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  • Sarah Tsung

Interview: Jes Fan

Interview with Jes Fan, conducted by Sarah Tsung

September 21, 2021

ST: I want to jump in by asking you about the process of obtaining the materials you work with, especially the biological materials that you use, like melanin and estrogen and testosterone.

JF: I think the verb “obtaining” is interesting. Obtaining is an act that’s not about purchasing. It’s almost—the way you put it—like acquiring. I want to emphasize that for a lot of these substances I actually went through the process to collaborate with scientists, and also trade with queer folks on the internet for these materials.

Let’s talk about the process of fabricating, first, or even outsourcing to scientists to fabricate the materials. For the eumelanin project, I worked with a bio lab in Brooklyn to make eumelanin out of E. coli. I was really adamant the source for the eumelanin was from E. coli because in 2018 when I was working on this project, I was already observing parallels between this kind of xenophobia—a racial xenophobia—that was running parallel to this microbial xenophobia. COVID kind of made that known, but I was studying the 1894 Bubonic Plague and how the population of Hong Kong was segregated with The Peak—the altitude line as a plague-controlling measure—to separate colored bodies from British bodies that could not occupy the same space. During Jim Crow, the concern was bodies of water, like bathrooms, swimming pools, drinking fountains. Jim Crow laws were almost acting like public health policies at the time. So there was something there I was meddling with. I was adamant: let’s not use yeast to make melanin, let’s use E. coli. E. coli is also a really common building block for science. It’s not anything novel, but for novices like me, there was something there.

As for the acquiring or obtaining part, that process was largely on the internet and hijacking my own prescriptions—the more hormonal-based ones. There’s all kinds of things you can get on the internet, like moms who need breast milk trading. There’s all sorts of biological substances you can get via the community.

ST: I also want to talk about the relationship between these materials and bodies. Do you see these biological substances, even if they’ve been fabricated outside of the body, as being related or attached to bodies?

JF: Well, microbial melanin is different from racial melanin. We all know there’s no such thing as racial melanin. Bodies are facts and race is a social construct. I guess the thing I’m trying to do with these sculptures is remove the skin of the signifier. When it is presented just as a particle, what is it? Is this the smallest unit of race that we’re looking for? Ultimately it leads us to a really absurd roundabout. Like, is this the black pigment you want? Is this the color of my hair that you want? There’s something funny about that process of deconstructing something to its most extreme. There’s something so absurd about it. Even with hormones, it’s oil. It’s suspended in cottonseed oil. As humans who are trained to categorize, we latch on to certain materials as a holder for a more complex identity. We want a skin to wrap around the interior, but oftentimes the skin is problematic.

ST: I’m thinking about how the presence or absence of these materials in a body acts as the foundation, a lot of the time, for a body or identity to become fraught or contested. Does your method of displaying these materials distance them from the sociopolitical connotations that these materials have?

JF: It’s about gender and race, but in fact, we all have those substances in our bodies. White people have eumelanin in their body. There are two types of melanin: pheomelanin, which is responsible for reddish and yellow hues, and eumelanin is responsible for dark, black and brown hues. I have eumelanin, you have eumelanin, white people with brunette hair have it, too. Both men and women have estrogen and testosterone in their bodies. So the fraughtness is our own association with those materials and what they signify, not the materials themselves.

ST: What brought you to and/or drives your interest in the construction of identity categories?

JF: It really starts from me being a maker. Before I had my own art practice I did fabrication for a lot of other artists. I also studied glass and dipped my toe in the craft community. The difference between the crafts world and the artist world is that they’re both really process driven, but there’s a confusion between what’s technique and process. I guess the craft community is obsessed with technique. I’m interested in the process—the persistent questioning of what is this made out of? How is it made? How can I make it? And when those questions are expanded not just to material objects, like sculpture, but to something more personal—how am I made? And what am I made of? And how can I remake that?—they become larger questions.

ST: There’s a weird tension of whether or not I view your works, the lattices themselves, as bodily, because they’re holding things that are in bodies, and because I think of bodies as systems. So I wonder if by placing these materials in these frameworks, these networks or systems, do you feel like it starts acting like a body? Or are they divorced from that?

JF: The Diagrams series are direct casts of bodies—bodies from queer circles of lovers and friends—but the Systems series that are more architectural are really different works. The actual structures themselves don’t really have any sort of connotation of actual physical forms of the human body. I’m trying to get at these sort of tubular connections. I want to create some sort of entanglement between all of these substances, and I think it’s really influenced by my practice of Chinese calligraphy and also growing up in a landscape where everything is vertical. The landscape of Hong Kong is very much like that—it’s something that’s deeply lodged in my psyche that has translated to my work. I also often browse through medical diagrams, drawings of the body, vessels of them, and I take inspiration from that, too.

ST: I also wanted to ask you about the other kinds of materials you use, especially resin and glass. What attracts you to those?

JF: There’s something about those materials and their ability to be malleable and solidify over time. I’m not attracted to woodworking, metalsmithing, nothing like that. I actually love casting metal, and if I could cast wood I probably would. When I’m sad I’ll actually cast a bucket of plaster, and there’s something about the smell of white plaster that really comforts my soul. There’s something about this attraction to material that’s malleable but then, once its state changes, is fixed in a more stagnant, more structured state. For instance, glass, when it’s hot, is like honey or goo or some deep-earth matter, on the end of a metal blowpipe. And once it’s cold, it’s brittle and sharp, and the color completely changes. So there’s something about that dichotomy that really draws me in. I tend to get fixated on materials that can do that.

ST: I wanted to talk about the relationship between your work and movement. In terms of migration, but also how the forms themselves evoke movement, through inherently connected and interrelated tubes implying an ability to go from one place to another.

JF: I actually wanted to make a series with liquid pumping through these really intricate networks, but the thing is, water does not like to be told how to move. Water wants to move in the most efficient route possible. It will not try to go two routes, it always wants to go in one route and only that way. For the New Museum Triennial I wanted to try something like that, but the pumping system got so incredibly complicated that I decided to just let the liquid sit and ferment.

I draw a lot and I do a lot of calligraphy. It’s melodic, it’s almost like improvised music. I listen to a lot of music when I work and I think it’s something that’s really intertwined. I can’t explain why I do it, but I do, and it shows in the work. It’s like a crescendo.

ST: The word crescendo is interesting, to think of those moments or changes in form as crescendos rather than stops.

JF: I guess the danger is also in it [referring to the globules in the Systems series] slipping, or falling. Every crescendo brings to a stop.

ST: You’ve mentioned a bit about working with other people, like scientists and through the internet, but it also seems like you’re interested in working with a non-human element. Is it fair to say that you’re interested in exploring non-human agency and working with non-human agents?

JF: Yeah. When you fly into New York City, you see every single apartment window having a light, but then you realize that you’re only one person within that light. I think humans are so miniscule. And also, collaborating with scientists to fabricate melanin through E. coli was only one project. For the Liverpool Biennial I was working with another scientific collaborator to cultivate this mold that looks just like dark hair, specifically like Asian hair, my hair. And fungal eumelanin is another place to source melanin, so I became interested in that. For the New Museum piece, what would be inside the tubing is the liquid culture for this mold.

I’m also really interested in contaminants, like mold, pearls, and trees that are infected with fungus and then harvested.

ST: Could you talk a bit more about your interest in contaminants and the connotations of the idea of a contaminated thing?

JF: How do we categorize invasive species, and how do we categorize a contaminant and what’s being contaminated? It started with pearls—thinking about and thinking through pearls. I was looking at this idea of how can contamination be productive? Because pearls, essentially, are just a foreign object being lodged inside a pearl clam, and then the clam starts excreting nacre over it and coating the foreign object and it becoming this lustrous, precious material that humans use to adorn their bodies. Hong Kong, as an ex-British colony, was known as the “pearl of the Orient.”

That was one trajectory of the research, and the other trajectory of the research was agarwood resin. Hong Kong, in getting its name, which means “fragrant harbor” in its direct translation, was a huge port for this indigenous wood called agarwood. Agarwood is really highly sought after now, and really really expensive—it’s more expensive than gold—because it’s an endangered species. It’s still used in tea ceremonies, and Abu Dhabi is a huge importer of it, but it’s endangered and practically extinct in Hong Kong. Agarwood is so rare because the tree has to endure injury, and then a specific fungus has to infect the injury, and then the tree has this autoimmune response and produces this tree pus that coats the injury. And then that pus-y wood becomes the fragrant part. We’re essentially harvesting this really pus-y part of the wood as fragrance, carving out the entire tree to get to this deep dark-brown resinous part of the wood. To get to that part you have to log the whole tree.

Another tangent of the research is black mold, from working with Phycomyces zygospore for the Liverpool Biennial. We were trying to isolate this one strain of mold, but spores are everywhere, and bacteria is even worse. It’s in the air we’re breathing, just everywhere. Isolating it in the artist studio was so difficult. Avoiding contaminants was really, really difficult. That became the genesis of thinking through contaminants. And also COVID, right? The original reluctance of European nations to wear face masks and refusal to think of themselves as contaminants and not just to be contaminated.

ST: What are you working on currently and what does the future hold for you?

JF: The future is a funny concept. There’s that Henri Bergson quote—“The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth, all sensation is already memory.” I love this quote. I guess if you think of the present as an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future, then the future is just a treadmill.

ST: And we’re running, I guess.

JF: Like a hamster on a hamster wheel.


Jes Fan is an artist born in Canada, raised in Hong Kong, and currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Speculating on the fraught intersection between biology and identity, Fan’s practice emerges from an affective inquiry into the concept of otherness. Primarily working in the field of expanded sculpture, Fan navigates the slippery complexities of identity as guided by the materials in his work. Fan is the recipient of various fellowships and residencies, including the Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant, Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship, NYFA artist fellowship, and Van Lier Fellowship. Fan has exhibited in the United States and internationally; selected exhibitions include The Stomach and the Port at Liverpool Biennial 2021, NIRIN at Sydney Biennale 2020, Kiss My Genders at Hayward Gallery (London, UK), and Mother is a Woman at Empty Gallery (Hong Kong, China).

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