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Obscure Functions: Experiments in Decolonizing Melanin

Jes Fan

A photo of melanin
A photo of melanin

Due to the process-based nature of the Session program, this project will undergo constant modifications; the features of this page provide accruing information on the project’s developments.

September 7–October 26, 2018

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September 7, Jes Fan will begin work on Obscure Functions: Experiments in Decolonizing Melanin, a project that will investigate the material agency of melanin, the natural pigment that determines skin color, and the implications of its usage outside of the body.

Combining original video work, a central sculpture, and a series of laboratory gloveboxes stationed throughout Recess, Fan’s project will invite visitors to physically manipulate melanin and explore the substance as a sculptural material and coating agent.

Throughout his Session, Fan will research the radioactive properties of melanin which the artist will source from genetically modified e-coli bacteria and fungi. When harvested commercially, this banal black powder, embedded with a cascade of social meanings, is sold at a market price of over $300 a gram, and experimented with as an anti-radioactive coating for spacecrafts. It lives in fungi, in mold, in cephalopod ink— but once embodied by human skin, this pigment siphons the host to a social organizing principle that is known as race.

At Recess, the host for melanin will not be human but bacteria, a perceived adversarial substance that shares connotations with racist notions that non-white bodies are infectious and impure, of miscegenation as a dangerous contamination, and broader anxieties of racial intimacy. Obscure Functions will consider skin as a medium of “touching” and “feeling,” and the ways both are implicated in the construction of race. Feeling, even when triggered at a distance—by sight, ear, memory, or smell— becomes embodied and expressed through the skin. Fan’s project lays bare the ways in which the lives of racialized bodies are touched by melanin.

Session invites artists to use Recess’s public platform to combine productive studio space with dynamic exhibition opportunities. Sessions remain open to the public from the first day of the artist’s project through the last, encouraging sustained dialogue between artists and audiences. Due to the process-based nature of Session, projects undergo constant revision and the above proposal is subject to change.

About the artist

Jes Fan

Jes Fan is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Canada and raised in Hong Kong, China. He is the recipient of various fellowships and residencies, such as the 2017 Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant Recipient, Bemis Center Residency, Van Lier Fellowship at Museum of Arts and Design, Pioneer Works Residency, John A. Chironna Memorial Award at RISD. Fan has exhibited in the United States and internationally; selected exhibitions include Mother is a Woman at Empty Gallery (Hong Kong), Disposed to Add at Vox Populi Gallery (Philadelphia), Whereabouts at Glazenhuis Museum (Belgium), Material Location at Agnes Varis Gallery (New York), Ot(her) at Brown University’s Sarah Doyle Gallery (Providence). He has received a BFA in Glass from Rhode Island School of Design.

artist website


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