In today’s society, men can no longer fall back on the stereotypes of previous ages gone by. Trying to define what masculinity entails is a tricky proposition without resorting to the hoary old clichés of excessive drinking and getting behind the wheel of a fast car.
One artist is attempting to probe the question of masculinity and to distill the essence of what it is to be a man. In his new exhibition, Who’s The Man?, Rudy del Begeonne has collected 1,000 words and phrases that are used to describe men. Ranging from the complimentary to the derogatory, each of the terms are hand-painted onto panels which are collated together into a single work, and are next month showing at the Future Gallery in Covent Garden.
What was the inspiration for the piece?
‘The piece first came about whilst actually trying to create a similar piece about women. I was interested in the whole housewife/virgin/goddess/whore way in which we try to define women. But as I was going through the initial process, I began to feel a bit rude. I felt that I didn’t have the right to do it and so I thought I would turn the gaze around and concentrate on men.
‘I began to think about all the things that as a man I could be and that I didn’t want to be. And the whole question of trying to define masculinity is a much more interesting one in today’s environment, given that a lot of women are now the main breadwinners and men can no longer define themselves in the way that previous generations used to.’
How did you go about putting it together?
‘It has been five years in the making. The first year was spent just collecting words. I trawled through a thesaurus, I took a lot of words and phrases from song titles, and I went through the Internet Movie Database looking for films that related to terms for men. In the end, I had about two to three thousand terms.
‘I then started painting them onto tiles and assembling the piece. The idea behind the piece is that there are patterns with each one related to the panel next to it. There’s a lot of word association going on and the idea is that you can go through it in a number of different ways, reading top to bottom and left to right or just try to find whatever it is you are looking for. I have had a number of people in as it has been in the process of being put together, and each time someone looks at it, they find that there is something else that jumps out at them.’
How long have you lived in London?
‘I was born in south-east London but when I was a child, my mum bought my dad a decomissioned double decker bus for £15. So we ended up travelling around Europe. We would stay in one place for a couple of years and then move on. Eventually we returned and I ended up moving back to London to come and study.’
Where did you study?
‘I trained at the Slade School of Fine Art. I then did a masters at the University of Middlesex and I was one of the first people to do a new course integrating computing in design. We were taught how to do stuff like C++ programming and I very much enjoyed the course. It was very far removed from the wishy-washy art world and you could model all kinds of things, like cloud patterns and simulating plant growth.
‘From there, I moved into a lot of design work as it was the time of the first web boom. But after a period of freelancing, I wanted to get back to what I enjoyed and this piece has enabled me to go back to why I enjoyed making art.’
The piece took five years to complete. How do you go about sustaining an interest in a project for such a long time?
‘It has been tricky. I normally have a scattergun approach to my work and I often get bored after three or four months of doing the same thing. But with this piece, I found that I kept coming back to it and being able to spend time with it made me remember why I love creating. I also got a lot of positive feedback from people who came to see me whilst I was in the middle of putting the piece together. I found that it really had a great resonance with a lot of people, especially gay men and mothers of young boys, people who have given a lot of thought to the notion of masculinity. I have had people in tears after spending time with the piece so that sort of reaction inspired me to keep going.’
What have you got planned next?
‘The great thing about this piece is that it is very versatile and I’ll be developing it in a number of ways. I’m working on putting together some of the panels as sets and I’ve been getting a lot of orders for limited editions. There’s one for a property owner that my wife and myself know quite well. I’m putting together a personal print so what he’ll end up with is a portrait in words.’
What are the best and worst aspects of living in London?
‘The major downside to living in London is the expense, and I have friends who keep telling me I should live in other places like Berlin. But there’s something about London that gets to me. I think it is the potential of the place. You never know you are going to meet when you step outside or who you might end up bumping into in somewhere like a cafe.’
Who’s the Man runs from 3 to 8 June, 2010, at:
The Future Gallery
5 Newport Street