‘They’re Just Really, Really Absurd’: Watch Sculptor Jes Fan Make Art With Testosterone and Melanin to Challenge Our Assumptions About Identity

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Jes Fan: Infectious Beauty." © Art21, Inc. 2020.

Jes Fan’s media of choice might make other people squirm. Instead of paint or clay, Fan makes art with E. coli, semen, melanin, testosterone, blood, and urine.

After developing some of these culturally loaded materials in a lab with the help of scientists, Fan transforms them into sculptures with glossy finishes and near-erotic shapes. The result walks the line between beauty, absurdity, and the grotesque. And for Fan, that’s the point.

“A lot what I’m trying to do with what we consider as gendered materials, or racialized materials, they’re just really, really absurd,” the artist said in a 2020 interview for Art21’s “New York Close Up” series. “I was thinking a lot about how race, especially in the U.S., is seen as infectious. Think about China and coronavirus. Think about SARS and being in Hong Kong. And think about Jim Crow era, not sharing bodies of water. That idea of it being infected.”

Production still from the Art21 “New York Close Up” film, “Jes Fan: Infectious Beauty.” © Art21, Inc. 2020.

By injecting decaying biological matter into smooth, bulbous forms, Fan hopes to challenge viewers to examine closely held assumptions about what our culture values and what it rejects. “That eroticness seduces you,” Fan says. “It’s beauty in the gloss, and the possibility to see your own reflection in it. At the same time, you’re actually staring at something that repulses you, that actually is considered infectious or unclean.”

The artist, who was born in Canada, raised in Hong Kong, and now lives in Brooklyn, tackles these same themes in a video included in the New Museum Triennial, “Soft Water Hard Stone,” on view at the New York museum through January 23, 2022. Xenophoria (2018–20) chronicles Fan’s pursuit of eumelanin pigment, the molecule responsible for skin color.

As Fan dissects squid, harvests fungi, and locates moles in the film, the artist underscores the absurdity of the fetishization of a molecule that has caused centuries of racial discrimination, showing how it exists within all of us.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. “Soft Water Hard Stone” is on view at the New Museum in New York through January 23, 2022. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series 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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