Manon Awst & Benjamin Walther

The Berlin-based artists discuss the politics of beauty on the eve of their new exhibition.

Photograph by Maxime Ballesteros.
It's commonly accepted that we live in a couple's culture today. However, very few couples are as creatively fruitful as the union of Berlin-based Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther. The husband and wife team are interdisciplinary artists who investigate power dynamics, transformative potential and the divisions between our bodies and our consciousness by using gelatin, ice, gold, glass, feathers and other materials. 

Here they answer questions as a team, and occasionally separately, while preparing for Second Skin Drawings, their second solo show at the Hannah Barry Gallery. Previous projects focused on ideas such as rituals, utopia, private versus public identities, wasted human and energy resourcesSecond Skin Drawings merges two year's worth of
large, predominantly grey drawings on canvas incorporating tar, gloss paint, gelatin, feathers and fur into an extended exploration of mass media beauty ideals culled from fashion editorials, porn spreads and the couple's shared fantasies.

Dazed Digital: Do you have a clear division between your working and private lives together?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: No.

DD: Do you feel that your personal relationship is integral to the meaning of the work?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: No. The meaning comes from somewhere else – from the need to explore and understand what it is to be human. Of course, our relationship is part of this, but generally the work is instigated by seeing or experiencing things that trigger a response and a call for change, or at least an alternative.

DD: How do you manage being both a married couple and collaborative creative partners?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: We started working together very soon after we got together. It just kind of happened and it seemed the most natural thing to do. Initially, we were both involved in separate projects, but as soon as those were over we focused completely on our collaborative work. In our case, it was all or nothing – we find that it's an ideal situation.

DD: Why did you select an apple to juxtapose with a grenade for Unfinished Realities?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: There is a certain ambivalence surrounding the apple – take the prime example of Adam eating the forbidden fruit, which led to the fall of man from Paradise. It is an act of corruption, but also the beginning of civilization and the birth of love. Things are not so black and white as they initially seem. Placing an apple next to a grenade means that the viewer has to re-evaluate his or her own position, since it is not clear anymore what is good and what is bad.

DD: Are you then proposing that acts of war, or terrorism, can be constructive to society?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: It's about not taking things at face value and making moral judgments so quickly. There are so many hidden layers behind everything, and to take time to investigate is important. If the viewer would ask
himself the question you just asked us, then this would be something.

DD: You participated in a show at the Hannah Barry gallery called Optimism: The Art of Our Time. Do you specifically see your work as optimistic? 
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: Our work in that show had many connotations. It was an image screen-printed on a gold-leafed board, entitled Appetite, which showed the hand of a woman offering a part-eaten apple. Whether it is
optimistic or not, we think, depends on the perspective.

DD: What are your considerations when selecting materials?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: To some extent, the materials we use stand in relation to our circumstances. For example, we had a studio in the middle of nowhere in Wales for a while where there were no art suppliers around, so we
sourced materials from the local builders merchants. But our choice of materials are strongly determined by features like origins – whether they are found in nature or man-made, the processes involved in their making, their meaning or symbolism, their exclusiveness, tactility, malleability and color. It is a conceptual and sensual approach. 

DD: What does gold symbolise in your work?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: Gold always indicates luxury, preciousness, and plays with our vulnerability for alluring things.
Manan Awst: It was luck that my grandfather ran a stone masonry firm and taught me how to gild when I was a child. It's such an incredibly attractive and valued material, and has been so throughout civilization. The alchemists – the earliest scientists – considered gold to be the finest and purest material and sought to make gold out of any other dirty and
worthless material. So it has this transformative quality – to mask a daily object with gold suddenly elevates it into something magnificent.

DD: How did each of your interests in society's beauty ideals develop?
Manan Awst: It is very difficult not to be influenced by these ideals today. Everything circulates around beauty and perfection. Success seems almost synonymous with beauty.
Benjamin Walther: I was fascinated from an early age with Barbie dolls. They weren't available in the GDR, which is where I grew up, and so had this strange attraction. The skinny, white, blonde plastic things were like a message
from another world.
Manan Awst: There is so much pressure on individuals to conform, and it's almost impossible not to submit... unless you choose a hermit's life and escape to the sea, mountains or forest somewhere. It's not a new thing, but the social gaps are so obvious today.

DD: By "social gaps" are you referring to the ways the wealthy can buy beauty?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: If you are privileged and care about how you look, it's more easy for you to participate in the game and you definitely have better chances of winning. If you don't fulfill certain paradigms you are just not 'in'. But this is not new.

DD: Do you feel that you both have conventional beauty ideals? Do you think of yourselves as superficial? More or less than everyone else?
Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther: Surface is important. There is this great sentence by Oscar Wilde from just before he died. He was staying at this cheap and dodgy hotel room somewhere in Paris, suffering from a deadly infection that he
had caught in prison – he said that either him or the wallpaper had to go.

DD: Do you think the issues you examine are limited to our culture's obsession with looks?
Manan Awst: We began defining these thoughts on body image in relation to our current exhibition at Hannah's gallery, called Second Skin. But this is only part of a bigger picture. Every day the world hits us with such vehemence, with its complexity and banality, and we feel a responsibility to react to that. What you're mentioning here is the general competitive nature within our society – whether it's about looks, as we just discussed, or about money, knowledge, sex.. whatever. They are all connected to each other. It's impossible to discuss one without referring to all the others.

DD: Are you only focused on society's focus on female beauty?
Manon Awst & Benjamin Walther: Gender is not so interesting for us – it's melting together more and more.


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