Theatrical ceramic-based installation shakes up tradition at Tramway, Scotland

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran has changed the face of ceramics in Australia; now he is bringing his vision to Scotland.
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. Photo of man in red pants with long hair in exhibition.

A next generation of ceramicists have been riding a wave now for some time, shifting up stiff material traditions with a grungy flair. Leading that movement in Australia has been Sri Lankan-born artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. A major solo exhibition of his work opened this week at Scotland’s largest international contemporary art space, Tramway, Glasgow. 

Titled Idols of Mud and Water, it is Nithiyendran’s first institutional solo exhibition in the UK and Europe, and his most significant international commission to date, occupying the Tramway’s 1200-square metre T2 gallery.

Speaking in Glasgow on Friday (24 November), Nithiyendran said, ‘The exhibition is not only my largest installation to date, but also the most technically and conceptually ambitious. Synthesising water and movement into my sculptural work has been brewing for some time and feels particularly exciting and urgent.

Ramesh Nithiyendran.
Installation view ‘Idols of Mud and Water’ Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland. UK. Photo: Keith Hunter.

‘It’s also exciting to position my work in the context of the UK and, particularly, Glasgow. The installation was made between Sydney and Scotland and has inspired new thinking when it comes to my considerations of regionally specific narratives,’ he continued.

Nithiyendran has spent more than six months making this body of work. For anyone entering the space, the immersive, theatrical quality of his ceramic-based practice is easily read.

Ramesh Nithiyendran. View of clay totems in exhibition.
‘Idols of Mud and Water’ Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. Installation view Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland. Photo: Keith Hunter.

Dominating the space is a large multi-limbed, totem-like figure draped in LED-tube lighting. It is made from cob (mud and straw), adding to the earthy pagan undertones. And it sits like a guardian over a bamboo temple structure, which is home to an army of 97 small terracotta sculptures – more aptly described as self-appointed idols. There are also large-scale bronze pieces in the installation, demonstrating Nithiyendran’s spatial and material adeptness.

Mario Nithiyendran.
‘Idols of Mud and Water’ Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. Installation view Tramway, Glasgow, Scotland. Photo: Keith Hunter.

As the exhibition’s title suggests, Nithiyendran aims for an expansive narrative around elemental forces, ‘from symbolic cultural and mythological meanings ascribed to floods and natural disasters, to global debates on the impacts of climate change, and the growing fluidity across genders, races, belief systems and even species, that underpins the artist’s vision,’ says Nithiyendran’s Sydney dealer, Sullivan + Strumpf.

Smoke, water, mud and light present as characters in their own right in this exhibition, with Nithiyendran adding that it feels like a ‘buzzing mythological playground where queer politics, anthropomorphism, monumentality and popular culture combine to create new, speculative mythologies’.

As the cover-boy of the celebrated art magazine ArtReview this month (November 2023), there is clearly a buzz around Nithiyendran’s highly individual style – often roguish, irreverent and highly camp. The man and the material are inseparable in that identity.

Nithiyendran’s oeuvre stems from an interest in global histories and languages of figurative representation, more specifically South Asian forms and imagery, as well as politics relating to idolatry, the monument, gender, race and religion. He is a chameleon when it comes to materials, not pinned down by ceramics alone, but using the mediums as a vanguard for new experimentation and silo busting.

Read: So you want my arts job: Ceramic artist

Nithiyendran is represented in major museum collections in Australia, received the prestigious 2019 Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship and had his work celebrated in the Thames & Hudson monograph, titled RAMESH, in 2022.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran: Idols of Mud and Water
Tramway, Glasgow: 24 November 2023 – 21 April 2024

Idols of Mud and Water has been commissioned by Tramway and is supported by Creative Australia, Creative Scotland and the Henry Moore Institute.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina