Oriel Davies Gallery

Arriving just in time for the performance, I initially followed the crowd into a smaller room at the back and passing the main work in the first room. Presented by grey gelatine bricks piled on to a palette alongside another palette with only a single brick placed on top of it. In an attempt to not get in the way of the performance almost every one of us gravitated towards the sides, leaning with our backs up against the wall. As I just stood, waiting in curiosity, I could feel the tacky newly painted white walls behind me: the sure sign of a Private View. The viewers by the door got secretly barged out of the way as each artist began to paint a horizontal red line, one clockwise, the other anti-clockwise around the room. Realisation hit us all and with a domino effect as we were instinctively herded into the middle of the room towards those grey gelatine bricks and palettes. The artists kept going with this line, and even passed each other a couple of times as they circled the room: cordoning us off, surrounding us with this hit of red colour. Awst’s line: dense, red, unbroken; Walther’s line dry: red and slower. Even here we were given hints of their backgrounds even in the painting of a red line: Awst’s training in architecture and Walther’s of the theatre. There may be differences in their painting; in their speed, but both work together, silent yet in pure duo-understanding. As he painted, I was drawn to him as he reached the pulsating vertical red line projected onto the wall. The fact that he was not quite touching it develops tension as the light pours directly onto him. The audience lulled into wonder and incomprehension: an uncertainty of what has happened, is happening, will happen. The suspense in watching the energy in the room fills the air and keeps us silent, yet as the mere human beings that we are, we found our confidence and comfort, and all too quickly relax back into the noise as the chatter got louder and louder. This noise or ‘loudness’ was almost too loud, taking us back to chatting and away from watching, causing us to almost miss the end of the performance as they put their paint tins down either side of the projection and silently walk off.

I found myself wondering what it is that I have just been part of. These two seemed to be working together, conspiring as we, the audience, were not participating, just involved. Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther work in partnership: marriage, parenting, painting, and drawing, creating and performing. This connection is the main process that they use to produce work. Each painting is not the work of one, but both: either worked on collectively or consecutively. If one removes an element, covers up or changes a part, it seems the other does not have the right to complain. Walther explained to me: “We have to cut off emotions to the process of the work. My ego is not important here. We have to accept the others’ choices as our own.” This is integral to their work: the two of them involved in creating the work echoes the strong grey shade that features and yet overshadows every work. Neither black nor white, this uniform shade of grey refers to an ‘in between state’ with the possibility that it could go either way. This shade of grey is visually dominant throughout the whole exhibition, from the paintings, to the pigmented gelatine and the industrial sewage pipe installed.

Double Life (Proposal for a social centre)(2009) provides us with an upturned pipe, filled with what initially seems like thick grey sludgy paint accompanied by a vertical fluorescent tube light pointing straight down into it yet not touching. From Awst and Walther’s previous work, we know that gelatine is a substance that they often use and this ‘paint’ is in fact grey coloured gelatine. Pig bones and skin, this ‘pure protein’ is a reminder of the building blocks, the primary make up of our own bodies as animals ourselves. Looking down into this pipe, into the abyss, the viewers see the light mirrored and their distorted faces staring back at us from this grey surface. Each of us are placed within the piece effectively giving us involuntary responsibility for the meaning that it held within it. The placing together of organic material with man-made substance makes reference to contemporary industrial societies: an industrial sewer pipe, usually used to take away matter, here seems to keep hold of it to the point of it setting. What we usually ignore and force deep below the surface of our built up world where we are not faced with it, is intentionally kept for us to see and to think about. Awst and Walther feel that this piece acts as a metaphor “for the social taboos around the management of human waste even to as much as the social taboo of death”. Yet even in this piece, with its dismal connotations, we once again find the presence of the artists still adamant: over this pipe a tube of fluorescent light measuring that of Benjamin Walther’s height vertically points at and shines down on the set gelatine. But before you worry that the collaboration has been divided, this is not by any means a singular contribution. A tube of fluorescent light measuring that of Manon Awst’s height horizontally shines over the Theory of relation (2009) crates with gelatine blocks where the performance happened, shows that she too is also directly involved in shining a light onto the situation.

This grey filled exhibition and the red energy that powers through it, subtly processed through the purest of a collaborative duo, points to and addresses fundamental ideas that power around and through and hide behind the human existence. If only dust could speak? Well this dust, the dead cells that started life as protein would speak out about a cycle of life, waste and death so often ignored and pushed behind enemy lines: out of sight and out of mind. Yet here, this ‘dust’ is personified by Awst and Walther as they speak out through their work and show us what we inevitably every day try our best to ignore.

Represented by Hannah Barry Gallery, London.

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