Sara Diamond (2002)
Steam Clean, Pure not Prurient by Sara Diamond
(originally published in Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung ed. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto)
I remember the 80s so well-that pinching desire for other kinds of sexual images. Back then, in the last century, we were provoked by an overabundance of much banal or insulting, if occasionally sexy, imagery on the porn front. Add to this the vast discomfort with gay and lesbian images on the part of the state, placed against the insistent aura and era of resistance from gays and lesbians. It was a time when discourse was overridden by desire. It was a time when discourses of desire were overtaken by identity. No wonder we decided to grow our own porn-by artists. In Vancouver, we held porn production workshops as part of Visual Evidence, a multi-part, anti-censorship extravaganza. Lesbians made many sexy little films and videos. There was not such a market for gay male alternative porn, what with it being an industry of industries. Bountiful sexiness was to be found within tapes, however. Who could forget Marc Paradis’s poetic and charged videos? Then Richard Fung made Steam Clean and raised the bar several notches.
Steam Clean was, and is, an important video. It affirmed that the gay baths were and are an ongoing space of anonymous or semi-anonymous pleasure. The baths were under attack as sites of HIV transmission. The gay community responded with education, the police with raids and enforced closures. However, the ultimate effect of Steam Clean was to show that Asian men were, and are, desiring subjects-not only objects. That they fill an erotic space that is in play against and with the stereotypes that gay male (and straight) porn produces. One thing that seemed to bring quite a few women, straight and gay, together was the desire that gay male porn evoked. With Steam Clean, Richard Fung introduced a level of complexity into the dialogue. He invoked race against racism. He made a tape that was explicit enough to be provocative in all the good ways.
The title suggests to the viewer that they need to dig a little deeper to understand the video. It suggests purification and heat. At the same moment, Richard Fung also created a genre problem of sorts, since the tape was apparently mostly about sex. Steam Clean was shown-at times with tremendous solemnity on the part of the viewers-in gallery settings as formal as the National Gallery of Canada (Su Ditta tells a wonderful story about how she managed to divert the prime minister and his sons from walking into the brand new video room, in the brand new National Gallery of Canada, just in time to see gay Asian sex premiering as part of the show) and throughout the festival and artist-run centre movement as a work of art. It was and is a work of art. The camera movements are elegant, the steam envelops the viewer as well as the players; the tape is both thoughtful and provocative. It was also a new kind of pornography.
The context shift allowed a larger social discourse around desire to emerge, one missing in large part from the current agenda. Lately, with occasional blips on the media landscape, there is little attention paid to the erotic, either by artists, or by the press or by the censors. Religion, animal life and death, and body fluids serve more to provoke tension. So, let us remember and celebrate Steam Clean, a sexy video art piece that has been seen by and given pleasure to