the two generations of artists who level up Vivid Sydney

An ideal day for Ken Done is one that is spent mostly in his studio. He wakes up in his Mosman house near Chinamans Beach, he feeds the birds, feeds the fish, goes swimming and gets stuck in his paintings.

“The easiest thing in the world is to be an artist. It’s very hard to be a good one, but it’s easy to be one. Kids understand that,” Done says. “I’m not as good as a five-year-old. I would like at the end of my life to be able to bring back this absolute freshness that we have at that age. I can beat most eight or nine year olds, but I can’t beat a five year old.

If you live in Australia today, you’ve no doubt seen Ken Done’s signature style splashed onto a tea towel or one of your mother’s favorite chunky sweaters from the 80s. His bold use of color and Simple and optimistic images of iconic Australian landmarks, animals and landscapes have been instrumental in shaping the identity of Australia, and specifically Sydney, on the world stage.

Photography: Katje Ford | Ken Done in his Rocks studio

While his design work remains a ubiquitous presence and enduring international activity, Done’s true passion is painting. Meeting the artist in the small, paint-splattered studio at the back of his gallery in the Rocks, it is evident that in addition to his thirst for work, the 81-year-old’s love for his enduring muse , Sydney, hasn’t waned either since he held his first solo exhibition in the city in 1980. Both of these passions are showcased in the major artwork he contributes to the world’s largest festival of lights. from Vivid Sydney in 2022.

“This is the first time I’ve been asked to do a Vivid performance, and I’m absolutely thrilled to do it. The set is called For Sydney with loveand basically that’s what it’s about, the paintings I’ve done over the years of Sydney and how I feel about Sydney,” says Done.

The artist and his family have worked with creative agency Spinifex Group to digitize his work into a large-scale animated display that will occupy the Customs Building at Circular Quay. It starts with Done’s arm seeming to reach for the facade of the building (“so you see my skinny old arm and my paint sticks describing the customs house”) before drifting off and turning into a series of moving paintings, including much of the work he created for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, set to music by Australian jazz musician James Morrison.

Photo: Supplied/Spinifex Group | “For Sydney With Love”, Ken Done and the Spinifex Band

Reflecting on what first sparked his affectionate and abstract imagery of local landmarks, he says, “I find it interesting that the Harbor Bridge also resembles Uluru. And the Opera looks a bit like the Bungle Bungles. These symbols of Australia have remarkable relationships, and I wanted people to love them. He laughs and adds, “I wanted people to like them so much they paid for them.”

Not that money is the motivation these days. Done says he will donate his artist fees from Vivid to charities, including UNICEF, for which he has been a goodwill ambassador for 30 years.

For fellow Sydney artist, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, there are striking similarities and profound contrasts between his work and that of Done. With a similar yen for bright colors and abstract shapes like Done, Nithiyendran’s irreverent ceramic sculptures have become a familiar sight in the Australian contemporary artistic landscape. The work of the Sri Lankan-born artist is based on his training as a painter and his interest in South Asian forms and imagery as well as in the politics of idolatry, monument, gender, to race and religion.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studioPhotography: Katje Ford | Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran in his studio

While Done draws inspiration from Sydney’s natural beauty, Nithiyendran’s ideal Sydney experiences focus more on food and culture than ‘bush climbing and hiking’. He says, “I’m the type of person who likes takeout, but I also like fine dining. I’m very happy to drive to Flemington and get some Sri Lankan takeout and sit in the parking lot, but I’m also happy to go to your house, Hubert, and listen to jazz and eat good buttery food.

For Vivid, Nithiyendran presents Earth deitiesa seven-meter-tall hand-painted multi-limbed sculpture with four faces, 98 channels of lighting and smoke machines that dominates a corner of Hickson Road Reserve.

When he visits the artist in his studio – a warehouse full of colorful sculptures in various states of completion and a pair of hot ovens, sandwiched in a nondescript industrial area in Gladesville – he starts scribbling a diagram with a pen and paper to describe his new project.

“…So the Hickson Road reserve, for example, is flanked by three icons of Sydney: the Opera House, the Harbor Bridge and Luna Park. So you have a direct view of those three iconographies… So I wanted to create a dialogue around what an iconic figurative sculpture could be in a place like Sydney. And I think Vivid is a really good situation to explore those ideas because the audience is so porous. It’s a festival context, rather than a gallery or museum context, which might engage a specific type of audience or channel a specific type of story,” says Nithiyendran.

He adds, “I really wanted to think about how we might think about multiplicity and plurality in a singular form. What makes Sydney so special to me is the diversity of culture that exists – in food, music, place, cultures, migrants. This is what I wanted to highlight in a non-didactic way.

    'Earth Diets' by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Jessica Maurer and Kane SullivanPhotography: provided | ‘Earth Diets’ by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Jessica Maurer and Kane Sullivan

Nithiyendran moved to Auburn when he was one with his parents who came here as refugees, and he says his heart remains in Western Sydney. Presenting a work to Vivid has a special meaning for him: “A lot of my family, well, they don’t go to galleries or museums, but they all know Vivid, it’s in their cultural imagination.” He laughs: “My solo at the National Gallery? Eh. Lively? Wow!”

Nithiyendran and Done’s contributions to Vivid are a perfect example of the new direction that recently appointed festival director Gill Minervi is pushing for.

“I’m interested in Vivid as an event, but I never really saw myself as an artist who could possibly present work in that scenario. Just because I think I have a reputation for having, you know, subversive work, or edgy work or work that could be difficult. I think people are sometimes confused as to why a work that looks like this could be in this context… Vivid hasn’t aired for two years so I think it’s a pretty good opportunity to reinvent themselves.

Vivid Sydney runs from May 27 to June 18. Discover 10 reasons why Vivid Sydney 2022 will be like no other before.

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