Sarkis, artist: 'You can look at all these objects; like actors they will play a role somewhere'

Karen Wright meets the artist in his studio in Villejuif, a quiet suburb of Paris

Karen Wright
Friday 24 April 2015 10:27 BST
A chair to remember: Sarkis in his Paris studio Patrick Gaillardin
A chair to remember: Sarkis in his Paris studio Patrick Gaillardin

The artist Sarkis works in Villejuif, a quiet suburb in south-east Paris. He moved into this former printing factory from a smaller studio 15 years ago. Born in Turkey, in 1938, Sarkis was brought up the son of an Armenian. He tells the story of his first epiphany: helping his father in his butcher's shop on a Sunday, his job was to wrap the packages of meat in newspaper. One day as he wrapped a joint his eyes fastened on a reproduction of Munch's painting The Scream. "It changed my life. It was the first painting I had ever seen."

His obsession with Munch's painting still continues. He rises from the table to show me a racking system of multiples of The Scream that he has made with paint and oil, simplified into white and red marks, still unmistakably the image of Munch.

It is hard to concentrate on the artist today as there is so much to look at in the studio. Paysage, a vitrine from his show at the Pompidou, rests in front of me. It contains a 50-million-year-old fossilised crocodile head, sculptures based on characters from the Hobbit, neon and pots of pure watercolour. The description does not do justice to the work's frankly bonkers mix of high and low culture, the objects all converted with an artist's touch.

Sarkis took on the challenge of the Pavilion of Turkey in Venice, the first in its new space, knowing full well the significance of the date. This year is the centenary of the genocide in Armenia and "I needed to make a work to reflect its significance". Colour obsesses this artist so he chose the theme of rainbows drawing them in neon: "The neons are made by the glass of Murano; the colours are so pure and they will have the respiration of the light. They are breathing with my breath from the morning until the evening."

Children will be invited to "finger paint" using the pure pigments that will reflect on other mirrored and stain glass works. His description of the scheme whets my appetite to explore the space that is set atop the Vatican Pavilion, a proximity that he relishes. "My desire is to make a special space for the visitor – I do not care about the Biennale."

Anarchic it may sound – with some finished pieces and some still waiting to be integrated into works – but this rich cavern-like space feels full of potentiality. "You can look at all these objects; like actors they will play a role somewhere." When he turns a sparkly handbag into a speaker in front of a photograph seemingly riven into sections, I am convinced that anything is possible in Sarkis' world. "My life is to push and for nothing to stay static".

'Respiro' by Sarkis at the pavilion of Turkey, 56th Venice Biennale, 9 May to 2 November

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