Ramesh Mario NITHIYENDRAN<br/>
<em>Bi Warrior Figure</em> (2022) <!-- (view 1) --><br />

bronze, painted steel, motor, electrical components, shells, stoneware, wood, plastic, stone and metal (beads), silk (tassels)<br />
180.5 x 95.0 x 54.0 cm (overall)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased with funds donated by Rob Gould Foundation, 2023<br />
2023.234<br />
© Ramesh Mario Nithiyendra

Bi Warrior Figure, 2022


Sydney-based artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran shares the story behind Bi Warrior Figure, 2022 – the first of his works to join the NGV Collection. The NGV warmly thanks Rob Gould for generously supporting its acquisition.

The transfiguration of earth, fire and water is central to my practice. The raw, elemental and primordial sensibilities of fashioning or reflecting life from clay or molten metal makes me feel connected to the artisans who worked with their hands, earth and fire thousands of years ago. These artists, particularly from Asia, creatively highlighted reverence for humanity, animals and systems of belief through the masterful creation of deity or godlike forms. This might be a controversial thing to say, but when I experience this type of vernacular or ancient Buddhist and Hindu sculpture from Asia, I can’t help but feel that ‘Western art’ is dull. This is of course an unmediated, first response. When I encounter objects such as this seventeenth-century Tibeto-Chinese bronze Avalokiteshvara that enchants me with its multiple arms and heads, or the beauty and sensuality of this seventeenth-century Nepalese Ganesha, I experience a sense of magic. The way culture, imagination and artisanship are integrated into these works, which are part of the NGV Collection, is mind-blowing. But there is also something to be said about the fact that these sculptures, produced hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago, remain functional and compelling among a zeitgeist of screen domination and the expectations we have for instant satiation and gratification.

To circle back to my initial provocation, I should clarify that I don’t believe Western art is dull. I love art. I love learning about the parallel histories that have informed our visual and material cultures. In fact (and perhaps to some surprise), the histories of European modernism were where I found solace and a sense of belonging as a teenager who felt routinely out of place in the context of my family, school and most social settings. I was obsessed with Pablo Picasso in high school. I loved the energy of his figurative abstraction. However, as an adult I have been able to think beyond the Eurocentric centres that my education privileged. This de-centering activity or bending of regional axes is no doubt reflective of broader, revisionist approaches to histories and culture. We are increasingly looking to the voices of those who have been marginalised, misrepresented or excluded in art, film, television and music.

My childhood was modest. I was the child of Tamil refugee parents. We seldom travelled and I never went to museums or galleries outside of high school excursions. I encountered Hindu sculptures for the first time as a five-year-old in Western Sydney at Westmead temple. We would go here for various cultural celebrations. Colourful sculptures of Shiva, Ganesh and Pavarti adorned the interior and exterior of the architecture. These gods often wore garlands made from brightly coloured fresh flowers. Offerings of bananas and coconuts surrounded them and the pungence of incense encapsulated the area. Memories like this provide interesting ground to reflect upon the preservation and display of deities from Asia in various museum collections around the world.

Within the context of collecting institutions, the headless and or limbless figures, such as this Indian Bodhisattva from the second century in the NGV’s collection, routinely capture my imagination. While these incomplete bodies are generally destabilising or startling, I’ve often naively gazed at these fragmented figures and imagined possibilities of regeneration. How can these ‘incomplete’ figures, often embedded among complex histories of iconoclasm, achieve completion, reparation or even sentience in current times?

The thoughts, reflections and provocations detailed above lingered when creating Bi Warrior Figure, 2022; a work that partly reflects my interests in syncretic and material languages specific to South Asia. It is a double-sided warrior or guardian figure made primarily from bronze. The work started as an ephemeral sculpture built with raw clay. Seashells, a rubber snake and other detritus were impressed into its surface before it was cast in bronze at Mal Wood Foundry in Melbourne via a lost wax casting process. After it was painted, polished and patinated, it was adorned with dyed hessian and a hand-strung necklace made in Sydney. The figure stands proudly on a steel plinth, gesturally sprayed with five expressive faces. This plinth is joined to a large irregular triangular base made from plywood. I scribbled all over this wooden base with a black Posca marker.

Analogous to the Surrealist ‘exquisite corpse’ method, I often build large figures in parts. Heads, torsos, limbs, masks, headpieces and votive props are often built separately and pieced together in crude or haphazard ways. Traces of their joining processes are intentionally kept visible. However, it is only once the heads are attached and the eyes are in their final places that I feel my sculptures become complete. The Hindu concept of Darshan refers to the spiritual significance of a devotee making eye contact with the image of a deity. This process is central to the recognition of divinity. For Bi Warrior Figure, I worked collaboratively with TILT Industrial Design to synthesise a motor and motion-activated sensor to enhance the viewer’s experience of and participation with the faces of the work. With a clunky, cartoon-like sensibility, the head of this warrior moves in randomised rotations upon physical encounter with a viewer. The viewer literally activates the work through a physical process of seeing.


This article was commissioned for NGV Magazine, Issue 42 | Sep–Oct 2023.