The enigma that is Sargon Khnu, the Berlin based interdisciplinary artist, channels inspiration from his Assyrian origins and roots in ancient Mesopotamian cultures. In a nuanced exploration of psychoanalysis, gender subversion, and dark imaginary, the artist’s multidisciplinary practice melds the influences of philosophy, ancient mythology and the visual language of anime, crafting sculptures and digital representations that serve both social commentary and personal introspection.
In our conversation, we peel back the layers of Sargon’s multitude of inspirations, navigating the mythological intricacies of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the profound imprint left by philosophers like Michel Foucault and the unification of body-builder anatomy with the so-called Barbie aesthetic. Sargon likens his artistic practise to a drag show, and now you’ll know why.
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Your work involves experimenting with mythological and culturological fossil objects. Did your Assyrian origin and roots in ancient Mesopotamian cultures influence your artistic development?
Yes, this is one of the sources of my inspiration. Cuneiform writing, tables with cosmogony, relief images, and stories with characters that resonate with astronomy and mythology inspire me. Since my childhood, I've been fascinated by myths and various hybrids between humans and animals. In my culture and the art of my people, there are numerous sculptures and reliefs combining human elements with elements of nature. I have witnessed all of this from my early childhood, and it is one of my characteristics and preferences, which can be observed in my art now. However, I provide it with a different narrative, more extravagant and provocative, intertwining questions about sexuality in society and the resulting issues of accepting individuals in a social status.
Can you delve into how specific myths or cultural elements influence the creation of these objects?
This can be analysed through the Epic of Gilgamesh, specifically the relationship between the protagonists Gilgamesh and Enkidu, who initially are meant to be enemies but eventually become what is commonly referred to as lovers - "Gilgamesh and Enkidu love each other like man and wife, which implies a sexual relationship. They kiss and embrace frequently, and in several scenes, they cuddle together against the elements when they are on their quest to the Cedar Forest." They completely reject the love of women, preferring each other's company. What I've observed in many myths of other cultures has always interested me, such as Narcissus or Achilles and Patroclus. Immersing myself in these myths and epics, I create narratives for my works that allow me to understand myself more, without social masks, and to evolve, making new artistic decisions.
Your work provides a space for reflecting on sexual minorities and gender. In navigating these themes, do you intentionally challenge stereotypes and preconceptions through your sculpture? If so, could you discuss a piece where this intentional subversion of norms was a central focus or just generally holds significance to you?
This can be observed in my recent artwork, for example, in I've seen the phoenix rise.
Here, I don't explicitly depict gender or physiological attributes associated with a specific gender. Instead, I convey it through various subtle details and accessories, such as the brand of lingerie or inscriptions on sculptures that members of the community would immediately understand. This approach intentionally perplexes a conventional viewer for a while, challenging them to momentarily accept something that might be rejected based on various stereotypes and norms. I enjoy playing with this ambiguity, even if it lasts for a moment, because that moment is precious.
This is like the title of this artwork - I've seen the phoenix rise, but it's just for a moment; we know it will ignite again, and this will repeat over and over.
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In examining the portrayal of sexuality and its influence on self-perception and socio-cultural norms, how do you guide viewers through your sculptures and digital representations? Does it feel as though you need to find a right balance between sharing your own outlook on these themes and creating a space for viewers to form their own opinions and have an open dialogue surrounding the societal constructs you explore?
I'm interested in the interplay with the audience, where the viewer temporarily adopts a different social and sexual norm as their quote unquote normal, and what happens when they either embrace or reject it. For me, this moment is crucial and fascinating to explore. Through these works, I introduce the viewer to alternative sociocultural norms.
Certainly, it's important to me that the artwork sparks discussions and opens up a discourse leading to diverse opinions. However, I strive to abstract myself from various external intrusions into my art, leaving room for my personal experiences and themes. Occasionally, hearing others' perspectives can be valuable, but there's a risk of losing one's identity. As always, there will be people who appreciate what I do, while others may deem it otherwise. But that's ok.
You mentioned your artistic practice parallels that of a drag show, serving as a means of transcending societal constraints. Are there specific societal norms that you feel are more effectively challenged through this parallel?
Observing how people react on the streets, I've realised there's a significant discomfort surrounding issues of identity and self-expression, especially when they deviate from traditional expectations. In my creative pursuits, I strive to make these questions more approachable and less intimidating by presenting viewers with abstract images that can serve as objects for their own contemplation. Religious aspects, in particular, add additional layers of complexity when families reject their children based on their appearance or sexual preferences. This raises questions about how society perceives differences and how religious beliefs can influence relationships within families. My goal is not only to spark dialogue but also to create intimate interaction between my art and the audience. In the future, I hope to expand this conversation by collaborating with performative Drag Queens to more vividly express the complex questions surrounding identity and self-expression.
Your recent projects involve sculptures inspired by anime characters and the fusion with streetwear brands. What led you to explore this crossing of anime culture and contemporary fashion? Do you see yourself dabbling more in this blend of art and fashion in the future?
I admire the anatomy of bodybuilders, and by combining it with the so-called anime Barbie aesthetic, I wouldn't just label them as anime characters. It's more of a mix from different domains that I explore through research. I aimed to modify anime, bodybuilding, and Barbie slightly, creating a hybrid of these elements. By blending masculine with Barbie-style, I seek to challenge traditional perceptions and create characters that transcend conventional categories. Fashion elements have always fascinated me, and I find inspiration working with fashion designers and within the fashion industry. The fusion of art and fashion is one of my driving forces, compelling me not only to create sculptures but also to imbue them with various fashion elements that can tell a rich story about a character or object, revealing their complete history. While I considered applying to a fashion design programme in Paris, I always wanted to combine different mediums and sculpture in my works. Therefore, I decided to study Art in Germany, providing me with more freedom to continue incorporating diverse fashion elements into my creations. I frequently collaborate with the fashion industry and plan to continue doing so in the future.
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Your pieces are very distinct, described as intricate and multi-layered, revealing a complex and dark imaginary. Have you noticed a difference in how you perceive yourself and how others interpret your art?
I believe it's not always apparent at first glance, but when I engage in conversation with someone and allow them to enter my zone, they can always see the parallel between me and my art.
Generally given the depth of your art, do you see yourself needing to address the range of interpretations that viewers might bring to your work, and what kind of dialogue or connection do you hope to encourage with your audience?
I am open to new interpretations of my works and consider it an interesting natural phenomenon. Due to the methods I employ in interpreting each piece through my techniques and professional experience, viewers often sense this. At my recent exhibition in Berlin at the Untitled gallery, viewers asked me, "This looks very sexual, reminiscent of a dildo, doesn't it?" I believe that what you invest in your work is, in one way or another, naturally recognisable and interpretable. For me, this happens quite organically. It's very gratifying that people recognise and engage with my works.
In your digital and physical embodiments, there’s an interplay between the visible and the conceptual. How do you approach creating art that goes beyond the surface, inviting viewers into deeper layers of meaning?
Perhaps this arises from my experience in the fields of commerce and design, where the focus is often on creating a visually pleasing image without necessarily providing a statement or underlying idea. When the priorities of your clients take precedence over your own, and you find yourself having to adjust to their needs. I lacked this in my earlier works, so I began to dedicate time to contemplating the reasons behind my actions and the messages I can convey through them. I believe every artist goes through this journey sooner or later. While many may do it intuitively, I feel that when you dissect it, you undergo a sort of self-psychoanalysis and learn a considerable amount about yourself and your art. It's like therapy with oneself—I love doing it.
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Your works seems to touch upon psychoanalytic themes. I’m curious, in any way, has the study of psychology influenced your artistic expression and the way you approach the portrayal of human experiences or emotions in your art?
Psychoanalysis and philosophy have a significant impact on my creativity. An interest in the emotional and psychological depth of human experience has become a crucial motivator in my art. In particular, I find inspiration in the works of philosophers such as Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, whose ideas about identity, power, and symbols influence my understanding of how to depict human emotions and internal states. Each of them also addressed the social component that intersects with sexuality. I am confident that these influences shape my artistic language, helping me explore and convey various aspects of the human psyche in my works.
As an emerging artist, what do you hope for your future artistic journey?
I'm delighted that my art and themes are capturing the interest of the audience. Looking ahead, I aspire to experiment more with diverse techniques and materials, participating in exhibitions. Currently, I am working on a couple of projects; let's see where they lead. Creating, as we discussed earlier, is something between fashion and art—sculptures and objects—while also continuing on my journey. I aim to discover various intriguing phenomena and interactions in everyday things. I am open to commercial work, provided I have the freedom to oversee the project I am working on. Thank you.
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