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Idols of Mud and Water: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

By Amanda-Jane Reynolds


Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

The historical Glasgow tram-shed, then Museum of Transport, to now art territory Tramway is a Scotland-based arts venue whose focus has been on both local and international artists since the early 1990s.

Currently on display is multiple award-winning artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and his array of colourful sculptural idols within installations, featuring a multi-limbed fountain, temple, and bridge connecting the two larger-than-life formations. The Sydney-based artist has been globally exhibited from India to Thailand to now Glasgow, Scotland, with his exhibition ‘Idols of Mud and Water’ which is open until the 21st of April. Hosted within the main gallery, Nithiyendran has produced a vernacular of sculptures and structures to showcase his series of “new age idols”. The playful hybrid sculptures are inspired by ancient deities and totemic figures through a contemporary lens, reflecting the shared histories of Australia, Sri Lanka and Scotland, generated and regenerated by Nithiyendran.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

Nithiyendran expresses his appeal to multiple mediums and sources of inspiration. This is apparent in his assembly of sculptures, many of which are lapped with painterly strokes of colour, displaying a flow within his interdisciplinary practice and application. His heritage stems from Sri Lanka, whose history confluences with the British invasion, particularly that of Scotland, in the late 17th century and into the 18th century, creating an interesting dialogue. The invasion resulted in the colonial take-over of Indian Tamils, who were brought to Sri Lanka and forced to act as labourers for the tea and coffee plantations, which were perversely rooted in land that was considered spiritual. This place of celebrated beauty, “the second Eden”, was disturbed and repurposed for capitalist wants, not needs. Nithiyendran has then uprooted elements of Sri Lanka and other regional cultures and has placed them within a Scottish landscape, creating a spiritual world which relays the utopian and dystopian conflicts with its ambiguous form.

The term ‘new age idols’ interests me. Modern-day idols could be understood as wealth, status, technology, identity, and so on. Nithiyendran leans on the latter example using his practice to transpose the new age concept of identity onto ancient, but also cinematic-like, deities. The cinematic concept could be a topic in itself, just look at Michelle Williams Gamaker’s exhibition ‘Our Mountains are Painted on Glass’ that was at the Dundee Contemporary Art Centre recently.The idols are produced through two techniques known as ‘lost-wax casting’ and exquisite corpse’. For this process, the artist gathered previous moulds (lost-wax casting) of several figures to splice sections of them horizontally, for example, the head, limbs, torso, and below the waist (exquisite corpse). By utilising this method, he has produced visually ancient totemic idols that touch upon South Asian mythological narratives, combined with multiple cultural languages which are now contained in one vessel. ‘Seated Bronze Figure with Masks’ is an example of this splicing and merging of different figures.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

New age, I’m assuming, is a reference to today; not just the contemporary, but now. What is so different about now compared to then? We’ve travelled from pre-modernism to modernism, then post-modernism, and some suggest we have begun to move from post- to meta-modernism. ‘Idols of Mud and Water is an architectural adaptation that structurally visualises consideration and transformation towards sustainability, and the celebration of culture and communities along with the diversity they bring. Our changing environment reflects this new age of modernism, as does Nithiyendran’s exhibition.

The combination of both sculptures and structures alludes to this assumption, the sculptures being the merged demonstrations of plural identities and historical harmonies; and the structures being the cob-giant, temple, and bridge, acting as architectural metaphors. The bridge being the most telling piece of the installation; standing beneath the connecting construct is a fertility sculpture ‘Fertility Figure with Drapery (Queen)’ which is the merging of Gandharan Buddhism and Hinduism, the fertility figure being the bridge between two cultures as it cradles its conjoined twin infants.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

The giant which is composed of mud and straw and acts as a fountain is a spectacle, cultivating both a sense of fear as well as a sense of protection. Its ancient visual language combined with neon lights draping across its 5 arms, its body covered in visible pipes releasing a flow of water is visually captivating. The exposed cables remind you that the figure is man-made, perhaps a hint to Nithiyendran’s fairlynon-spiritual views. The temple to the right of the bridge was constructed with repurposed materials such as scaffolding, bamboo, drop sheets and recycled timber. Within this movie-set-like construct are 97 terracotta figures adorned with beads and various other elements, these composite forms are zoomorphic and amorphic, hinting to Nithiyendran’s practice to create narrative and discourse in the connection between histories and cultures. To achieve this connection the artist has included warriors, fertility idols and protectors within the same space, working coherently with one another, although their cultural stems are various in title and geographic origins.

I was able to speak with the artist about his exhibition and some of the main concepts within his practice.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

A-J: The Tramway building is extraordinary in scale and architecture, with a history of storing Trams as well as a museum revolving around transport. How did this location influence your bicultural artworks within ‘Idols of Mud and Water’?


Ramesh: So, the location or context of Tramway influenced the development of the artwork and the installation in a number of ways. One thing that you'll see in the context of the installation is a number of theatre tropes, for lack of a better word. Smoke machines, theatre lighting, you know, there's a kind of subtle sequence to how some of the lights pulsate, for example. This was a very direct reference to the fact that Tramway is a multi-art centre, so I was thinking about its function in the present, but also in the context of its past, as Tramway is an old tram depot. That was somewhat less significant, but what was significant is the way that the space is big, it's cavernous, it's 1200 square metres. It almost demanded an installation that proceeded from the top down when I looked at the space and looked at precedent installations in the space.

So, I really thought about a kind of experiential approach to how an audience might encounter multiple elements of the installation. And this word that I often used with Claire, the curator, was, or a phrase, so to say, is this idea that the installation is like this buzzing mythological playground; it's literally buzzing with electricity. And I think that sense of multiple mythologies kind of work themselves into that space. Also, I thought about how you come into that centre, you open those big doors and I wanted there to be this feeling of entering or crossing a threshold and emerging into a new kind of space.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter


A-J: After reading the Handout for the exhibition, the word “detritus” piqued my curiosity. How do ideas about waste and exploitation materialise in your work?


Ramesh: So, the word detritus links to my approach to materiality within the context of the installation. I think, you know, some of the core thematic or philosophical propositions around materials link to this idea of connections between mud and water, both in the context of climate and in the context of making sculptures, but also in the context of various mythological narratives where making figurative sculptures from the earth is this core narrative conceit in various creation stories.

But something I wanted to actually think about was this idea that the installation was also made by the kind of parts that it was made from. That sounds really convoluted for a second, but I guess part of the way I work is I often reveal elements of process in the actual sculptures, so I don't actually hide the mechanics of how things were made. So even when you look at the installation, you'll see the pumps in the fountain visible, you'll see screws, bolts, you'll see wires hanging, you'll see lighting very self-consciously incorporated sculpturally, but also functionally within the installation, and I kind of like to suspend illusions when I'm creating sculptures or installations or experiences. And I think it's about that interplay between, you know, allowing audiences to cross this threshold, but at the same time suspend the illusion that this was made, I guess enforcing the fact that this was made by an artist and a team.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

But I think the keyword or the key element in the installation which has this kind of detritus element is this house, and the house in the work was built. I keep referring to it as a response to flood-responsive architecture, so it's this makeshift shelter in which all the precious sculptures have been protected from the rain and the flood and the water, and a lot of that material that is strapped on and adhering to the exterior of the temple has been sourced from local scrapyards. It's also the remnants of things that were used when making the installation, like drop sheets from the actual building are there when you look closely.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

So I think when I was thinking about materials, rather than making a comment about waste and exploitation, I was thinking about a narrative around materials, you know, there's water, there's mud, there's ceramic, there's fine ceramic, there's lighting, there's smoke, there's timber, there's metal, and I really wanted to have this mythological and elemental approach, but while anchoring elements of the installation in the present and within place, which is this kind of post-industrial context of Glasgow. But I guess, interestingly, a lot of the aesthetics of that house or that shed or that shelter or the temple have a lot of global references, you can also think about the bamboo, I was bringing elements of the way buildings are also elaborated in parts of Asia into that scenario.


Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

A-J: There is a sense of absence within the scaffolding cradling the ‘Multi Limbed Mud Fountain’. Is this space hauntological or a conversation/place to be returned to?


Ramesh: The scaffolding within the installation and which also surrounds the figurative sculpture that spurts water is a reference to, I guess, a sense of becoming and a reference to the ways in which urban societies are often physically elaborated. We can think about the scaffold as a literal thing, you know, as used in the exhibition, and I've also used a combination of metal scaffolding and bamboo scaffolding. So, I was trying to also bring a regional narrative or a multi-regional narrative into scaffolding. But I think I was really inspired by these images of giant Buddhas and other kinds of Hindu deities and Buddhist deities of a gigantic scale being built in various parts of Asia, where these makeshift scaffolds are elaborated and the surface is rendered and built. I think there's something really interesting formally about the way in which these geometric grid-like forms circle these organic figurative sculptures.

So, I think on an initial level, there's a bit of a sense of wonder that I get when I actually look at scaffolding sometimes, which is a bit nerdy, but rather than this idea of it holding a kind of haunted sense or a sense of ritual return, I was really thinking about the idea that this guardian idol protector kind of figure could continually be elaborated. That rather than it being this symbol of finality and rigidity, the scaffolding existing around draws reference to the fact that it can still be worked on and changed and moved. And I think core to that is this idea of sculpture as something that isn't necessarily fixed.

Image: Idols of Mud and Water, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Tramway 2023. Installation photo Keith Hunter

‘Idols of Mud and Water’ is Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s first solo exhibition in the UK and Europe, and is Free to visit at Tramway, Glasgow until the 21st of April 2024.




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