Catching Feelings: Jes Fan’s “Networks for Rupture and Dispersal”

by Blake Bathman March 23, 2023

Para leer este artículo en español, por favor vaya aquí. To read this article in Spanish, please go here.

Note: This is the winning essay of the 2023 North Texas Glasstire Art Writing Prize.

A glass network of tubes looks as if it has been frozen over. Inside grows black mold.

Jes Fan, “Networks for Rupture and Dispersal,” borosilicate glass, silicone, Phycomyces Zycospore liquid culture, time. Installed in “Soft Water Hard Stone,” the New Museum’s 2021 Triennial.

— Dedicated to the contaminated ones I love and who love me

As my siblings finish their pre-rolled joint, I jog in place, trying to melt what feels like ice flows encasing my extremities. Meteorologists are saying it’s the coldest winter of the rest of our lives; I try not to imagine what the warmest winter will be like. I’m with Sam and Ben, my ex-Texan sister and brother, as well as their respective partners. When we are together like this, we relish the joy of being queer by blood — we feel we have won the genetic lottery, lucking into five (out of six) queer siblings. But, we know, like everyone else, we are only the result of a series of impossibilities.

It’s December 30, 2021, and we are standing outside the New Museum, a mainstay of NYC’s contemporary art scene. We take turns mocking the consumer hedonists of nearby SoHo, even though we too have plastic shopping bags under our arms. It feels good to lay into that self-aware hypocrisy only permitted between family. We’re catty and queer, but we’re catty and queer together.

Inside, it’s warm and the art is plentiful. The museum’s 2021 triennial, Soft Water Hard Stone, brings together a smattering of contemporary art superstars working in video, sculpture, painting, and textiles. In what is, perhaps, the most beautiful EPA violation, Jes Fan’s Networks for Rupture and Dispersal employs a less conventional material: Phycomyces Zycospore, known commonly as black mold. In the corner of one of the galleries on one of the four floors, the trans, multidisciplinary sculptor has assembled two anthill-like glass structures filled with liquid cultures of this fungi. The sculptures’ foggy interiors, slowly turning an opaque beige, flaunt their toxicity without regard for their sterile surroundings. They are foreboding, sludgy, and shameless. Naturally, I love them.

A glass network of tubes looks as if it has been frozen over. Inside grows black mold.

Jes Fan, “Networks for Rupture and Dispersal,” borosilicate glass, silicone, Phycomyces Zycospore liquid culture, time. Installed in “Soft Water Hard Stone,” the New Museum’s 2021 Triennial.

Squatting in front of Fan’s Networks, I’m reminded of my brief stint in the high school science fair circuit. For my sophomore project, I advanced to Internationals with my research on how to isolate and utilize an antibiotic acid from the invasive aquatic fern, Salvinia Molesta. That fall, in 2016, I spent my lunches testing fate in the chemistry lab — it seemed like only a matter of time before Bacillus Cereus, Escherichia Coli or Staphylococcus Aureus would hitch a ride on my turkey and cheese sandwich and spread throughout my body. Fan’s glass sculptures capture this suspense of bacterial infection relatively unknown outside biochemistry labs. He reminds us that glass is a substance meant to show us things, a physical manifestation of words like reveal and elucidate. Without glass’ way of demonstrating transparency, those words might be all too abstract. In fact, the modern use of transparent is derived from the 15th-century Medieval Latin word transparentem, meaning “to show light through.” Though mold is probably one of those things we would rather keep hidden.

Fan deliberately utilizes glass to reveal the indomitable flow of infection as it consumes a network, a culture, a petri dish, a body. Even with its full-frontal display, however, Fan’s black mold grows too slow for us to actually see it multiplying. No matter how long I stared at the tubing, all I saw were the consequences of infection, never the beginning. There was no patient zero, no Typhoid Mary, no sick chimpanzee or pig. In fact, as the mold spores reproduced, they stained their casing with a sludgy ooze, as if asking onlookers for privacy, please.

I realized these works are just as much about transparency as they are about secrecy; like bodies, Fan’s sculptures turn in on themselves, curling up in a skin-like film right at the point of revelation. “The opposite pole of desire is actually fear, right?” Fan has said, “And so those are always a push and pull.” Though unspoken, the fear of contamination germinated among museum visitors, yet, in the short time I knelt in front of the pieces, many others bravely joined me. Desire had entered the room. Something instinctual drew us towards this seductive danger — we were learning to find the beauty in loving infection.

Thinking back on my experience at the New Museum, I begin to realize the larger implications of Fan’s beautiful nightmare. For queer people, like Fan and myself, the rhetoric of contamination has had a long and tenuous history. Words like disease and contagion have frequently been used to justify the separation of LGBTQ+ populations from the “healthy” majority. Otherness, in general, has been marked as a hidden pathogen to corroborate the isolationist ideologies of whiteness, heterosexuality, male-dominance, and transphobia. We have been subjected to witch-hunts for the sole purpose of revealing the impurities among the “normal” population.

In a press briefing on October 15, 1982, then-Press Secretary Larry Speakes and reporter Lester Kinsolving openly joked about what they called “the gay plague.” Over the course of the next four decades, this so-called “gay plague” claimed over 650,000 lives in the United States alone. More recently, politically conservative pundits have co-opted the pseudo-scientific language of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) to describe a new “social contagion” prowling the badlands of our children’s social media feeds. Queer and trans affection has always been at the center of these moral panics — like bacteria in a petri dish, don’t get too close, you don’t want to catch what we’ve got.

Growing up not only queer, but noticeably queer, I was aware of the many ways my affection could be misconstrued. Of course, affection is already a subject ripe with risk — consent is always key to ensure both parties are comfortable. For my young, flamboyant self, it felt like I was dropped in the middle of a minefield. My effeminate nature made relationships with boys my age fragile, fickle and, ultimately, superficial. I was always well liked, but only from a distance — the queer picaresque of Plano, Texas. I took up the burden of care, turning in towards a body like an imposed monster. I became an undetectable pathogen and no longer a threat to others.

A glass network of tubes looks as if it has been frozen over. Inside grows black mold.

Jes Fan, “Networks for Rupture and Dispersal,” borosilicate glass, silicone, Phycomyces Zycospore liquid culture, time. Installed in “Soft Water Hard Stone,” the New Museum’s 2021 Triennial.

That all changed, eventually. Not the feeling of contamination — that stuck around like the stiff goo coating Fan’s Networks. Instead, I found the few people who did not mind sticking around through my quarantine. We were able to give each other the kind of unabridged care we deserved and needed. It was only later that we all came out: our mutual queerness might explain initial attractions, but at some point we forgot we had ever been “infected” in the first place. We relaxed into the kind of affection only mutual recognition can bring out.

Jes Fan has captured this contagious affection in his art: that which terrifies us is brought out into the open, and we breathe the same air. In these short moments of uninterrupted access, he cannot rid us of our inclination to flinch, nor does he try. Instead, we might begin to understand our slippery place in this impossible world of living and dying things.

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Maxwell March 23, 2023 - 23:30

This was an amazing piece and clearly a well deserved award! There is nothing quite like hearing someone else describe a feeling you know all too well.


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