Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

'I just feel like there’d be no joy without art' - Interview with Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

Article Author: 




The deconstructed mechanical procedure of visiting a museum/gallery is similar to that of going to a Hindu temple: one enters, spends a little time at each piece/God, perhaps spends a little more time with those that interest you/you have a personal connection with. Looking through Tamil Sydney based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s latest exhibition, ‘Idols of Mud and Water,’ this is what initially came to mind. 

Ramesh’s work draws from ‘historical figuration as well as contemporary influences, crafting exuberant, ceramic sculptures inspired by global histories of figuration, religious iconographies and contemporary culture.’ Ramesh’s first solo exhibition in the UK and Europe is currently on display at the Tramway in Glasgow, a former train depot. 

Sculpting is such a tactile art form. What initially drew you towards this?

When I studied at art school, I trained in painting and drawing. But I think the story can be traced a little bit prior to that. I think when people talk about art a lot of the time (especially contemporary art), there’s often really cerebral approaches to materials. We’re trained to think we’re using materials for a reason, and that these materials have different social and cultural registers - which is true. But, I think personally, I’ve always just loved playing with different kinds of materials in more artistic and speculative ways. I remember being a child and always loving making art; whether it was scribbling, or drawing, or making things with Play-Doh, or glueing things together. That creative moment has always been my second nature. When I was learning about art, part of me always thought that art was painting, especially growing up in a context where… I wasn’t really taken to museums and galleries in Australia - not that that was a decision, it just wasn’t in my family’s scope of things to do.

After I finished my undergrad degree, I started to explore materials with a bit more freedom because we weren’t having to train in certain medium-specific contexts. I didn’t have to paint or draw or take photographs. When we’re looking at art these days, we don’t think about art necessarily in terms of their medium specificity anymore… I actually found a bit more affinity with working sculpturally because I found the two-dimensional plane quite limiting. When you’re starting, parameters are good, but the sculptural language made a lot more sense to me. Also, a lot of the references that I was researching were sculptural and three-dimensional rather than planar or flat. 

I was a very academic child and teenager. I always loved to learn and loved to study. But I think growing up in the context I did, I don’t think the humanities were as valued as the stuff my cousins were doing (like science and maths). So I felt a bit of pressure to conform in that way, but I never really did. 

You’ve mentioned how non-Western art is often perceived as ‘less civilised’ due to its ‘heightened expression.’ Has this been an obstacle in your career? 

I think what I’m referring to is specific points in history, where encounters from the West or Europe with other cultures deemed to be non-West were often classified or perceived to have certain attributes to promote views around racial hierarchy and superiority… There was often this mode of looking at other cultures with a comparative lens, rather than a parallel one or understanding how certain frameworks work as relevant to look at the way other cultures and societies operated. I think that was what a lot of colonial regimes were prefaced upon… creating a certain conception around what the people they were colonising were. That’s playing out today, perhaps even in recent histories in very different ways. 

When I was studying contemporary art in Australia (I often bring it down to my education because education isn’t neutral - there are values…) fifteen years ago, I think there was this belief that art was Western art, and then there was everything else which existed in comparison. What I struggled with was, my tendency was always to be… hyper (in terms of my aesthetic style), I was into more ostentatious or maximalist aesthetics. I sometimes felt that was perceived to be not as cerebral as some other types of art-making that were more austere or restrained. 

I wouldn’t say obstacle. But what it’s meant is that I have to be quite strategic… and actually address the things like ‘the expression,’ ‘the gesture,’ ‘the use of colour’ and talk about how they’re all very intentional positions. These aren’t just “I’m so crazy, I’m so wild, I’m going to make this messy thing.” It’s more: “these are the design principles I’m interested in, which are asymmetry, polychromatic, irregularity, dynamism. How do I actually create paintings and sculptures and installations that reflect this approach?” So, it’s ironically also quite objective.

I think as artists, you’re obliged to think about a framework around certain key things you do. But, I think that space for intuition, emotional types of thinking… there’s also a place for that.

Dark Mofo
Earth Deities, 2021
steel, found objects, car parts, concrete, LED, smoke machines, earth, plywood, enamel paint
Installation, Dark Mofo Festival, Tasmania
Photography Jesse Hunniford, courtesy of Darklab

‘Idols of Mud and Water’ is a great name for the exhibition. It initially brings to mind higher powers and immediately - literally - earths and grounds them. How does mythology and religion play a part in your art? 

I’m interested in mythology and religion from a creative/structural/cultural perspective. There’s no devotional aspect to it. I’m very interested in the mechanics of things, and I think the way in which certain - especially figurative - sculptures and representations come to be, I find super interesting. What’s always struck me about a lot of mythological narratives is the way in which imagination is combined with social and cultural purpose… dreaming up these complex narratives to present certain values. I’m often interested in the mechanics and the aesthetics of those things. How do these deities/monuments/images/characters actually come to look like what they look like? 

What that means is that a lot of the time the research is looking at syncretism or cross-cultural contact or looking at the kinds of workshops at the time… how those artisans were trained, looking at the trade routes around different materials. But then, it’s also thinking about the way in which values shift in times, and the way in which that creeps into…certain representation shifts. 

Also, I think the sum of the parts doesn’t equal the whole. There’s an element of magic there, that you can’t actually rationalise.  

You call these pieces ‘anti-monuments.’ Could you elaborate on what you mean? (I pressed Ramesh a little about the ‘irregular plinths’)

It was an address to museological aesthetics; thinking about how certain sculptures… or objects are given value in different spaces… making it clear to the audience that a white plinth or the actual language of display of anything is never a culturally neutral act. Something else I was noticing was, the language of museums was… creeping into airports, shopping centres: you saw screens showing video art in the same way screens were showing advertising. If you go into luxury stores, you can see things behind vitrines… how do you display sculptures in a way that is relevant to the work? I don’t think an audience comes to looking at a sculpture, and then suddenly when they look down they can’t see what it’s on. So, it’s another opportunity to create meaning, whether it’s through contrast or whatever.

It’s very unmonumental. A lot of the current work in Glasgow, I often refer to it as: looking at monumental sculpture, or the spectacle, in a subversive way through referencing non-Western art and non-Western approaches. 

Avatar Towers
Avatar Towers, 2021
Ceramic, concrete, raw clay, plywood, bronze, found objects
Installation, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Photography Mark Porkorny

How far do you believe an artwork represents the artist? 

That’s an interesting question, but also an ethical one. I think sometimes what artists do and what they mean can be different things. The other thing that happens is that the meaning of a work (or the way in which a work circulates) isn’t static. The way you use a symbol one day… in a few years that means something else. So, I don’t know necessarily how much control or intent an artist can have. But I think it’s part of the artistry… to work with materials in certain ways, with both intention and imagination.

But I think most of the time (in very obvious ways), the artwork does represent the artist. But at the same time, there are things that you’re not aware of, when you’re making your [art] that come into play. Even though a lot of the work has a lot of grounding in different reference points, sometimes you just like the feeling of a material on your hand, and that’s why you repeat that gesture.

There’s also a thing about communication. When you’re making artworks for certain audiences, there’s multiple stakeholders. I don’t want to alienate audiences, a lot of the time. There’s some kind of choreography you want to create - interacting with an audience through the work. 

Speaking of communication, are you seeking more to challenge or find something that connects people?

I’ve never made artwork thinking, “this work seems to challenge this hegemonic belief.” My view of the world is prone to sometimes resisting power in certain ways. I think that just becomes present in the artwork. I always try to make work that has multiple entry points. There’s one sculpture in the show where there’s very specific art historical references in it, but then there’s also a cast Hello Kitty head in there. 

When I graduated uni, I didn’t come from a very wealthy background like lots of artists do. I didn’t have artists as parents, or parents’ friends. I had to learn the language of that industry and how to interact with everybody by myself. So, I always had a value around accessibility. 

What was the experience of growing up and deciding art was the career you were going to pursue?

I think now, my position is kind of qualified because everyone can see me in the media… At the time, I think there was a lot of confusion. In our community, if you get a certain mark, you don’t do what you love, you do what that mark allows you to do. There’s a certain value hierarchy in that system. It was assumed I would follow a certain path, which you could probably imagine. I think there was a bit of uncertainty and questioning what I had chosen to study. 

But, I think there’s been a generational shift… my cousins, who really see the value of art, especially now that they have children. They can actually see how beneficial it is to take their children to art galleries to discuss artworks.

Why is art, in any form, important? 

It’s important to answer that question. When you’re living in a guise of capitalism, you kind of have to justify why things… are valuable in very empirical ways - whether it’s through data or through numbers. I think what most people can appreciate is that… music, theatre, art… all of that stuff is what makes societies rich. Different cultures integrate art in different ways. There isn’t this ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. I just feel like there’d be no joy… without art. 

Earth Deities II, 2022
Polystyrene, epoxy, steel, LED, neon, automotive paint
Installation, Vivid, Hickson Rd, Sydney, Australia
Photography Mark Porkorny

Five works of art which have influenced Ramesh:

1. Gandhara School of Art - a type of Buddhist representation that originated in North-West Pakistan but the language changed through contact with Alexander the Great

2. The works of Picasso - when I was in high school…I was obsessed with Picasso because that was my entry level art-historical knowledge… what drew me to him was that it was a type of academic art that wasn’t realistic

3. Sri Lankan cooking -  sometimes I can find a recipe or an approach to cooking something really inspiring. What I love about Sri Lankan cooking is that all the notes are really high: it’s about heat, it’s about texture, it’s about sour, sometimes sweet

4. Whitney Houston/Shania Twain - what I do lean into is understanding popular culture on a complex level. It was so interesting how [Whitney] got hated on by her own community because she was bringing these popular radio elements into the soulful gospel elements

5. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast - I have really fond memories of watching Disney… I’ve always loved animation… that suspension of reality by not working with live action… I love the fact that there was shapeshifting: the person became a teapot, the man became a beast, the maid became a broomstick

‘Idols of Mud and Water’ will be in exhibition at Tramway, Glasgow, running until April 2024.

Studio portrait photographed by Jessica Maurer.


We need your support

Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. Tamil journalists are particularly at threat, with at least 41 media workers known to have been killed by the Sri Lankan state or its paramilitaries during and after the armed conflict.

Despite the risks, our team on the ground remain committed to providing detailed and accurate reporting of developments in the Tamil homeland, across the island and around the world, as well as providing expert analysis and insight from the Tamil point of view

We need your support in keeping our journalism going. Support our work today.

For more ways to donate visit https://donate.tamilguardian.com.