Jes Fan, “Stranded between one act and another” (2016), polished resin, hair (all images courtesy of Museum of Arts & Design, unless noted)

If gender is learned and performed, as scholars like Judith Butler have argued, then can it also be reinforced at a biological, molecular level? Jes Fan’s No Clearance in the Niche poses this question by exploring how our bodies are already engineered, and the ways we can take control of engineering them better to serve our own needs and desires.

Jes Fan, “Testo-candle” (2016), Depo-testosterone, lye, water, silicone base

The exhibition stems from Fan’s experiences transitioning between genders and also between continents. As Fan explained to me before the opening, “I started thinking, how pervasive is the patriarchy in organizing power structures, and even bio-politically? Birth control pills are a cocktail of progestogens and estrogen. What are the feminizing effect on bodies who take birth control pills? Why are the bodies of uterus-owners policed more rigorously than others?” Fan’s work falls in line with much of the current discourse about the ways that drug use and administration are influenced by cultural, racial, and gender biases. Decisions about who has access to drugs and how they are packaged remains in the hands of a white capitalist patriarchy, and many marginalized people are forced to find ways to navigate these exclusionary policies. Fan’s piece “Testo-candle” (2016), a candle made from testosterone and beeswax, is of a much more welcoming shape than the sterile medical bottles placed nearby. Transforming sex hormones into familiar forms like soap and candles helps sheds the stigma associated with their usage, offering a more humanized view of hormone therapy and the trans experiences. Similar to the way Simone Leigh’s recent exhibition The Waiting Room interrogated conditions of institutionalized control and the willful ignorance that caused marginalized black communities to seek alternative forms of self-care, Fan envisions ways to circumvent the failures of the healthcare system and recognize the inherently political significance of caring for the gender-nonconforming body.

Jes Fan, “T4T” (2016), silicone (photo by Jacob Schuerger)

Fan’s paradoxical artworks also subvert the rationality of oppressive social structures. Objects rendered dysfunctional become a reflection of their service to a patriarchal system. In “Stranded between one act and another” (2016), two hairbrushes entangle with one another, with synthetic hair replacing bristles, capturing the incessant ritual of brushing long, “feminine” hair. In another, “T4T” (2016), a pink silicon dumbbell lies limply, defying the “masculine” rigidity and strength that typifies weightlifting. Fan thus calls for a softening of masculine values at a time when feminist movements are largely concentrated on female empowerment. Exercise and gyms incubate vanity as much as they promote health, so a floppy hand-weight inquires as to what society would look like if it were reoriented to value softness and tenderness over brute strength. In this new landscape, would vain objects hold the same social value, or would they become as useless as Fan portrays them?

Jes Fan, “To Hide” (2017), rubber, ink, piercing

Fan’s “To Hide” series (2017) further illustrates the ways patriarchal society infiltrates our insides. Tan-colored rubber sheets feature technical illustrations that were informed by patent drawings for medical procedures such as hysterectomies and breast implants. All of these procedures were invented by white cisgender men, which points to the way our societal acceptance of body modifications relies upon the white cis man as the ultimate authority. The drawings also feature disembodied limbs floating among a galaxy of ambiguous machine parts, giving the impression of a body being either deconstructed or assembled, while asking by and for whom.

Jes Fan, “To Hide” (detail) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fan’s photographic series “Soft Goods” (2017) particularly engages with the topic of race, and how skin color governs our lives. The photographs portray a darker-skinned model slipping on peach-colored Adidas slippers. Their poor fit represents Fan’s experience as a Chinese person who has lived in Western-fetishizing places such as Canada and Hong Kong. Fan spoke specifically about Chinese people’s eagerness to assimilate and become “whitewashed” within the pursuit of wealth and status, an internalized racism incubated by the classism and anti-blackness deeply rooted in Chinese culture. “Soft Goods” speaks to the complicity involved in proliferating white supremacy within the marketing of goods, product design, and the standardization of a lighter-skinned ideal. This accountability is a rare component of socially engaged art, which in this case speaks to the East Asian experience as one that has both contributed to and been damaged by racist systems.

Jes Fan, “Soft Goods” (2017), digital print (photo by Jacob Schuerger)

By warping the perceived roles and aesthetics of everyday objects, Fan makes space for multiple marginalized identities and conversations. Fan asks a question that simmers beneath many current national discussions governed by identity politics: If we are truly more than the sum of our parts, can’t society allow us to decide for ourselves what our parts are? 

No Clearance in the Niche continues at the Museum of Arts & Design (2 Columbus Circle, New York) through April 30. Fan will co-host an event called Feminine Presence with neurologist Dr. Lauren Silbert on April 22, 1–4pm, to teach how estrogen is produced in bodies and in the lab.

Danielle Wu is a writer, art critic, and curator. You can see her sense of humor on Twitter and aesthetic sensibility on Instagram.