New York

Jes Fan, Diagram VI, 2018, Aqua-Resin, glass, epoxy, 6 × 13 × 5".

Jes Fan, Diagram VI, 2018, Aqua-Resin, glass, epoxy, 6 × 13 × 5".

Jes Fan

Jes Fan, Diagram VI, 2018, Aqua-Resin, glass, epoxy, 6 × 13 × 5".

At Recess, a roomful of strangers seated themselves around folding tables and sliced open dead squid. They sifted through viscera to locate the cephalopods’ ink sacs, which they then extracted, pierced, and squeezed, draining the organs’ viscous contents into jars. Artist Jes Fan led the autopsy. He circled the tables to lend each group hands-on help, and he distributed a DIY pamphlet with a diagram of squid innards and several pages of fun facts on melanin, the biomolecule that gives squid ink its dark hue. Melanin absorbs gamma radiation, which is why melanized fungal microorganisms can survive in space stations and the ruins of Chernobyl. Scientists say that a protective layer of melanin could, in the future, be applied to the hulls of interplanetary vessels. Of course, melanin is also found in human skin at varying concentrations, resulting in the range of complexions that are a determining factor in the social construction of race.

After mixing the melanin with soda ash, fructose, and water, participants dropped square swatches of off-white cloth into the jars, sealed them, and then set them over heat. Fan showed everyone samples of melanin he had grown from E. coli bacteria in collaboration with a local biotech company, as well as several balloon-shaped handblown glass sculptures, each filled with a combination of melanin and transparent silicone. He explained how he had become interested in exploring melanin as a sculptural material after previously working with synthetic testosterone and estrogen, hormones often prescribed to align an individual’s secondary sexual characteristics with their gender identity. When the swatches were removed from their jars an hour later, the fabric was dyed black with melanin, transformed by “difference” in its purest distillation.

This memorable evening of dissection and conversation was held under the auspices of Recess’s signature “Sessions” series, an exhibition-cum-residency where invited artists produce and present their work on-site. For the duration of Fan’s commission, “Obscure Functions: Experiments in Decolonizing Melanin,” Recess’s main gallery assumed aspects of both an artist’s studio and a laboratory, with sculptures installed beside shelves of petri dishes and vials. A worktable held a row of books by such prominent theorists as Judith Butler, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Donna Haraway. Nearby lay a copy of Ari Larissa Heinrich’s Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body (2018). On the wall, a quote from Rachel C. Lee’s The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies (2014) was pinned to the center of a large sheet of butcher paper, reading in part [w]e cannot begin to understand the focus on form, aesthetics, affect, theme, autonomy (and all those other things supposedly lending the field coherence outside of “biology”) without understanding the cultural anxieties around being biological in an era that is reconceptualizing the body.

These accumulated references added up to a narrative that goes like this: Poststructuralist claims that identity is produced discursively have always been met with a certain skepticism rooted in the apparent constants of biology. However, in recent years, advances in applied science and a materialist turn in philosophy have disaggregated “life” into its molecular building blocks, thereby progressively destabilizing the distinctions between male and female, human and animal, or even animate and inanimate. Today, scholars such as Heinrich and Lee, who specialize in Chinese and Asian American literature, respectively, draw from critical race theory and object-oriented ontology and postcolonialism and medical humanities and queer theory and animal studies.

In art, a parallel trajectory runs from postmodernism’s critique of representation in the 1980s to contemporary hybrid practices such as Fan’s, where the sculptural, the scientific, and the social intermingle. A remarkable aspect of “Obscure Functions” was how well the artist manipulated the medium of glass to capture melanin’s multiple valences. The pigmented sculptures bulged and folded so as to appear both hard and soft; Fan accentuated this effect by arranging the works over rigid armatures of resin and metal. At certain points, the glass suggested laboratory instruments. At others, it evoked perfume bottles, as if prefiguring a time when melanin becomes a designer product, a grimly logical next step to the ongoing history of commodifying blackness. Above all, the sculptures’ shapes were promiscuously biomorphic, resembling molecules, organs, orifices, skin, bodies of all kinds—wriggling forms of life that refuse any single definition.