RAMESH MARIO NITHIYENDRAN
Interview by Madeleine Dore
Photography by Mitch Lui
Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran
While his work includes phallic symbolism and graffiti sprawled across gallery walls, his approach and attitude to work, building an art career and early success demonstrates a mindfulness contrary to his rebellious reputation.
For starters, Ramesh has never positioned himself as a ceramic artist, despite being the poster boy for its revival in Australia. Instead he works with a range of materials to explore and often combine themes including religion, multiculturalism, gender, eroticism, creation, and life in the age of the internet – often with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
On a personal level, there isn’t a trace of ‘bad boy’ in his almost rarefied politeness –something he is keen to see more of in the art world.
Placating the unpredictable archetype of an artist who doesn’t reply to emails or is difficult to work with will soon diminish, explains Ramesh: “I’ve found the key to securing opportunities as an artist is being really professional and organised and easy to work with.”
Opportunities have been plentiful for the Sydney based artist – Ramesh has exhibited both internationally and nationally. His work has been collected by National Gallery of Australia, The Art Gallery of South Australia, Artbank and the Shepparton Art Museum. In 2014, Nithiyendran was awarded NSW Visual Arts Fellowship and was the winner of the 2015 Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award.
“I think I’ve been quite privileged in that things have happened to me reasonably quickly and I’ve been offered these institutional projects almost one after the other,” he says.
While Nithiyendran appreciates that his early success differs from the typical trajectory of most young artists, he eagerly challenges clichéd ideas of the artistic process as disorderly and whimsical, and instead defends the legitimacy of creative work.
As any artist would know, the process actually involves a lot of hard work. “I think really good artists are actually quite lateral and business minded. In order to sustain their career, they need to have a creative and thoughtful business approach to what they do.”
When asked what he thinks of the 'bad boy' label, Ramesh explains he takes it in his stride. “That’s just part of the package. Something I always keep in mind is you’ve also got to believe the good. If you’re going to believe the bad stuff that’s written, you’ve got to also believe the good stuff.”
This seems to be somewhat of a signature of Ramesh – not to take himself too seriously. After all, we all have to learn to see our so-called bad sides as part of the package of being human. “I'd love to be a bit less obsessive, but at the same time my crazy constant thinking is what energises the work – I don't want to lose it all.”
From the intimate details of his morning routine, to the ins-and-outs of balancing a busy social calendar with getting enough downtime, Ramesh reveals how to find moments of rest in an artistic life full of momentum, be relaxed yet diligent, and how to be exactly yourself within the whirl of it all – bad bits and all.
"Something I always keep in mind is you’ve also got to believe the good. If you’re going to believe the bad stuff that’s written, you’ve got to also believe the good stuff.”
I'm not a morning person, I like to sleep in until around nine o’clock. As soon as I wake up, it’s straight to the espresso machine for two shots of coffee and a bottle of water before I shower. This might sound really lame, but if I have an event on that night, I'll try to wash my hair that day because I think it looks the best. That often means I have to wake up earlier because washing my hair sometimes takes up to 40 minutes.
I’ll get ready and think about what I need to do that day. I usually get quite caught up in the enjoyment of my morning ritual and often end up skipping breakfast and running out the door to catch the train to my studio.
I’ll usually take a look around the studio and see what’s happening. It’s usually really messy as there is a lot of dust and wet media involved in my work, so tidying up has to happen every day otherwise it’s really hard to be productive in the space.
Then I’ll write a little to do list for the day. I have an assistant once a week so if there's something that needs more hands, I make sure that I’ll schedule that for when he's in. I’ll usually schedule meetings at least two weeks in advance because I’m working with big institutions.
I try to shove all my meetings into one day if I can, otherwise the day can disappear – you go to a meeting, have lunch, maybe run into a friend and then the whole day is gone!
Like any creative practitioner, I have a fairly broad definition of work – for me, it could be answering emails, sending invoices, buying supplies, attending meetings at my gallery, or writing stuff for people who need information. It’s all related to the art practice, which means throughout the week it's very rare that I'd spend say five or six days straight in the same place.
"I try to shove all my meetings into one day if I can, otherwise the day can disappear – you go to a meeting, have lunch, maybe run into a friend and then the whole day is gone!"
I think the broad nature of creative work can be a struggle for artists because there is still this view that parts of it aren't really work. But with creative work, you can always be working.
For the next few years, I’m trying to have constant deadlines to keep focused towards work. Much of the time, shows are overlapping so while I might be in the process of making work for one, I’ll be handling the administration and emails for another.
The studio process is very un-romantic, it’s just this-this-and-this needs to get done. There are of course times when there is immense creativity and it’s all stimulating and exciting, but a lot of the time it's just intense physical labour.
It feels a bit like business management and I have to be really organised, which I generally am. Though I'm not the best at filing and my laptop desktop looks like a disaster!
For the first semester of every year I teach at University of New South Wales and it’s good to have a steady flow of income, but it also gives structure to my week. Making a living as an artist often means the money comes in waves – you might sell a few works, or get a commission, and be fine for a few months, but there is never really a feeling of financial security.
"I think the broad nature of creative work can be a struggle for artists because there is still this view that parts of it aren't really work. But with creative work, you can always be working."
If I’m working in the studio, I’ll go out and get something for lunch quickly. Because I'm usually working alone, going out for lunch is a treat and something to look forward to.
I really should eat more fresh vegetables – I tend to go for comfort food. I don't really have much balance in my routine because I can’t really fathom spending time on a ritual like making lunch, when I’d rather be making the work.
It would be good to find balance, or a way to relax. Maybe even a have a hobby that is unrelated to being creative, that would be nice!
I usually try and squeeze in an afternoon nap around three o’clock at the studio for half an hour. I'll have a coffee before the nap and drink it slowly and rest for a bit. I could be in the worst mood ever and it will refresh me.
"I usually try and squeeze in an afternoon nap around three o’clock at the studio for half an hour."
I normally work pretty consistently throughout the day, but will almost always stop work around six o’clock. I try to keep the day and night separate because I think working all day is quite exhausting.
Most nights I’ll hang out with a friend, go to a nice restaurant or to an event. I'll change out of my daggy studio clothes if I’m going to an opening or something then I’ll feel all fabulous again.
The Sydney art scene is really vibrant and there's always something to go to and you get a bit of a social-hit – there's this mixing of work and social life, which is good.
I don't really drink much because I’d rather enjoy a really good gin than drink five beers, but also I find the thought of not being able to be productive really anxiety-provoking.
I’m not one to be out late so I’ll usually be home by nine-thirty. I’ll often perch on the lounge and scroll through Instagram. I love scrolling on Instagram and could look at it all day. I think it’s also very common, but that's how I unwind and it’s usually my idle, thinking time.
The thing I’ve found helps me the most when my schedule is busy is getting plenty of rest. If it’s been a really full day of setting up an installation, for example, it can be quite draining – I have to deal with a lot of people, be super polite, and make lots of creative, personal, and professional decisions. So at night I make sure to either do nothing or something really quiet, rest, and conserve energy to be active the next day.
"I love scrolling on Instagram and could look at it all day. I think it’s also very common, but that's how I unwind and it’s usually my idle, thinking time."
I try and have a tea at night and will then probably just sit on my computer for a bit and find something on SBS On Demand to watch. I’ll watch something almost every night, whether it be a documentary or a film before I go to bed at midnight. Sometimes, I might start looking for materials on eBay and then all of a sudden I’ve spent another two hours on my work again! But if I have less than eight hours sleep I’ll be in the worst mood all day.
"The thing I’ve found helps me the most when my schedule is busy is getting plenty of rest. "
DAY OFF ROUTINE
The last year has been a bit intense and I got used to working six or seven days a week. But if I work on a Saturday or Sunday, I’ll usually try and do something at night that’s social.
I think the best thing I found to take the day off is physical distance. I’ve got a few friends who live in Blue Mountains. I'll try and visit people, literally drive away from the studio, leave the computer at home so I can actually unwind. I've found that going physical or geographical distance is the best thing to actually relax.
"People will ask me sometimes what I think as success as an artist means, it means being able to choose the projects you want to work on and be able to live the lifestyle that you want whilst doing that."
– Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran