Tension rose in the spacious Wong Chuk Hang loft as two dancers entangled into a knot of toned, contorted limbs. The two engaged in an elegant tug-of-war, binding and releasing themselves from limp barbell parts made of silicone.
The performance “Disposed to Add,” directed by artist Jes Fan, was part of the keystone event for Para Site’s recent show In Search of Miss Ruthless. The exhibition explored pageants, a televised space often perceived to be apolitical, to explore the connection of Asian diasporic community and to hold space for alternative forms of political participation. Raised in Hong Kong and now based in Brooklyn, New York City, Jes was one of the 23 artists participating in the group show.
Jes Fan’s mesmerizing body of work is centered on gender and identity, often made with everyday materials. From soap barbells, silicone weight plates to two hairbrushes connected with black hair in place of bristles, the reincarnation of familiar objects probes us to rethink “the signifier we inscribe in these objects.” Simultaneously, the artist seeks to break down the barriers in Hong Kong to a more open contemporary art and queer discourse.
I’ve known Jes for years — they exude an air of self-assuredness and candor that brings me back to our high school art studio. Always an acute observer and critic, their commentary is succinct and matter-of-fact, yet leaves one with ample room for reflection and re-imagination.
Now Jes seldom returns to Hong Kong, save for short family visits in the past couple of years. Their recent residency at Spring Workshop was an opportunity for them to be “more immersed in the spring of the local art scene.”
Speaking to me, Jes is critical of the scene, observing how it reflects Hong Kong society’s striving for sameness. They point out the overplayed narrative of the struggling local artist, and the insistence of pinpointing “local culture.”
Cantonese is central to any discussion about the “local culture.” The inaccessibility and unavailability of language is a running thread in our conversation. Jes recalls the struggles of discussing art in Cantonese growing up. “靚 doesn’t mean anything. 可愛 doesn’t mean anything. Cantonese is a beautiful language, but so many words through disuse [get lost.]” For Jes, a transgender artist, the struggle extends beyond art discourse.
“The vocabulary to describe certain ways of queerness in Hong Kong is unavailable,” they add. A common criticism of the discourse on identity politics is its American-centrism. Jes stresses on the responsibility of “writers and culture movers to do the baseline work,” allowing locally-relevant conversations to take place, while admitting that identity politics is in itself a privilege as it “requires a certain layer of language and education.”
Art spectators, untrained or otherwise, love a good story. But Jes wants to dismantle the romantic myth of a singular heroic artist. They are keen on making collaborative work — inspired by their background in glass-making — with people of different expertise and from different fields. “I can’t do everything. It takes a village,” they say.
In a memorable workshop called “Feminine Essence,” the artist demonstrated with artist and biohacker Mary Maggic how to extract estrogen from urine using a DIY contraption. Jes sees collaborations like this as a way to build bridges and close gaps between dialogues. “Patching is a great word but I can’t sew,” they joke.
Jes Fan hopes their art will pique people’s interest in identity politics and instigate conversations on the topic. “It’s a very Chinese thing that acceptance doesn’t require understanding,” they said while describing interactions with their family about queerness.
Much like queerness, art is an experience: it isn’t a thing you just look at. They drew this parallel when they tried to explain to their mom what they do: “Have you walked into a jewelry store? Let’s say you went to Tiffany and bought a ring. What you buy is not just the ring, or the silver. It’s the seat you’re sitting on. It’s the glass they display the ring on. It’s the whole packaging. I think using that metaphor is, sadly, much easier for Hong Kong people to understand art is immersive.”
Despite Hong Kong’s flaws, the artist remains hopeful for the metropolis’ potential to nurture a local art scene with more diverse representation, and to hold space for sophisticated conversations around queer politics. “Hong Kong is a patching of different influences. It’s so dynamic and that’s what I find attractive. Hong Kong is really fucking beautiful.”
Jes Fan’s work was part of Para Site’s recent show “In Search of Miss Ruthless.” Their work can be viewed online at jesfan.com. Still / Loud’s Wilfred Chan contributed reporting and editing; Holmes Chan contributed editing.
Editor’s note: a quote from Jes Fan, included in the previous version of the article, has been removed at their request.