It is without question that ceramics are trending high in the contemporary art world. From the witty urns of Grayson Perry, and the evergreen vessels of Betty Woodman to the Modernist interventions of Sanné Mestrom, some of the most exciting exhibitions of 2016 turned the spotlight towards the malleability of the medium.
Enter Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran.
Drawn to the messy nature of clay, the 28-year old admits that he is no master potter. Rather than reinventing the wheel, Nithiyendran has abandoned it entirely, in favour of a more visceral approach. Piling lump upon lump of clay, the artist forms crude figurines through which he explores notions of creation, religion and gender.
In his current exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Nithiyendran’s sculptures and drawings are presented alongside objects from the University of Melbourne’s Cultural Collections. These include Greek urns from the Classics and Archaeology Collection, ink paintings from the Department of Indian Studies and animal specimens from the Teigs Museum of Zoology. Dusty artefacts are revisited with fresh eyes as Nithiyendran’s work is provided a broader historical and cultural framework through which to be interpreted.
Curated by Jaqueline Doughty, the exhibition is titled ‘In the beginning’, referencing creation mythologies from across cultures and situating the artist too, as creator and mythmaker. The merging of the collections by Doughty is refreshingly fluid rather than forced. In the North gallery, an ancient Greek ‘Ceramic Trefoil Oinochoe’ and ‘Ceramic rim, handle sherd’ are encased alongside Nithiyendran’s ‘Vessel Stack’. In the East gallery, the artist’s ‘Untitled (Figure 6)’, an idol-like statue adorned with prayer beads, is found adjacent to depictions of the Hindu deity Kali, Goddess of Time, Creation, Destruction and Power. A taxidermied ‘Research Swan’ is perched high in the corner of the space while an ‘Asian Water Monitor (varanus salvator)’ watches closely. The artist’s name is tagged across the canary yellow wall, underlined by a long green snake – a symbol of creation alluding to both the phallus and the Garden of Eden. The weight of time and the cycle of life is felt.
The male appendage is a prevalent motif in the exhibition; an overt symbol of creation and sexuality. Many works feature both male and female organs, drawing to attention current questions of gender politics. The prevalence of the penis also represents an ongoing exploration of phallus worship. Several references to the Hindu deity Shiva (who is often represented as the aniconic Lingam, arguably a phallus) can be found throughout the artist’s work.
In 2015, Nithiyendran was awarded the $50,000 Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award. ‘In the beginning’ features two works from his winning entry. The unabashed and aptly titled ‘Silver Dickhead 3 (Archipelago Series)’ is laden with fragments of contemporary detritus such as soft drink bottles that act to both anchor the work in time and comment on consumer culture. In the also self-explanatory ‘Shithead 3 (Study for Temple)’, a head glazed with dazzling golden dicks (and topped with ‘shit’) is presented on a mirrored plinth. The viewer becomes ‘Shithead’ in this playful poke at selfie-mania. Evidently, the bold visual vernacular of the artist is accessible on many levels; where elitism runs rife, Nithiyendran takes an egalitarian stand.
The lumpy sculptures are surrounded by walls scrawled with unrefined and well-endowed figures that speak to both cave paintings and degenerate graffiti. Viewers are confronted with the complex task of navigating the confused relationship between the sacred and the profane. While some might see this guerrilla style invasion of the gallery as pretentious, it is, arguably, anything but. Nithiyendran obliterates all hierarchies.
By combining the narratives of new works and old objects, Doughty offers a platform for cross-cultural dialogue that traverses time, religion, gender and class. While Nithiyendran’s unorthodoxy may leave the more traditional amongst us shuddering in the shadows of his dicks, there is realness in the rawness. ‘In the beginning’ is a cleverly curated exhibition with a smirking, subversive lustre.