Throughout the nineteenth century, the Australian Government embarked on a number of anti-Chinese and anti-immigration policies. The nation was pathologised and its white, pure, uncontaminated body was at threat from invasive diseases from the unknown East. But with the rise of social constructivist theories regarding race, it seemed that identity was no longer determined by biological essentialism. This year, however, COVID-19 has engendered the rise of Sinophobic attacks as the virus has become racialised.
Jes Fan’s installation as part of this year’s Biennale of Sydney at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (while temporarily closed) is a reminder that the western world’s contemporary fear of contamination and infection is intertwined with centuries of fears of penetration – metastasised and manifested in the biological.
Two of his sculptures, Form begets Function and Function begets Form (both 2020), see glass globules hanging precariously off corners or delicately balancing off thin rails of wooden structures, creating a sense of anxiety. Meanwhile, the sculpture bases are reminiscent of a liquid spill leaking onto the floor, evoking the fear that accompanies what cannot be controlled or contained. The glass parts have been injected with urine, testosterone, estrogen, blood, semen and melanin. Fan recognises that these fluids are highly political, including melanin which is the primary determinant of skin colour and which, in turn, is used to construct racial categories.
Indeed, Fan’s investigation of the group of natural pigments is extended and developed in the single-channel video Xenophoria (2020), which is projected onto the entirety of the back wall of the gallery and documents the search for and extraction of melanin. Close-up and microscopic shots reveal the dissection of squids, with their ink sacs being emptied, along with fungi being scraped by a scalpel. Most significantly, these shots of scientific experiments in the laboratory are interspersed with close-ups of medical paintings by Lam Qua (1801 – 1860), who was one of the first Chinese artists to be displayed in Europe and North America. From the 1830s, Qua was commissioned to paint portraits of patients at a Canton hospital depicting their distorted bodies. The first images received of the Chinese by the Chinese in the West portrayed malformed disfigured individuals with bulbous tumours.
The inclusion of these art-historical referents exposes the precedents of racism and the historical narrative of disease associated with Asia. COVID-19 and its societal responses draw on deeply rooted anxieties and a distrust that is embedded in the molecular.
Soo-Min Shim, Sydney