Visible Woman, 2018 Courtesy of the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong. Photo: Michael Yu
Jes Fan sees his practice functioning as a language: materials and processes create meaning, colors and shapes act like grammar, and certain paradoxes are to be celebrated as metaphors. His work is often about finding the finest balance between beauty and the abject, collapsing the boundaries between subject and object, figuration and abstraction. We first met in his studio in Dumbo, New York, where he showed me what he was working on, and a few months later we caught up over the phone for this interview for Living Content. We talked about what American identity politics means for his practice, about the chauvinism of the art world, about books that have been an inspiration to him, and – in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – about slowing down and learning to live better.
Adriana Blidaru: You were born in Canada, moved to Hong Kong, and now you live in New York. Finding out this, made me curious about your trajectory: how and where did you find art along the way?
Jes Fan: I grew up in Hong Kong but like a lot of folks from my generation from Hong Kong, I was born abroad. My parents emigrated to Canada before I was born because of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. They were hoping to have a safer future, but my dad didn’t speak English so it was difficult for him to navigate sustaining a family there. He decided to move back to Hong Kong and my mother followed soon after. So I didn’t really spend my most formative years in Canada, but I’m fortunate enough to have a dual citizenship which is always a good backup plan in cases like fascism rising in one country or the other.
I think that as someone whose work is situated in a state of flux, being geographically buoyant and not claiming one home or one specific culture, is really important for me. I get invited to a lot of Asian-American shows but I’m not American, and I actually am fairly public that I am not American. The lapse of who I’m being read as and who I actually am is very substantial. Just because I don’t have a perceived Chinese accent, everyone assumes I’m American.
But, not to diverge too much, I started thinking that I’m an artist because I noticed that I am the best to myself and to other people when I’m making art. I had a gut feeling that that’s what I needed to do since I was very young.
AB: Your work is very sensual: it has smooth and soft surfaces, shiny translucent elements (such as hand-blown glass, silicone etc.), and it often plays on symmetry.
There are certain associations at play, upon which humans have constructed and developed further ideas of “beauty” or “well-being”. So just by looking at your work certain hard-wired feelings are triggered. The same goes for your adaptations of the ASMR genre: when listening to ASMR an instant relaxation occurs for most people. Can you tell me more about how you build in these “attractors” in your work?
JF: Yeah, I love this question because it’s so observative. I approach my art-making as a language: thinking about how color can act like grammar, with each indentation suggesting a pause in your eye, and in your trajectory of looking. For instance, I love juxtaposing things that are slippery and soft with something very angular. It’s a game of seduction in a way: I want to pull you into these beautiful things but, at the same time, these beautiful things hold inside abject materials such as melanin generated from Ecoli, semen, blood, and so on. These are the things that will make you pause because you’re not just confronted by beauty (or what we consider beauty), you’re confronted by the sublime of it. So, the beauty in my work is hand-in-hand with the grotesque.
Nowadays, beauty can be as flat as a double-tap Like button. Have you ever read “Saving Beauty” by Byung-Chul Han? He’s a German philosopher and he talks about the flatness of beauty these days: how slickness is the texture of our current cultural psyche. He raises questions about what it means to live in the age of Brazilian waxed bodies and Teslas, where there are no pores, where everything looks rendered and smooth.
There’s something commanding in that visual language but then also confronting that smooth slick techno curvatures with something really kind of raw. What concerns me ultimately is how I can use materials and processes, in a way that incite meaning – not just using materials as a means to an end.
AB: Right. The hand-blown glass sculptures that you inject with organic substances are perfect illustrations of this point. When we last saw each other in your studio you were saying that you’d like for folks to be able to hold and touch your sculptures. Is that something that you’re still thinking about? And is it feasible in exhibitions?
JF: Yes, Absolutely. That’s something that I would want people to do, but it’s been more and more difficult with the bureaucracy and the insurance involved. I think that there’s definitely something magical about holding them. I don’t know if I told you about my favorite metaphor of what my art aspires to do? It’s like seeing a lemon laying around and feeling the sourness of the lemon in your jaw without actually eating the lemon. What’s behind the process of just seeing the object, have it trigger a memory of your previous consumption, and then having a completely reflexive response? So yes, ultimately, there is a desire to have an environment where people can hold with intention, but with the current logistical reasons in exhibitions, it’s proving very difficult for me to actualize that.
Maybe someday in the future, that will happen, but as of right now, I’m exploring the right triggers to create reflexive responses.
AB: Returning to the idea of beauty: you often point to stories that happen on a molecular level. Here, boundaries operate by completely different laws, and perhaps beauty – as we understand it, through our human perspective – is not even that relevant anymore. Can you tell me more about your perspective and interest in scale?
JF: The molecular is actually the most literal and figural presentation of the ultimate matter we are, and yet, paradoxically, it’s so abstract. There’s something in that tension that I really enjoy exploring. And that’s also something that we find in the context of art history, where we talk about abstraction.
Even thinking about the use of the word “figurative”: “figuratively speaking” is the complete opposite of what a figure is supposed “to hold” as meaning. The figurative is the opposite of the actual. I think there’s something of this scale shifting there that I’m also very attracted to.
Paul Preciado’s “Learning From the Virus” has been pretty informative and insightful in thinking about this too. Especially in thinking about how our skin is the “new frontier”; how the new national border is our own body. This is the last armor that “protects” us from the outside and from “the other”. And I cannot think about Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, and about the fact that, in certain cases, skin signifies danger, signifies war.
AB: I see. For me, looking at the human from a “molecular” point of view could also be a great equalizer that points to universal human nature. You mentioned in other conversations that you don’t want your practice to be interpreted as being about your identity but, at the same time, a lot of it draws from your biography. Is there a demarcation line that you specifically want to draw with identity politics when it comes to your work?
JF: I’m not as suspicious of this identity politics movement, as I am of the signifiers of identity. More specifically, the kind of slippages and the not very available spaces carved within American identity politics, where if one is perceived as such then one becomes such. I have some reservations about that.
By needing to hyphenate my role as an artist, I am first put into a circle that allows people to quickly associate me with other signifiers, to define me by what that category means.
Why don’t we consider the biography of Donald Judd as being a cis white male, plus, an engineer in the army? Why doesn’t that background come in, to explain his love for a 90 degree angle and white cubes? I find these questions more productive!
I think my work is about identity, more so about the lapse between the vessel and the interior, and the mistranslation or the kind of crossing between them.
AB: Talking about the future: I know you had a few projects that you were working on before the world paused because of the virus. I remember from our studio visit that you were preparing “Form Begets Function” for the Biennale of Sydney, which already opened in March, another commission for the Liverpool Biennale, and you also have Shanghai Biennial in China and Kathmandu Triennale in Nepal, lined up for the Fall and Winter of 2020. It’s an interesting position for an artist to start off with so many biennials: I’d be curious to know what you like and what you don’t like about this way of making and presenting work?
JF: I’m really lucky to have had these opportunities, especially as someone who didn’t really follow the current art world dynamics of getting an MFA right after the BFA. I’m really grateful for that, but I was very close to burning out not that long ago. I was talking about this with a friend: the art world is very chauvinistic. Take Eva Hesse for instance: she is such an icon because she died for her art. But we shouldn’t put more energy into romanticizing that.
I think that this moment is for us all to think about sustainability, not just in terms of our careers, but also in terms of health and enjoyment. This lockdown might be a pivot: learning through this process to know how to spend time really slowly.
AB: I agree. And this connects to what you were saying earlier: you have to feel good, in order to truly have a meaningful contribution, right?
JF: Right! And to constantly be asking questions! I don’t just ask “what will I be making?” but also “why am I making it?”, “what are the motives behind this?”. If the motive is not there, is it still worth it? These are the questions that I’m always guided by.
AB: So what have you been reading lately that really challenged or surprised you? Something that you’d recommend further?
JF: Definitely Paul B. Preciado’s article in Artforum, Byung Chul Han’s “Saving Beauty”, Anna Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World”; Kyla Schuller’s “Biopolitics of Feelings” and “Cultural Politics of Emotions” by Sara Ahmed.