Over the past 10 years, Sri Lankan-born, Sydney-based sculptor Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran has risen to the pinnacle of contemporary Australian art. The critical and commercial attention he has garnered can be in part explained by a renewed interest in the ceramic medium where Nithiyendran, among others, is responsible for loosening the constraints of a medium historically considered smaller and more conservative than other fine arts. More than putting old wine into new bottles, Nithiyendran’s recognisable chorus of fiendish deities conjure a world, a place, a time, and above all, an atmosphere that celebrates the richness, diversity and incompleteness of human experience. It is his unique intersection of cultural references — to Western art history, South Asian cultures, queer theory, grunge, internet cultures and antiquity — and their application in sculpture that has positioned him as a contemporary iconoclast.
Most recently, Nithiyendran installed a major installation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of Archie Plus, an exhibition that expands the Archibald Prize’s focus on portraiture through several new commissions. This included Nithiyendran’s Avatar Towers (2020), located in the gallery’s vestibule and main entrance. The installation is a monumental tableau of more than 70 bronze and clay figures organised within and around a five-metre, roughly hewn structure topped with a ceramic stupa – a mound-like
structure that historically holds relics and is used for meditation in the Buddhist tradition. Boisterous and bombastic, these figures – which the artist refers to as avatars, a play on internet identities and the more historical use of the word as an incarnation of God – are turbocharged with glaze, contorted into impossible proportions, pummelled with the artist hands and hardened by the kiln. Veering back and forth between fantasy and real life, each figure hides a cacophony of internal stories, each jostling to be heard. In this way, the installation exists as a hall of mirrors, distorting and transforming meaning to spark rushes of imagination as we explore Nithiyendran’s universe. This project is representative of Nithiyendran’s commitment to ceramics and its place in art making.
In recognition of his talent, Nithiyendran was also the recent recipient of the Melbourne Art Fair $70,000 commission in partnership with HOTA Gallery, Brisbane and Artwork Transport. With several sell out exhibitions at his representing gallery Sullivan+Strumpf, and future opportunities that Nithiyendran remains tight lipped about at the time of writing, if the past 10 years have been any indication of his trajectory, the next 10 will be an even steeper climb.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 95, January to March 2021.
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