Jes Fan: Investigating The Alchemy Of Identity

Portrait of the artist with his work for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020), Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from Canada Council for the Arts and the Consulate General of Canada in Sydney. Photography by Ken Leanfore, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Jes Fan, Testo-soap, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Jes Fan, Form Begets Function, 2020. Photography by Lance Brewer. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Jes Fan, Mother Is A Woman (still), 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
Jes Fan, Xenophoria, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.
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ART Power HK

One of three artists shortlisted for this year’s BMW Art Journey, Jes Fan has built a practice that questions the inconsistency of identity, creating a vocabulary that melds art and science in thought-provoking ways.

TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong

 

It’s no accident that Jes Fan’s primary choice of medium in art school was one that transitions between states. It was a choice both instinctive and immediate: “I was just wandering through the departments and I saw this fire, this clear material, almost like taffy candy, that was almost malleable, like molten earth. I thought, what is this magical alchemy that’s happening? And I was just obsessed with it. I find that there is something about that repetitive labor of refining a skill really appealing to my Catholic guilt,” he says with a laugh.

Fan was born in Canada and raised in Hong Kong, attending the Diocesan Girl’s School – where the aforementioned “Catholic guilt” was acquired – before earning a degree in Glass at the Rhode Island School of Design. The artist, who now lives in Brooklyn, has generated a practice of sculptural work that questions the flux state of identity, both created and biological, and the hierarchies associated with these classifications/designations.

 

Portrait of the artist with his work for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney (2020), Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from Canada Council for the Arts and the Consulate General of Canada in Sydney. Photography by Ken Leanfore, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

Most stories you’ll read on Fan’s practice delve into the way he uses materials to question the basis of upon which identity is built, highlighting amongst other things the race and gender constructs that are of particular interest to the artist, who is transgendered and has lived both as an ethnic majority and minority in different points in his life.

These are hot-button topics these days, and the nature of Fan’s output is unique in that it straddles one of those contemporary-art-world divisions that might be even more binary than gender. With its preponderance of familiar cultural tropes, a few participatory elements and sufficient shock value to be accessible to the masses, it is also the stuff curators and academics drool over – formally interesting sculpture and installation work that incorporates sophisticated manipulations of science, raising questions that are far-reaching, important and relevant in today’s world.

An example: For his fellowship at Manhattan’s Museum of Arts & Design in 2016, Fan, understanding the stigma that the label, “crafts”, carries among serious artists, decided that glass-blowing wasn’t quite “crafty” enough, and took things one step further in his mission to reject the negative connotations associated with making soap and candles. Fan painstakingly infused them with one extra laboratory-generated ingredient: testosterone.

“There’s the idea that craft is considered very effeminate or a very feminine genre, like when you think about knitting and textiles, and the connotations attached,” Fan explains. “But by using testosterone, figuring out the materials, and then using that to produce something so banal, so topical, I think it’s really interesting. Ultimately, with this kind of material engineering, it is a craft. I was thinking of biology as a craft.”

 

Jes Fan, Testo-soap, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

Testo-soap (2017) was more than a mere rejection of handed-down gender associations and a reclamation of the craft genre. It brought up questions regarding the politics that still surround issues of biology and frequently pervade the pharmaceuticals industry. It also probed the notion that certain topics are considered unpalatable and must be reframed in an easily accessible manner for public acceptance.

In conversation, Fan plays it fast and loose with stereotypes that largely make up today’s lexicon of memes: Catholicism, reverse racism, Asian parenting and the very Chinese lack of taboos around bodily substances. All lie within his easy reach – and are the very same topics often mined by stand-up comedians for laughs. “Language,” he muses at one point, “is essentially materialized thought.” That these formulas arise so very often seems to speak to how much time Fan spends contemplating these accepted designations.

Complicating Fan’s personal place within these hierarchies is the fact that he is a moving entity. “[In] masculinizing my identity, I am moving myself from a minority to another majority.” In a separate instance, he notes, “I think about race a lot because of the experience of moving from Hong Kong to America and suddenly being seen as a minority and having to navigate that idea of [having existed] as a majority in Hong Kong, and especially my privileges around that. And then, being trans myself, the kind of baggage that comes with that constant questioning around or even shifting between one state of gender to another, and having to perform those roles, especially in Chinese culture where gender performance is like a social axis, determining how people should act and what roles should be allocated to you.”

 

Jes Fan, Form Begets Function, 2020. Photography by Lance Brewer. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

“And for me, in these instances, I think that’s where my loner streak comes out that I feel most of the time. When I’m out of my body, observing how I am navigating the world.” Having moved from one gender designation to another isn’t neat, easy or funny – while Fan suggests he has shifted into a majority gender-categorisation, it’s also understood that being trans, and trans male, is still terribly unmined territory – a minority within minorities, so unfamiliar it’s rather bare of stereotypes and the associated humour.

“Everything in my biology is uncomfortable, though,” he points out. “You know, maybe because we’re Chinese, we’re like, who gives a fuck?” he jokes, reaching once more for an accessible touchpoint. “[My work centres on these themes] mostly because I gravitate towards those [ideas] and I’m intimately curious about them, and also I am a bit curious: why does it cause repulsion? Why is this scary?”

Fan claims his intention isn’t exactly to demystify private versus public and the topics that make us squirm. But showing just how unafraid he is to broach the unmined, a more recent work, Mother is a Woman (2018), shown at Empty Gallery, involved an even more atypical material than testosterone: his mother’s urine.

 

Jes Fan, Mother Is A Woman (still), 2018. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

If a trans male is one of society’s less familiar tropes, the caring mother certainly sits at the opposite end of that spectrum. Fan reached out to his own mother in creating this piece for its eponymous exhibition, a decision ripe with personal motivations as well as societal implications harvesting estrogen from her urine to create a beauty cream infused with the hormone most associated with femininity, that was safe for participants to use on their skin.

Taking the piss, literally, could be considered a great PR stunt – if only Fan were interested in things such as fame or recognition. In that, he is emphatically not. “More than recognition, I think I yearn for resonance. There is nothing more important than resonance.”

“I think, ultimately, my practice is guided by the question, how is it made? What is it made out of? How can I make it? So just really simplistic, almost childish questions, but looking at matters beyond the technical aspects,” Fan says. “Not, how is this pottery cup made, but questions that pertain to my identity – such as race, such as my gender – and eventually these questions led me to biology and bio-politics and the pharmaceutical industry, too.”

 

Jes Fan, Xenophoria, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong.

 

In upcoming projects for the Kathmandu Triennale and the Liverpool Biennial, Fan is working again with biologically poignant processes that raise broad questions about how we see each other: for the former, he will project images of transgendered bodybuilders onto stretched and bleached calf skin, delving into the specifics of skin as a signifier of race and gender. For the latter, he hopes to populate structures of glass and metal with a type of mould that will germinate and encroach throughout the exhibition period.

It’s a straddling of another famed binary: that of art and science. Two disciplines that, in their very differing manners, raise exactly the same questions in which Fan is interested. The artist is definitive that his practice is more ask than answer, but this infusion of lab work into his process has yielded at least one conclusion: “[It’s] made me realize that I am just an object amongst objects. It’s very humbling. Almost in opposition of [being] a craftsman – I can use many materials to make many objects, but science, biology, there is something poetic about it that humbles you.”

 

 

 
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