Jes Fan makes work that is free of male/female binaries, taking craft to unexpected places
Jes Fan has a way of getting your attention. Last time I talked to the Brooklyn-based artist, for example, they said: ‘There’s nothing more surreal than holding your mom’s excretions in your hand while they’re still warm.’ They were just back from mounting the exhibition Mother is a Woman at the Empty Gallery in Hong Kong. As part of the show, Fan had isolated oestrogen from their mother’s urine, and then used it to make a beauty cream. Any visitor who wished to do so could apply it to their skin, and absorb a very small amount of Mrs Fan’s hormones – figuratively allowing the milk of womanhood into their pores.
We hear a lot these days about gender fluidity. It remains unusual, though, to encounter work that is truly free of male/female binaries. It’s even more unusual in the craft domain, which is often freighted with stereotypical gender coding. Advertisements promoting artisanal product lines tend to feature ‘horny-handed men in leather aprons’ – as Grayson Perry memorably put it – or carefully coiffed women in chic attire, unsuited to a real workshop. Even in the progressive pages of Crafts, you will rarely encounter departure from gender norms. None of this seems to bother Fan in the least. As they put it, with subversive good humour: ‘I think everyone is queer, in their own way.’
Make no mistake, Fan is definitely a maker. Research projects like the oestrogen face cream are important to their practice (they have also made testosterone soap), but they originally come from a strong background in studio glass, having trained in the medium at the Rhode Island School of Design. Fan remains interested in the medium’s potential to serve as a metaphor for flow. In their Diagram series, inspired by scientific diagrams of melanin production, Fan mounts hand-blown elements onto structures made of a synthetic compound called Aqua-Resin. This plaster-like material is sanded to skin-like smoothness; the glass seems to seep inexorably out of the sculptures, making them feel weirdly alive.
The centrepiece of Fan’s Hong Kong exhibition was a double screen with initially unidentifiable biomorphic shapes perched upon it. It was based on an instructional toy called The Visible Woman that they found discarded on
a street in Brooklyn, which modelled female anatomy in translucent plastic. Fan enlarged the kit back to something like human scale, rendering the body parts in 3d-printed resin. Though the work’s geometrical matrix looks something like historical Chinese architecture – an intentional allusion – it too is derived from the snap-off design of the toy. The screen preserves the original source’s combination of scientific precision and grotesque horror, but also possesses a serene, diaphanous beauty.
It’s a great example of the way that Fan has extended the skill set of craft into unexpected places. ‘My study in glass has deeply altered the way I approach any material,’ they told me.‘ I have a deep intimacy with material-based processes, which often translates through the haptic quality of my sculptures. The sense of touch is critical to me in the making and interpretation of the work. However, unlike most of the craft community, I am not interested in the virtuosity of techniques. I think techniques and processes often get muddled, and I am quite certain that they are not synonymous with each other.’
What Fan points to here is methodology that exceeds not only normative gender boundaries, but also the artificial divide between craft and engineering. They have collaborated extensively with lab technicians in realising their work: do we need to start understanding hormones as an artisanal medium? Or consider the title of Fan’s show: at first, it seems the very definition of self-evident. What would a mother be, if not a woman? But once maternal femininity has been bottled and dispensed to the public, even that foundational identity comes to feel too slippery to grasp.
Porosity, taken to such extremes, can seem vertiginous. Many believe that we are entering an unprecedented period in history. Fixed categories of sexuality, ethnicity and class will recede. Identity will become thoroughly labile, something to enjoy, not inhabit. Fan is not alone in imagining such a world. But they are among the first to show what it will look like.