Alien Art

a sculpture art piece that looks like it was made of stone or resin, holds two deflated glass spheres, one grey and one white-ish
Image: Jes Fan

by Terry Nguyen

The only way to see Jes Fan’s Gut (2023), currently on view at the Whitney Biennial, is to peer through three narrow, elongated slits, their edges bulging growthlike from the wall. From the side, the cavities look like open mouths or, from the front, like an alien membrane, somehow both threatening and inviting. Behind this wall is an intestine-like sculpture holding two embryonic glass spheres, each the size of a small water balloon. The “intestine” consists of two trays, sections of 3D-printed CT scans of the artist’s stomach, nestled tightly together. 

I spent about half an hour trying to get a good look before I gave up. There were too many people, and the holes made them want to look closer and linger, even though Fan had three other unobstructed sculptures on view. I suppose it has something to do with the colonoscopic nature of Gut’s set-up, which positions the visitor as the voyeur of a stranger’s open orifices. But what most intrigued me about Fan’s work is its biomorphic familiarity—how body parts retain a familiar yet uncanny strangeness, when removed from the context of the flesh. 

Though there’s a weirdness to seeing a kidney or an extracted wisdom tooth as its own organism, we recognize the names and shapes of organs within our own bodies as distinctively familiar. Even so, internal organs separated from the body invariably acquire an otherworldly aura. Is this thing us—although no longer within us—or an independent entity? For this reason, I think Fan does more than “invoke the body” in his sculptures. He makes an alien of his own flesh, an alien that is enduring, tactile, and to quote the Biennial’s statement, even better than the real thing.

It’s a paywall, but a small one

Read this post and get our weekdaily newsletter for $3 a month