it is not clear if The Salty Testament has happened or will happen Melancholy of the Apostles is a state of limbo that is best experienced firsthand.

Due to the current lockdown the exhibition  had to close

The Salty Testament - Part I: Melancholy of the Apostleis on view at 1646 in The Hague until the 15th of November. 

Lena van Tijen
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