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Visual artist Abdullah M I Sayed and writer Felicity Castagna reflect on art, writing and exercise.

Felicity Castagna

One of the hardest aspects of writing, for me, has been learning how to sit still. In many ways my other job, as a teacher, suits me much better. When I teach, I move constantly around classrooms and lecture halls on the excuse that the students in some far corner of a room might need my help, but really it’s just because I find it hard to think without moving. Numerous studies have suggested that movement is integral to creative practice: It heightens our ability to make connections between ideas, to comprehend our own and others emotions and it assuages anxious feelings about entering into those unfamiliar situations, which are inevitably the terrain of good writing.

Haruki Murakami likens creative practice to sport in his thought- provoking book on the subject, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009). When Murakami quit being a jazz club proprietor in order to focus his energies on writing, he switched from being a chain-smoking sloth to someone who runs 10 kilometres a day and who credits this daily discipline for his mammoth success as a writer. In a recent interview for The Paris Review he claimed that “Writing a long Novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” Running, he argues in What I Talk About, has given him the practical, physical lessons he needs in order to understand how to write, such as, “How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself?” (80)

I am interested, in particular, in Murakami’s claim that rigorous physical exercise has helped him to “mesmerise himself” in order to reach that deeper state of mind that is necessary for good creative practice. A lot of my writing friends talk about Yoga or meditation as something that is important to their ability to focus on their craft but for me this doesn’t make sense. I’m not a triathlete like Murakami but I do need something that will really make me move. It’s exercise like weights and boxing that work for me both because it exhausts me enough to sit still but also because it is so patterned and rhythmical that it has that ‘mesmerising effect’ that Murakami speaks of.

Novelists from Louisa May Alcott to Joyce Carol Oates have all spoken about the necessity of exercise as a space in which their minds can wander but for myself it is the ability of exercise to place me into structured, repetitious and rhythmical states that makes moving important to my craft. For the romantic poet William Wordsworth, it was walking thirty kilometres a day that helped him to get the rhythms in his work right. Wordsworth composed and edited entire poems while walking. It was important for him to actually keep step to the rhythm of his poems. He composed aloud as he walked, often walking back and forth along the same route as in subsequent drafts of the same poem so that he could get the identical rhythm. Samuel Taylor Coleridge needed to walk uneven ground as he composed his poetry in his head. He liked to walk where there were no paths, through low bushes and shrubs so that he had to go through the highly physical and repetitious act of cutting things away.

I’m not always as good at being consistent with my exercise practice as I am with my writing practice but I know that when I can work up a rhythm in a gym or on a walk then I can also find the rhythms of my writing better. Exercise unlocks my brain in a way I wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise. Exercise and writing are both solitary activities that require one foot in front of the other, and using words to move from one point on a journey to another. They’re slow and incremental processes, one feeding into the other.

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Exercising: From Workbook to Workout

Abdullah M.I. Syed

In my native language Urdu, the word ‘exercise’ has various meanings: warzish, a repetitive physical body workout; masqh, the dedicated and meditative practice of calligraphy or writing in a workbook; and riazzat, the practice of music, specifically in singing. All these terms operate within the shared idea that repetitive practice makes things perfect. In my case, this is the balancing act of my identity as an artist and as a practicing Muslim male living in the west.

The question of why a Muslim male is drawn to exploring narratives of traditional and contemporary masculinity in his art can be complex. My answer is simply this: I am a man, so I can only truly claim to know the world through male eyes and navigating the world through my body. Having recognised that hegemonic masculinity is not a fixed position and is contestable, I argue men must be encouraged to recognise traditional male stereotypes and their impact upon the construction of their own masculine identities. Both Men and Women must discuss and share their stories to try to achieve greater gender equality. Such beliefs led me to investigate my own personal experiences through art research with an interest in finding ways to bring balance to the active and passive powers of masculinity. In this essay, I focus upon my current research into fitness, exercise and gym culture, how this interest has developed, its importance in masculine studies and visual arts and its impact on my own art practice.

I was born to a family in Pakistan where primary focus was upon a strengthening of the mind over the body. Unlike today, the health and fitness gym culture remained invisible until the early twenty-first century with the explosion of fitness franchise. There was also little interest in Kushti (the declining art of wrestling) and becoming a pehlwan (traditional South Asian wrestler). The traditional form Kushti, its exercise regime and equipment have been recorded in painting and drawings in South Asian art and pehlwans inspired many contemporary artists both as masculine folk hero in works by Kahdim Ali and vehicle to bring focus on gendered identity and feminism and in works by Anwar Saeed and Faiza Butt. Despite such visual decoding, the training methods of Kushti are generally deemed to be traditional, rural areas specific and unsophisticated for today’s educated urban man, so sending me to the Akhara (venue for Khusti) was never an option for my parents. Games such as cricket and hockey were encouraged. In contrast, like any young teenager who had seen movies like Rocky, Rambo and The Terminator, I was keen to develop muscles fast but inclined more towards the athletic Bruce Lee body. This only resulted in a homemade gym of a few dumbbells, a bench-press bar combined with squatting and push-up exercises. Such misguided exercise routines, without a well conceived nutrition plan, hardly made any health and aesthetic difference to my ectomorph body. By the time I moved to the USA at the age of 20, I had already reached a point where I felt self-conscious about my body. Furthermore, my focus on art, design, literature and philosophy led me to believe that I belonged to the ‘think tank’ of the society, expressing power through creativity and intellect, solving problems through a pen and pencil sitting around a table rather in the Akhara. Gradually my idea of a gym became tainted by the stereotypical perception that it is a place for ridicule of a vulnerable and ‘weak’ anti-hero masculinity, and a construction ground for the dominant heroic, chauvinistic masculinity that thrives on narcissism and power. In the USA, I had exposure to the ever-present representation of such ‘heroic’ masculinities with impossibly buffed up ‘beautiful’ bodies in the western art, literature, sports and plethora of ‘fitness’ ads. It become clear that the sculpted male body (nude or otherwise) has played a lasting and integral role in the western culture. Although this image is not ‘absent’ completely from Pakistani art, the cultural and Islamic ideals of modesty (applicable for both male and female) wrapped the body in tradition, only revealing it in poetic signs and metaphors. My work Brut for Men sculptural series reflects and articulates this aesthetics and cultural sensibility.

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Deeper analysis reveals that artworks like the Classical Greek sculpture Discus Thrower (also Discobolus) and Michelangelo’s David combined masculine athleticism with composition, motion (rhythmos) and proposition (symmetria), setting an impossible male body standard of the beauty of that few men are able to master, one such example being Eugene Sandow who exhibited himself as a tableau vivant showcasing his physique. He is widely regarded as the father of modern bodybuilding and trained specifically to develop his muscles to the classic Greek ideal proportions. In some respect, the physical culture and the art of male body posing as performance art was born. Later, Arnold Schwarzenegger brought bodybuilding to the masses, inspiring men across the globe to build 20 inch biceps. The sculpted body which was once the former Cartesian subject chiseled out of a marble stone gradually “turned into a project, a performance, an artwork: sculpo, ergo sum.” Although there are postmodern and contemporary artists like Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, my encounter with such bodies as art performance and the use of gym equipment as sculpture was through the work of Mathew Barney back in 2003 when I visited the Guggenheim and saw the highly acclaimed Cremaster cycle, a nine hours of ‘challenging’ and stunningly dense and psychedelic art on film. Barney, a trained athlete and fashion model, used his body as well as several professional body builders in his work. He draws from both the restraint and the freedom of the body, interact with strange mythological creatures and play with cast nylon and petroleum jelly sports equipment and weight-lifting objects to present the symbolic potency and vulnerability of masculinity. I had never encountered such a creative and beautiful use of material and ideas. It was a perfect mix of design, art and body performance. This experience left a lasting impression on me, prompting me toward a diverse exploration of materials and sculptural techniques, which I somehow consider to be props for my photographs and videos. However, for some time my ‘angular body’ remained hidden from my work for the most part.

It was not until I arrived in Australia that I was fully exposed to performance and endurance body art. My earlier work focused largely upon the politics of dressing and how covering of the masculine body informed political and religious performances. I focused upon military uniforms (figure 1), secular and religious attire such as Muslim skull-caps (taqiyah or topi), which on one hand identify the stereotypical hegemonic construction of Muslim male identity but when stitched together to mimic the gathering of men in communal prayer, illuminate a divine pattern of unity (figure 2). My interest in consumption and body endurance began to surface in performances such as ‘Bucking’ and self-portrait photographic works but always poetic, considered and modest.

It took me a decade and an exhausting PhD experience to realise that in its current state, my body did not have the energy and fitness to fully work in tandem with my mind. I shared my concerns with my close friends who unanimously suggested I should join a gym, offered their moral support and most importantly recommended a personal trainer. Clinton Harb, a 22 years old full-time strength and conditioning coach to the Parramatta Eels junior Rugby football team and a personal trainer at Fitness First Parramatta, understood my concerns and fears and invited me to join a complementary boxing session with my friends. I was welcomed by the ‘support group’ and despite being like a boot camp, the entire experience felt like an hour long aesthetic performance of endurance. My every move was carefully planned: running, punching, push-ups, squatting, mixed with music and the coach’s counting of numbers. This all seemed familiar and full of potential studio art projects about masculinity, power and balance. It was familiar in the sense that in the past, my other sport activities, such as playing cricket and archery, have yielded drawings, sculptures and a few body endurance performances such as They see neither their heads, nor the stones, nor even the walls!. It was one of the most liberating, fun and exhausting hours. I lifted the weight that was on my shoulder and begun pumping Iron four times a week with dedication, planning and a full record. For the first time, I could see the harmony between the mind and body, its potential as an idea and a form in its execution. However, to further conquer my inhibition to showcase my body, I have embarked on a long-term writing, drawing and performance project in collaboration with my trainer. This essay is the first written archive of this project.

In conclusion, unlike Felicity’s idea that writing and exercise are solitary activities which somewhat inform each other in increments, I see art and exercise as living expressions whose every breath is shared – performed by the body and controlled by the mind.

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Abdullah M.I. Syed (b. 1974) is a Pakistani-born contemporary artist, designer and curator working between Sydney, Karachi, and New York. Spanning over fifteen years, his art practice weaves between the narratives of east and west, seamlessly knitting together art historical references and concerns from each. He holds a PhD in Art, Design and Media from UNSW Art and Design, Sydney Australia. You can find out more about his work at http://www.aicongallery.com/artists/abdullah-m-i-syed/

Photo credits:

  1. Abdullah M.I. Syed, [left] Portrait with Star and Crescent, Lambda on Aluminium; [right] Attention: At Ease, Lambda on Aluminium, from Born to be Series, 2007. Photo courtesy the artist and Maheen Zia.
  2. From top left: Felicity Castagna with personal trainer Clinton Harb; Boxing and Cardio Art group: Felicity, Abdullah, Clinton and Todd Turner (poet); Abdullah during a boxing session; Bottom row: Abdullah M. I Syed’s various training sessions all photographed by Clinton Harb.
  3. Abdullah M.I. Syed, Aura II, 2013-2015, Hand-stitched white crocheted skull-caps, Perspex dome and LED light, 42 (Dia.) x 22 inches, Photo courtesy the artists and Aicon gallery, New York.
  4. Sketch and progress notes from Abdullah’s gym visual diary (June 17, 2015-Present), [left] a page from Abdullah’s diary, [middle] personal trainer Clinton Harb with his visual diary, [right] Exercise diagram for Abdullah by Clinton Harb.
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