Two fingertips pinch a small ink sac until it bloats, until it unbuckles, until it bursts, until it oozes a slick, black liquid that etches the grooves of their hands. This is repeated, again and again, until their fingers are smothered in its raven liquid. Irradiated under the light, burning electric violet, the scene appears unreal. It is not.
Projected onto a wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the 22nd Sydney Biennale’s exhibition NIRIN, Jes Fan’s single-channel video Xenophoria (2020) chronicles Fan’s perpetual, neon-lit pursuit for the melanin pigment– the molecule determining skin colour. In doing so, the video splices together a suite of imagery that coheres the microscopic, biological and historical. A dissected squid strewn across the screen in puddles of its own blood, ready to be harvested of its melanin. Steel laboratory machinery. Rubber-gloved hands holding petri dishes. Pipettes inhaling strange liquids; scalpels gouging fungi. Close-ups of medical paintings of tumours protruding from disfigured faces by Lam Qua during the Qing Dynasty. A sonorous drone echoes throughout.
Fan positions coloured skin as a site of interracial confrontation. What was once the object of historical repulsion seems to be layered with a fascination, a fetishisation. Speaking of “the invented African-American”, Zadie Smith reminds us that “everything that was once reviled – our eyes, our skin, our backsides…is now openly envied and celebrated and aestheticized and deployed in secondary images to sell stuff”. Sunny Woan exemplifies how the fetish of the “hyper-sexed Asian woman” derives from White sexual imperialism, which seeps into the legal prosecution of war and sex crimes in the West. Clearly, these fixations reverb beyond ‘mere art’ and accumulate in a wider phenomenon. It is, as the video’s title declares, ‘xenophoria’: loving the racial Other.
And yet, whilst ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are often situated in a diametric binary to one another, Xenophoria contemplates the entanglements that subsist between them. Just as biology is the thing that causes the skin colour that is subjected to objectifying ‘adoration’, so is it the oft-cited object of absurdist xenophobia. That is, a race is inferior as a matter of simple biology, of course, and not hardwired ideology. The critical point of difference is how they cloak themselves – the entrapment of the former is love; the entrapment of the latter is objectivity. In fact, they both emerge from the same historical, Eurocentric delusion: one that seeks to conceptualise the racial Other as radically different, to understand them from an arm’s-length through ethnography and ‘science’, to recast them as inescapably alien and innately fearsome – and to thereby dominate them. Indeed, Fan plays with such ideas, invoking the title Xenophoria to reference the Xenophora shell: a creature that affixes the foreign bodies of free-floating objects to itself. If Fan’s search for melanin in squid ink sacs, fungi, E. coli, and mould are to perform any kind of metaphor, it is that historical depletion of foreigners down below the level of human, as foreign and parasitic disease. If a person of colour’s skin is in fact adored, in the Western imagination it is divorced from the body beneath it. It is like clothing – something that can be worn and then put away, something that goes out of fashion. White skin is the mainstay paradigm, anything else is a novelty. Persons of colour are beyond contemplation.
Significantly, this phobia has left a pungent aftertaste that still moves about. Constantly bubbling beneath city streets and public buses, the flare-up of xenophobic violence inflamed by COVID-19 attests to how it boils to the surface. Such violence was not made by this crisis – it was made by a distrust that is embroidered into a historically-entrenched psyche, one that seized upon an opportunity to show its face. And this face cannot be severed from some detached ‘system’, for it is the system. On this land some call Australia, it is clumsily glued together by poor legal infrastructure, inequitable access to education, an absence of consideration for the geographical dimensions of race, issues of welfare, and more.
Recent mainstream news media is inflamed with ire. The horrific killings of Black lives swept aside with feeble justifications of ‘misunderstandings’, ‘innocent mistakes’ and the like. 28 per cent of our prison population are comprised of First Nations people. At least 400 Indigenous Australian deaths in custody since 1991. Yet, the Liberal Party axed the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program (ILAP) in their 2019-20 Federal Budget. Why is it that ‘protest’ is so immediately coupled with ‘violence’? Curiously, the news media appears at the wake; where the hell was it before that?
The violence is macroscopic and unrelenting. The system is bad. What is worse is our psychology of internalised racism and laziness. Our concern is euphoric – electrically felt, and then it’s gone. We cannot allow ourselves to conceive of these acts of violence as just acts and retreat into our weathered habit of forgetting. We must remember that they emerge from an ongoing process of colonisation, of which we – myself included – are complicit. Between the xenophobic fallout from COVID-19 disguised as concern for wellbeing, the ‘misunderstandings’ in police brutality, or the ‘mistakes’ emerging from racially discriminatory language, there is a veiled analogy with Xenophoria’s starkly clinical, albeit delirious, search for melanin. However consciously, they use empty façades to cloak a deep-seated, restless, seemingly unshakeable hostility that plays out not only in express violence, but in the stranglehold of our systems. Indeed, as Fan skilfully captures and enlivens, this profound irony forms the pathological biology of racial Othering.
‘Xenophoria’ is, at best, fragile – at worst, synthetic. Perhaps the irony here is that Xenophoria varnishes the wall of a building that, despite its contemporary vivacity, nonetheless harkens from a lineage of White state institutions that continue to indulge in the bodies of Others, which grace their walls as exotic specimens to be ogled at. Arguably, this indulgence now unveils itself through the display of artists of colour, whose ideas may be exhibited but not so long nor with such permanency that these displays rise above the status of an incursion. Whilst Fan’s frenzied search for melanin suggests how this molecule in fact exists within us all, don’t let the violet lights distract you. For now, the fingers pinch tighter still. Ink oozes until it all gushes out.