We talk to the artist about his representations of the female body and how he connects to people through laughter
From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.
Scrolling through Instagram can be a numbing experience, image after image passing you by like landscapes from a car window. In the oversaturated, overstimulating world of social media, to be noticed you need to stand out. Marius Sperlich understands he needs to grab people’s attention – his genius is that he is able to keep it.
An artist and photographer, Sperlich specialises in eye-catching shots of magnified body parts – with a twist. Think nipples that squeeze out toothpaste, pubes being mowed by miniature figurines, long braided armpit hair. Colourful and glossy, Sperlich takes the visual language of standard advertising and challenges it, subverting your expectations with humour and the unexpected.
Once he has your attention, he reveals deeper layers, opening up conversations about the censorship of female nipples, about global warming, about the inherent fakeness present in social media. Mostly consisting of open mouths, lips, tongues and tits, Sperlich’s images toe the line of provocation, before ultimately falling just this side of sexual. “Anonymous intimacy” is how he describes his work, but the phrase could just as easily be a comment on social media itself as we share our lives with the strangers of the internet.
Here, we catch up with Sperlich to talk about his skate culture influences, representations of the female body, and how he connects with people through laughter.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Marius Sperlich: I grew up in a highrise in the suburbs of Hamburg, Germany. I spent a lot of time skateboarding. My father gave me a video camera when I was nine years old. I would film my friends skateboarding. We were all about it. Those days, we didn’t all have computers, let alone phones and fast internet.
When a new skate video came out, we would count the hours until school let out to watch it at a friends house and then someone would burn it for everybody. We watched MTV and I was very heavily influenced by British/American youth and skate culture. I collected posters and magazines with skateboard icons. I was so fascinated by skate culture, intrigued by the graphics everywhere. I would cut out ads and collect bits and pieces and spend hours making collages out of them. I loved the aesthetic of skate ads and the dynamic of these photos, they felt organic and real.
I don’t skate much anymore, but the culture continues to inspire me. This piece of wood on wheels connected us, and some of my closest friendships were shaped during those days.
Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?
Marius Sperlich: Early… from the start of my skatepark days. I customised everything: I painted my skateboard, tagged my Eastpak, spiked my hair. I remember when my mom helped me create a full punk jacket out of plain denim. I didn’t have the money to buy most of the skate/street brands, so I came up with creative ways to express myself. I think that’s what it’s all about.
Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?
Marius Sperlich: My parents gave me a lot of freedom, but taught me responsibility. They encouraged me to think and express myself outside of the norm. When I grew my hair long, painted my nails, and wore super-skinny pants my parents were cool with it. They gave me an open space to develop my identity in a supportive environment, without arbitrary gender norms.
Why are you an artist?
Marius Sperlich: I hate being told what to do, I was never good at it. But I’m really good at doing what I love, with people I love.
Where did you hone your craft? Is it something you learned or is it more instinctual?
Marius Sperlich: I inherited an attention to detail from my grandfather, who was a sailor and a craftsman. I used to watch him work tirelessly in his little workshop. He was the ultimate perfectionist – all instruments organised by size, all drawers labelled.
Growing up, I was good at many things, but never the best. And that was okay. When I discovered photography, I continuously felt the need to improve and this feeling remains to this day.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
Marius Sperlich: Up close and personal. Anonymous intimacy.
Tell us a bit about your creative process.
Marius Sperlich: Everyday, I make some time for a mental workout: 30-60 min brainstorming a pool of ideas. Most go into the trash, the rest (10 per cent) I organise and prioritise. I try to come up with concepts that are both satisfying and relevant, like my recent work on global warming. Some ideas arise in the moment, like the armpit wave. I look for that ‘lightbulb’ moment when I find the ‘right’ idea.
I strive to create experiences with my photos. Those familiar with my work know that everything you see in my photos is real; meticulously planned and transformed into reality with my make-up and prop styling team. I discuss the vision in advance to make sure that everyone is not only interested, but invested. My main make-up artist Joanna Bacas and I spend a lot of time dissecting each concept, our conversations are a big part of the pre-shoot prep.
The goal is to capture the artwork as close to its final form as possible, no Photoshop needed. I love the experience of truly creating these absurd miniature sets with my team. This three-dimensional malleable world is transformed into zeros and ones the moment I hit the shutter, my work mostly happens before that. I admire digital art, but that’s not what I’m about; I’m about capturing that one moment where everything you see in the photo was present and real.
What is the significance of the female form in your work?
Marius Sperlich: To be honest, I get along better with women. I’m very in touch with what many would consider my ‘feminine side’. That’s not to say that I don’t get on with men, but the women in my life have taught me a lot, opening my eyes to a world of structural social inequalities, which I address in some of my works.
A poster child example of that being the issue of female nipple censorship. I often have the impression that some men acknowledge these issues, but don’t truly understand their impact. I like to try and bridge those gaps in communication by opening conversations through my work. In that process, I like to both challenge social norms and utilise them as a medium in order to subvert them.
That said, I’m equally open to working with all types of people, men, non-binary, LGBTQ+, you name it. For me, what matters is the personality and the message.
What role does humour play in your work? What are you trying to communicate about women and the body?
Marius Sperlich: Our society has a short attention span. Attracting attention is the first step, but keeping it is a challenge. I developed my style as a form of visual language, which surpasses spoken language. As you’ve noticed, humour is a big part of it.
Juicy, commercial colours capture the viewers’ attention to a funny and unusual composition. Sometimes that leads to a deeper meaning and the start of a conversation, and sometimes it ends there. Laughter is a great thing, it connects, and I like to do things just for fun sometimes. At my show at Art Miami, my work made people of all ages giggle and discuss. Especially “Playa del Vagentina”.
Our image of the female body is heavily informed by advertising, and I love to use this standardised visual language as a canvas and break it with an unexpected element. Humour works in every language and is universal and can be used to outline important topics.
What do you think your work says about society’s relationship to beauty?
Marius Sperlich: Of course, commercial advertising has a strong influence on our perception of beauty. That’s where my work comes in, mimicking the style to critique some of these faulted norms. We are all trained to react to ads with a certain ‘beauty standard’. I love to use this style to get the viewers’ attention and then break with it by the deeper meaning of the artwork itself.
What does beauty mean to you?
Marius Sperlich: Ask yourself. That’s what matters. Nobody sees the world with your eyes.
You recently started make-up tutorials, can you tell us a bit about them?
Marius Sperlich: They are actually making-ofs. I started filming my make-up artist Joanna to show the background process and what it takes to create one of my photos and to prove that it’s all created in reality. Turns out people fuck with it a lot!
What are the projects you’re most proud of?
Marius Sperlich: Every photo, to be honest. I devote a lot of thought and attention to each. Instead of photos, I consider messages as achievements.
How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?
Marius Sperlich: In terms of beauty, technology is entwined with plastic surgery. Kim Kardashian-West is the icon of beauty and she’s a creation. Face filters that shape our faces, smooth our complexions… I’m not saying it’s bad, on the contrary, I support freedom of physical (and emotional) expression. But I am critical of the underlying societal influences.
We have to be aware of what is happening to the individual. You shouldn’t be threatened by a ‘beauty standard’ – stick to your own definition of beauty and you will never feel pressured. Unless you put pressure on yourself, that is.
What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?
Marius Sperlich: Your goal shouldn’t be to ‘get into the industry’. Just do your thing, do what makes you happy, and the rest will come. Make sure to develop your style, learn, and listen to feedback, but don’t become a puppet.