‘The Material Is Alive’; Watch Artist Jes Fan Create Organic Sculptures That Explore the Intersection of Biology and Identity

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After studying to be a glass artist at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Hong Kong-born, New York-based artist Jes Fan began to apply the tenets of manipulating the delicate material to other subjects. As a queer person growing up in Hong Kong, Fan felt like “a ghost” he explained in an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed as part of the series “New York Close Up.” From that experience, he became interested in how binary aspects of identity become political, and started to incorporate biological mediums like estrogen and melanin into his sculptures.

“In this age where substances that sustain identity categories can be bought, and sold, and made, and commissioned, how am I, as a vessel of these identities, exist?” the artist asks in the video, which first aired back in 2019. His most recent projects, on view now at Empty Gallery in Hong Kong during the city’s annual Art Week, take even more conceptual approaches to marrying identity markers with the native Pinctada fucata oyster, a native mollusk to Hong Kong.

Although pearl formation is a natural process, Fan began to think of it as a sort of defense mechanism in which a foreign object is inserted into a host site. The city, once dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient,” became a metaphor for colonial imperialism and identity politics. In the project “Sites of Wounding,” now on view at Empty Gallery, the artist collaborated with scientists for three years to cultivate Pinctada fucata, a species of oysters native to Hong Kong, and inject them with the individual Chinese  characters that make up the moniker “Pearl of the Orient” and seeing how the mollusks adapt to survive. The project became a means of investigating internalized trauma and feelings of unbelonging.

Fan sees a link between his own experience transitioning and his work pushing the boundaries of binaries. “Using testosterone to masculinize my body is in some way similar to using a chisel to carve out a surface. In a way, you’re sculpting your body. And in a way, I’m also like that glass, in this liquid transformation, or perpetually in flux.”

“It’s not always comfortable” Fan notes, but “I kind of enjoy being in that stage of perpetual confusion, not being completely at place with one category and being completely comfortable in that flux.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Play, below. “Jes Fan: Sites of Wounding: Chapter 1” is on view at Empty Gallery in Hong Kong through May 6, 2023. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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