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'Undergod' by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran: a buzzing urban grotto of deities

The contemporary artist converted Sullivan+Strumpf into a mythical playground by curating a series of inclusive, secular, electrifying and bold Undergod warrior sculptures.

by Urvi KothariPublished on : May 16, 2023

"A buzzing urban grotto full of 'deities' that connect various times, histories, places and realms" is how contemporary artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran describes his latest exhibit at the Sullivan+Strumpf gallery in Melbourne. When I first encountered the Sydney-based Sri-Lanka-born Nithiyendran's exhibit Undergod, my initial response was—it is inclusive, democratic, bold, electrifying, secular and ambiguous. For his solo exhibition, the gallery floor was converted into a mythological playground where spiritual busts with spiky heads, gothic deities resting on plinths ramshackled in graffiti art, ambiguous iconography morphed on traditionally accepted religious forms and much more was displayed but the beauty of his work lies in his sculpted detailing. While pottery is seldom associated with defiance, Nithiyendran—also referred to as the ‘bad boy of ceramics’—redefines the canonical art of ceramic sculpting.

Installation view of Undergod, 2023, Sculptural Installation| Undergod | Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran | STIRworld
Installation view of Undergod, 2023, Sculptural Installation Image: Christian Capurro; Courtesy of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Sullivan+Strumpf

The ceramic artist introduced an aesthetic true to his South Asian identity that was inspired by his fascination with sculptures, which started with his initial visit to a Hindu temple in Westmead, Western Sydney. Taking a trip down memory lane,  Nithiyendran nostalgically reflects upon his cultural identity and ancestral roots, sharing, “As a Sri-Lankan Tamil, my family migrated to Australia in 1989 as refugees. While my father is Tamil, my mother is a Dutch-Burgher. Her family largely practised Christian traditions. While my perspectives and identity as an adult are secular, I remember feeling confronted by the idea of singular or monotheistic religion as a young person. Yet, the colour, pluralism, shape-shifting and polytheism of Hindu visual vernacular and mythologies captured my imagination in open and speculative ways, at that point in my life.”

Undergod, 2023, Video Video: Courtesy of Sullivan+Strumpf

For this particular curation, Undergod depicts Nithiyendran’s artistic exploration of mythological beings—somewhere between the human and the divine. A series of 20 new works stand at the juncture of various time periods, language and visual registers, drawing back to various iconographies departing from diverse historic eras. Thus, these crudely assembled sculptural installations piece together—literally as well as metaphorically—in the most unexpected mannerism and connect with Nithiyendran’s interest in the histories of iconoclasm.

Installation view of Undergod, 2023, Sculptural Installation| Undergod | Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran | STIRworld
Installation view of Undergod, 2023, Sculptural Installation Image: Christian Capurro; Courtesy of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Sullivan+Strumpf

This interest strongly portrays the artist's interest in South Asian pre-colonial art museum finds—quite often the headless, limbless or fragmented sculptures with unclear provenance. The layers of dust and rust represent the testimony of time these historical symbolisms depict.

Having trained within the Eurocentric school of thought, Nithiyendran strives to unlearn and relearn the foundational roots he belongs to, commenting, “I think non-hierarchically about various reference points as I continually attempt to ‘un-learn’ the foundations of eurocentricity which my art education in Australia was premised upon. Life is generally premised upon ‘messy’ or surprising connections. There are various historical examples of South Asian vernacular sculpture that merge European with more localised traditions.”

Bust with Serpent Head, 2023, Earthenware and glaze sculpture |Undergod | Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran | STIRworld
Bust with Serpent Head, 2023, Earthenware and glaze sculpture Image: Mark Pokorny; Courtesy of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Sullivan+Strumpf

One particular sculpture captures the true essence of Nithiyendran’s study on South Asian colonial iconography. A fragmented but heavily bejewelled torso with a serpent head rests eerily on the floor of the gallery space. The torso seems very ancient and familiar, while the serpent head introduces a hint of humour and pop behind the fictional. Nithiyendran comments, “The interpretation above is really spot on. I wanted to combine some kind of ‘classical’ or idealised language (the torso) with a humorous or cartoon-like image to draw potential to infinite possibility. The torso emerged from research into the Gandharan Buddhas.” Indeed, the Gandharan school of art is based on the Greco-Roman norms of art-making. There is a play within dualities wherein the east meets west. Nithiyendran adds, “I tend to avoid the use of binary or oppositional terminology when creating a context around my work and explorations. I use terms like East and West with inverted commas. Shifting or bending axis points and reconsidering what geographic, cultural or even philosophical centres could be is something I attempt to manifest in my work”.

Terracotta figure with Multiple Heads, 2023 Earthenware | Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran | Undergod | STIRworld
Terracotta figure with multiple heads, 2023, Earthenware Image: Courtesy of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Sullivan+Strumpf

Nithiyendran also tracks back to exploring terracotta as a medium. He explores the true nature of unglazed terracotta, which is rudimentary, raw and earthy. “The primordial sensibility of fashioning or reflecting life from this red earth makes me feel connected to makers and artisans who were working with their hands, earth and fire thousands of years ago,” he shares. Completely juxtaposing the soft, tactile and organic red clay, Nithiyendran plays with bronze as he launches a series of six sculptures, two of which are kinetic sculptures with motion-activated sensors. These bronze warriors hold “almost cartoon-like sensibility to the kinetic activation.” What made the entire collection surreal as well as electrifying was the use of neon tube lights that brought out a very urban vernacular sensibility to the otherwise ancient visual lexicon. “I considered electricity as another elemental material alongside earth, fire, and water,” comments Nithiyendran.

Bi Warrior Figure, 2022, Mixed media | Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran | Undergod | STIRworld
Bi Warrior Figure, 2022, Mixed media Image: Courtesy of Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and Sullivan+Strumpf

Nithiyendran’s art exhibition stands at the intersection of ancient classicism and pop modalities, displaying a play of mediums, forms, nuances, and above all emotions. One can sense the fear, the gothic, humour or anger, all at once. It is at once unsettling and encapsulating, hypnotic. Nithiyendran’s art is gender fluid, inclusive, ambiguous and beyond defined canons of art.

“The figures are often performative or engaged in some model of heightened display. There is a sense that they are at the edge of emotional, human, animal and other kinds of limits,” he shares. With the wrap of this buzzling mythical playground, he is all set to unveil his solo show at the Tramway in Glasgow, United Kingdom. “For this installation titled Idols of Mud and Water, I have been allocated the pre-eminent, 1200 sqm space. I will collaborate with the dynamic team of skilled fabricators and technicians at Tramway to create a working multi-limbed, kinetic fountain that dramatically pumps muddy water. This work will be complemented by over 200 multi-limbed fertility, guardian, protector, and warrior figures housed amongst a complex, makeshift architectural structure,” he shares excitedly.

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