Super Phalluses and Western Clutter
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, In The Beginning, Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 22 November 2016 – 26 February 2017
In The Beginning is an installation by Sydney based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran comprised of sculptures depicting hyperbolic phallic deities, large graffiti murals, and objects borrowed from multiple museums. This project is an extension of Nithiyendran’s engagement with the syncretism of Hindu and Christian symbolism as seen through the lens of millennial pop culture (the museum’s didactic quotes memes as a point of reference). It is also a continuation of the artist’s signature deranged characters, which are sculpted mostly with clay and bronze to produce glossy textures that are desirable and repellent in equal measure. For instance, his recent suite of works for the 2016 Adelaide Biennial Magic Object consisted of large ceramics that resembled uncanny figures of worship with creepy smiles and prominent phalluses. His installation for The Potter is just as idiosyncratic, albeit employing other devices that allow us to think more deeply about the difficulties one faces when trying to revisit pre-colonial cultures.
The first thing one notices about Nithiyendran’s In The Beginning is the large graffiti murals that vandalise the gallery walls. Boldly coloured with yellow, pink and black backdrops, these wall paintings feature strange hermaphrodite figures with large penises, which they use to mischievously urinate on a snake. Or a scene where a group of children are seen playing under the sun in a manner reminiscent of a primary school mural—except that the sun seems to be upsetting everyone and there’s a prominent tag that reads ‘sucks’. In fact, the graffiti motif is recurrent throughout all the gallery walls and it often spells the artist’s first name in different typographies: Ramesh.
One also encounters curious objects borrowed from museum collections, including a taxidermy swan hung on a wall with its head stuck high in a corner (seemingly mooning us with its stuffed ass), as well as representations of Hindu deities inked on paper and sculpted in concrete. The most mysterious of them all, however, is a small British oil painting of a vase of flowers from the 19th century that seems to disrupt the recurrent phallic symbolism (since a vase is most commonly interpreted as signifying a vulva). Otherwise, the rest of the museum loans seem to have a more straightforward equivalence with Nithiyendran’s own ceramics, particularly the ink drawings of the Hindu goddess Kali which provide a precedent to the way in which the artist references Hindu iconography, for instance, in his sculptures of figures with their tongues sticking out.
The artist’s signature ceramics occupy the floor space of both galleries and they are as odd and culturally loaded as the colorful murals that surround them. They look like amped up impressions of primitive icons, with distorted shapes and colourful textures that appear to be melting even though they are eerily still. At times, it feels like staring at the frozen vomit of an outsider artist that ate too many Skittles at a Hindu/Christian birthday party. Some of them also appear to be inflated, deflated or stretched like a balloon at the hands of an erratic kid that also ate too many Skittles at the same party. However, the most memorable of them all is Untitled (bronze), (2016), which is a large head composed of a pile of penises finished with a bronze tone that gives the sculpture a scatological quality. To make the piece cruder, the artist covered the plinth with sheets of cardboard, while another plinth has been designed with an empty space in the middle that allows it to be penetrated by a large phallic object.
In spite of the exhibition’s phallic excesses, it is a British oil painting of a flower vase that keeps stubbornly calling for attention. This is rather remarkable, given that it is a small frame hung on a mural depicting a bearded hermaphrodite with an erect penis and a snake crawling around their body. Credited in the hand sheet as Flowers in a glass vase (1892), it is the most bland, underwhelming example of an oil painting that one can hope to never see. Yet, it is always in the periphery, like a murky Western vignette full of prejudice that distracts us from enjoying Nithiyendran’s sculptures. This is when the artist’s tendency to distort figures gains more poignancy, as this insipid British painting stands as a reminder of the impossibility of returning to a pure pre-colonial state.
Indeed, like the artist’s disfigured sculptures, the Western gaze contorts every culture it sees. The divide between artwork and ethnic artifact remains a prime example in the context of art, which reached a pinnacle of visibility in the contentious exhibition Magicians de la Terre (1989)—a show that took place roughly a year after Nithiyendran was born in Sri Lanka. Magicians de la Terre sought to represent non-Western artists alongside their Western counterparts in an equal ground. However, it became notorious due to the way in which the French curator Jean-Hubert Martin employed a Western lens to frame every artist in the show. Nithiyendran’s installation seems to speak to this history by presenting his work alongside museum artifacts. His sculptures appear to register the perceptual difficulties one faces when trying to make sense of cultural identity in a postcolonial world, which is indeed cluttered with Western ideological junk. Amid these narratives of Self and Other, everything appears contorted and chaotic, like someone or something has lost sanity. The artist finds a way forward by responding to this cultural mess with a hyper syncretism, where memes, street culture, and religion interbreed in a continual process of regeneration and perversion. Like his ceramics, the artist seems happy penetrating every cultural domain to pull out whatever lurks inside, regardless of how funky that may be.