Installation view of “Idols of Mud and Water,” Tramway, Glasgow, 2023–24. Photo: Keith Hunter

Between Narratives: A Conversation with Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran—who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Australia—has created an underworld, or dreamworld, populated by idols for his first European exhibition, “Idols of Mud and Water.” From the colossal Multi Limbed Mud Fountain (all works 2023), which fills the entire height of Tramway’s vast space, to the 97 small Terracotta Figures (1–97) housed within a makeshift temple, the installation coheres around a multifaceted narrative of earthly elements and mythological possibility. Nithiyendran’s sculptural vocabulary, realized in materials that range from bronze and ceramic to scaffolding and cob, brings visitors face to face with an entire cast of entities that might occupy multiple roles—fertility gods, sentinels, watchmen, pranksters, or warriors. Drawing on various myths and traditions from southern Asia, particularly the iconography of vernacular figurative sculpture, he conjures a world where these languages shift and fuse across time and space. The resulting space becomes, in Nithiyendran’s words, a “buzzing mythological playground” that evokes Armageddon while offering hope for the future.

Installation view of “Idols of Mud and Water,” Tramway, Glasgow, 2023–24. Photo: Keith Hunter

Beth Williamson: Though you trained in painting and drawing, you are self-taught in sculpture. What freedoms does that lend you in your practice?
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran:
The foundation of painting is an approach to color, texture, and surface. We can see painting as a methodology, thinking about color, texture, opacity, transparency, hue, saturation—all those formal elements. In approaching different sculptural surfaces, I often think about those languages, how I can create contrast by having transparent and opaque elements, how I can play with satin and high gloss, how I can use matte in relation to a highly reflective surface. Working with painting and thinking about aspects such as medium, or using different brushes, allows me to unlock that approach within a sculptural context.

BW: You have spoken about how a loose, messy aesthetic has been viewed historically and how your work is seen. So, I wanted to ask about your process and that aesthetic position.
RMN: It is important to establish that it is an aesthetic position, and it’s interesting to think about that from the viewer’s perspective. It’s creating a sense where it can feel like a natural or an affectatious position. When you look closely, you see that there are layers of intent that allow the works to read that way. Creating an aesthetic that feels loose, fluid, messy, and wild means that you have to be conscious of certain design principles. That’s the irony—there is a very objective approach that you need to bring to making your work in order to make it read a certain way. Of course, these ideas are not culturally mute, and the idea of what is messy changes over time. Therefore, being fluid in that respect is something I try to do, but it also comes down to taste. When I was growing up, I never wanted to paint flowers or map out a painting—I trained in that way but didn’t like it. It was only when I realized that I was allowed to think of these medium-specific discourses like painting, sculpture, and drawing within histories that weren’t purely representational (in terms of naturalism) that I felt comfortable.

Installation view of “Idols of Mud and Water,” Tramway, Glasgow, 2023–24. Photo: Keith Hunter

BW: “Idols of Mud and Water,” the title of your current show, seems to reference not only the clay that you use, but also myths of creativity and creation in which life is fashioned from mud or clay. Where does the water come in? Is it life-giving or destructive?
RMN: The idea that materials can have non-binary readings is what I find interesting about making art, in that we are making things that are open to speculative narratives. When you are making fired ceramic, there is a constant process of transformation. You build something, then it dries out and the water leaves it. You put in a kiln, it becomes hard, and water leaves it again. When you put glaze on it, you are adding water. Then, there is firing. I find these processes of transfiguration interesting, which is another reason that I’m drawn to things like bronze casting. It’s archaic. It’s fire, it’s liquid, it’s elemental. These processes have been used to make artworks for a long time.

When thinking about water, I’ve always been interested in public fountains. I’ve always wanted to make one—it’s a bit of a dream of mine—but I didn’t want to erect a monumental civic fountain in front of a building. I wanted to bring a more complicated or subversive narrative. There is a kinetic element to the water in the show—it animates the sculpture, it creates noise. In mythologies from different parts of the world, there is a narrative arc of life being fashioned from clay, and the next element is water. We are also socially, culturally, and environmentally anxious about water, so I thought it was an interesting material to use right now.

BW: You used reclaimed timber and bamboo and scaffolding to build a makeshift temple structure. How do you decide what materials to use?
RMN: I am intuitively drawn to certain materials. And then, I’m interested in the haphazard as an approach to sculpture, to art and design. It’s difficult to make things look haphazard intentionally. That’s a challenge, and, for me, art-making is most interesting when it’s difficult. When I chose the materials, I wanted to create a sense of multi-regionality, through the materials and through the structure. A lot of the industrial materials were scavenged from different places in the area.

We can think of bamboo as an Asian material that is naturalized a lot in public spaces, but then it also has an ornamental function. If you look at the fountain, there is an element where the water hits the bamboo, so there are subtle references to the way that some of these materials circulate differently.

Installation view of “Idols of Mud and Water,” Tramway, Glasgow, 2023–24. Photo: Keith Hunter

BW: You draw on vernacular sculpture and myths from Asia in your work. You also turn to global histories of figurative sculpture and what that might mean for contemporary imagery, engaging with big questions around idolatry, monumentality, gender, race, religion, and colonialism. Did you also look to a more local, Scottish vernacular or myth-making for this installation?
RMN: Yes. Earth building or cob building made for an interesting approach because it has a specific Scottish history in the context of architecture, but there are also other histories around that material. What really interested me about the Pollokshields area of Glasgow, where Tramway is located, is that it is meaningfully multicultural. The capacity to think between cultural narratives is interesting, but Tramway is also a unique space; there is nothing comparable to it in the U.K. Being able to present a contemporary art installation in a multi-arts center of this scale is a unique opportunity, so I felt I was anchoring in the site in a very literal way, and scavenging material was a nice way to do it.

BW: This is your first institutional solo show in Europe. What challenges did that present?
RMN: There is a perception that it’s going to be difficult if you live far away because of the mechanics of getting works to different places, working across time zones, but it’s not that difficult. Australia also has a colonial framework from the British so in that sense there is a similarity despite the distance. The main challenge for us was coming up with a proposal that meaningfully involved collaboration between two cities. We had to think about shipping, onsite fabrication, offsite fabrication—so, a lot of logistical considerations. Then it was about coming from that proposal to fabrication methodologies. Even though the elements are really expressive, we had to proceed from a real framework.

Detail of “Idols of Mud and Water,” Tramway, Glasgow, 2023–24. Photo: Keith Hunter

BW: You’ve talked about your previous exhibitions such as “R@MESH Vol. I” (Sullivan + Strumpf, Sydney, 2017) and “R@MESH Vol. II” (Sullivan + Strumpf, Singapore, 2018) as aggregate self-portraits. How does that play out in the exhibition at Tramway?
RMN: Strangely, less so. One of the good things about being in a context where I’m not so well known is that I don’t have to play with my image. Within the Australian art scene, I’m quite well known, so when I make works that might have a self-referential component, I know that dialogue can be read, whereas it might get lost here.

BW: How do you hope people will engage with this work?
RMN: When I was creating the idea, the choreography of the audience was quite central in my mind. To be effective in the Tramway space, you have to think about how people move through it. It’s about creating some thresholds, but also not being prescriptive. I’ve always tried to create works that have a range of reference points—some are art historical, but some might be from popular culture. I think there is something for everyone.

“Idols of Mud and Water” is on view at Tramway in Glasgow through April 21, 2024.