“…on byways he seemed hardly to know, or not at all, for he went with uncertain step and often stopped to look about him, like someone trying to fix landmarks in his mind, for one day perhaps he may have to retrace his steps, you never know.” Samuel Beckett from Molloy.
This quote by Beckett marks the trepidation of navigating change. These same uncertainties confront contemporary masculinity and exploring the state of masculinity lies at the heart of Simon Fell’s work. Simon says, “Through sculpture and drawing I reflect on what it means to be a male artist in a diverse and fast evolving culture where masculine roles have changed much faster than the scripts that used to support them.”
- What has changed for men that is no longer supported by traditional scripts? Are these changes a liberation or an oppression leading to repressed emotions?”
I think everything has changed and continues changing for men. Work, relationships, fatherhood have all changed. I suppose I would identify change of all kinds as a challenge to traditional notions of masculinity. The most obvious change is to the work men can now expect to do and through that the role they can expect to play in their families. Women have changed so men in relationships with women have had to adapt. Childcare can no longer be assumed to be exclusively a woman’s role so men have to consider what kind of fathers they want to be, what kind of relationship do they want with their children. Can they be fathers in the same way their fathers were? It’s doubtful that [script] would even be possible now.
The scripts are not written out anywhere but they are continually rehearsed and replayed throughout our culture and in our families but above all in our own minds. It is extraordinary how persistent the myth of the hero is for instance. Although no adult seriously believes in James Bond, [but] as an example of a man who gets results through sheer determination, individual heroism and disobedience in the face of brutish bureaucracy he means something serious for men and boys. Although he inhabits a simplified world where good and bad are clearly signposted (and women do as the script tells them) there are aspects of him that are admirable and are taken seriously. Heroes such as Bond are hyper-effective in all they do, whether it’s killing baddies, seducing women, saving the world, they get it done, they get their way, they usually get it the first time too. For men dealing with the complexity of real modern lives this is refreshingly simple and it’s made to look both straightforward and even logical in the context of the movies. Woe betide any man who tries to use this as a model for any aspect of his real life. I think these stories are like myths, they keep alive the men of the olden days when life was simpler and men were simply – men. That is no longer possible, men are now complex as you have to be to survive in a complex world. I do believe men, like women, need liberation from ridiculous and out dated expectations. I think you have to find out what is really driving you especially when it’s driving you mad and the chances are it’s something you repressed or compromised earlier in your life and that could come from your own need to survive in your family or from what your family needed from you.
- Your work appears to have a solid connection to your own history. Is your work largely autobiographical or would you consider it more a philosophical view on the male condition? What role does repetition play in those views?
I think my work is subjective, in that sense it’s autobiographical. I think objectivity is currently over-rated in art as it is in the culture as a whole, as if science is the only viable model particularly in education, personally I think this is a passing fashion and we will move on to something much more humanistic in the near future. I also think the mind is a fantastic resource and that creative thinking is what is most likely to get you out of a repetitive rut.
In my ceramic piece ‘autobiography’ I turn mass production, where every product is identical, on its head by producing nine vehicles as varied as possible in character where the only constant is a set of four wheels. Ceramics is often a mass production material, the potter’s wheel is an early form of mechanisation but in the West now pottery tends to represent the hand made and individualistic and it has been adopted as a symbol of the pastoral idea of country living in the city – the good life. To me this is a pitfall that artists need to avoid, although it also creates rich pickings in terms of satire.
I find I have a limited appetite for real life repetition; I always want to try variations on a theme rather than stick to one version. I just made a limited edition figure cast in aluminium but even that comes on a ceramic base and each base is different. Personally I think recursion (where what you learned first time round gets incorporated the next time), the human version of repetition, is only really possible for machines.
- Is the male condition a valid subject in a post-feminist era? What are your thoughts on the male condition and post-feminism?
Well that is a question and a half.
Yes it absolutely is a valid subject. If feminism posed a question, it wasn’t ever just a question for women. Anyone who can address the questions posed by feminism for men and boys should speak up, I think it’s urgent and an exciting area for new work in any context. In my experience there is a whole spectrum of responses among men to feminism including a lot of paranoia, anxiety, and aggression, while I can understand this it is not the way to develop new ways of being male in a changing world. I think the task of reviewing what it means to be a man is already under way and has been for some time, the trouble is that it’s not much discussed nor organised on a large scale and the media almost always reduce it to a joke. This is why the issue that is being used to headline men’s issues is the high rate of suicides among young men in the UK, which is clearly a serious matter. This is just one reason that it’s a good time to think about and celebrate the positive aspects of belonging to the male gender and work out ways to deal with the negatives that are associated with being a modern man.