Just over a year ago, I noticed a then-new Instagram account called @physical_culture_philosophy, and, because all three of those words interest me, I began to follow it. Turns out it is the creation of the London-based sculptor Graham Hudson, who has shown throughout Europe and the U.S. Hudson has a forthcoming commission for 180 The Strand in London, the opening of which has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What follows here is a record of our free-flowing conversation. —Daniel Kunitz
Sculpture magazine: What is your physical practice and how did you get there?
Graham Hudson: For years I was a runner, I did a few marathons, but I really put physical practice into the work around 2014. I used Jane Fonda’s Workout as a backdrop to a durational performance at Hilary Crisp Gallery, London; I was building up and building down sculptures, a lot of rhythm, flow, sets, and reps.
It was called “Work Out.” I liked the pun, moving the focus onto the process of making, being performative, in process, and a Dadaesque anti-art riff. I’ve always liked to make sculptures that question the form and psychology of themselves. Then in 2018 I had a studio in a row of warehouses; I was next to a gym—the clank of steel coming through the wall exemplified the idea of industrial space re-appropriated. Once a site of work, now leisure, but leisure that is once again work. I saw fitness culture as a form to address power (in a Foucauldian sense).
I tried to make some molds and casts of fitness athletes, but did not get too far. Even for a payment no one would come to the studio easily—the two cultures don’t blend, which is ironic because in classical times, Greek sculpture and the gymnasia were one. I think the lifters thought it was all a little odd. In response, I hired a personal trainer, learnt the language—physical, verbal—and got the collaborations I wanted. I had also set off on a “fitness journey” as research, performative and social, as well as a literal sculptural building of muscle. In 2020 I became a qualified personal trainer; I can legally “build” human bodies.
In a parallel research project, I am trying to “re-build” the sculpture of Eugen Sandow, the Victorian health and fitness pioneer, working with the London Museum of Natural History and the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports in Austin, Texas.
Sculpture: Can you tell me a bit more about rebuilding the Sandow sculpture? How did that project come about?
GH: I was in the archives of The Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports in Austin, where Professor Jan Todd told me about the sculpture. It was commissioned in 1901, to celebrate “a perfect type of European man.” After three months on display, it was mothballed following a row of museum standards: Sandow was naked, Jewish, shrouded in homosexual rumoring, and a circus performer.
It’s in five sections and too fragile to be re-constructed. Interestingly, the dimensions of Sandow’s body are incorrect, as Harvard’s Dudley Allen Sargent pointed out straight away. It’s clearly a blend of fact and fiction; it claims to be the world’s first body cast, and Sandow said it was “the greatest physical challenge he ever undertook.” The story of him and this sculpture is pertinent, as we are in the middle of a global health panic and figurative, representational sculpture is on the front pages in light of the events of George Floyd’s murder.
Sculpture: What led you to begin the blog physical_culture_philosophy? Do you see it as an extension of your art practice?
GH: Yes, it’s an open notebook and diary. It’s also an answer to the fact that Instagram wasn’t giving me what I wanted regarding “fitness,” that is some critical thinking around the idea of the “well body,” which is one of the 21st century’s most pervasive, omnipresent, and political issues. I purposefully try and let the posts reflect an artist’s approach, through free association and a melding of disparate images and texts. Sometimes the Spice Girls, sometimes the Stoics, Grace Jones, or the architecture of gyms.
Sculpture: What sort of research do you do for your blog posts?
GH: I’m working on an installation for next year using the mythology of transformation, which is a concept as old as time, but also a founding myth of fitness culture (“You too can transform your body”). This led me to post about Titian’s work inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, including Huma Bhabha and Brad Pitt into the mix. So, it’s a kind of stream of consciousness of associations and coincidences, where art and fitness collide. If it gets too serious, I go absurd for the next post; too historical, jump to the future.
Sculpture: And have there been particular things you’ve learned or posted that stand out as significant to you?
GH: It’s the sculptures that utilize physical culture specifically that help remind me of the kind of work I want to make right now. Martin Kippenberger and Jason Rhoades have both used the motifs of sport codification to rip at social rules. Michelangelo’s David, in the context of fitness culture, is quite a different work. The vascularity on the neck shows he is in mid-adrenaline rush, fresh from battle, charged on endorphins. A medical or sports context transforms the reading of the work. David also looks ice-cool; the lineage to LeBron James and Ronaldo in Nike ads is clear.
Sculpture: Can you talk for a moment about the future of the blog, where it might go? Similarly, has your art practice in general changed since beginning the blog, or how might it change in future?
GH: For sure I have no idea, it’s off the cuff, it follows my reading, life experiences, plans, and mis-plans of artistic practice. I started the blog and decided to qualify as a trainer, all to develop the USP of what I was doing as a sculptor; it all feeds the work.
Sculpture: What artists are you looking at or find meaningful and why?
GH: I love the geometry and simplicity of Elmgreen & Dragset. The horror of Cindy Sherman. Andy Warhol, Duchamp, and everything in the British Museum. Richard Prince, Theaster Gates, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Sarah Sze. But that will all shift a little tomorrow. Works have meaning to you at a moment in time—like any other experience, some things chime and change your life. Other things slip by. What’s amazing is that art can come back to you, sometimes it hides in your memories. Your taste changes and the meanings shift with time, the canon is being rewritten within and in the wider world, and that’s a humbling, beautiful thing.
Sculpture: What are you reading?
GH: I just finished Charlie Kaufman’s Antkind, which got me thinking about the big buckets of sweaty towels I see on my residency in a gym. His lead character obsesses over a stranger’s shoe odor, before going off the psychological deep end. Recently I read loads of H.G. Wells, after seeing him cited by Terry Todd in an old Sports Illustrated article about bodybuilding and human growth hormone. I just read a book on the occult, and I’m trying to keep pace with my kids on Harry Potter. I read Ulysses this year, having once quit it 20 years ago as an art student. This time I did the audiobook, and it really helps with the flow of song and character changes. Ulysses features Eugen Sandow (as does Duchamp’s The Large Glass), but this time Joyce just blew me away.
Sculpture: You have a residency in a gym?
GH: Sort of. For a year I could not find a gym that would take my “artist-in-residence” proposal seriously. Why would they? The whole notion is too subversive and implies criticism, because a gym is a space which exacts a code of behavior that relies on a total adherence to the faith. So, they see me as a part-time janitor, I see myself as undercover “in residence.” I mop up sweat at one of London’s chic boutique HIIT [High-Intensity Interval Training] venues, 1Rebel. The sweat is so interesting—a product, labor or leisure? But I also mop up behavior, body language, fashion, language, music, and the intangible aesthetics. I talk to everyone, ask questions, do classes—I’m trying to stick to it for three months.