Cameron Bailey (2002)

Images Festival Tribute Puts Self-Effacing Video Artist on the Spot by Cameron Bailey (Now Magazine, April, 2002)

On my way to Richard Fung’s west-end home, I pull over to listen to the end of a song on the radio. Just then a suede blur faces by on a bicycle. It’s Fung, speeding home with a bag full of Portuguese pastries for our interview. Ever the host. Ever the foodie. Fung imbues his work with a sense of hospitality. It’s what gives his tapes so many ways in. But in person that hospitality also comes with a formidable screen of diversion and self-deprecation. During the interview, Fung leaps off into Bill Viola, Shirin Nishat, Steve Reinke, the PS1Africa show in New York. It’s all I can do to keep him talking about himself. He has to now considering recent developments. Last year he won the prestigious Bell Canada Award for Lifetime Achievement in Video Art. Then the Toronto Arts Award for Media Arts. Both coincided with the release of Fung’s most moving, most accomplished video to date, Sea in the Blood. It’s a reflection on living with illness in the family and, for Fung, a chance to “work with an emotional palette that wasn’t Jerry Springer on the one hand, and wasn’t the coolness of art practice or academic practice on the other.” Now he’s the subject of two spotlight screenings at the Images Festival and a new book, Like Mangoes in July: The work of Richard Fung, edited by filmmaker Helen Lee and author Kerri Sakamoto.

You can choose your Richard Fung. To the queer video crowd he’s the sly provocateur. He once made a serious safe-sex video but cast art stars John Greyson and Colin Campbell as cruisey bathhouse extras. To the post-colonial seminar heads he’s the taskmaster. In years of teaching and writing he’s always maintained that being left is no substitute for being rigorous. And to a generation of young Asian artists all across North America, he’s Frida Kahlo. Richard Fung blazed the trail.

Since the mid-80s Fung has completed 11 videotapes pitched somewhere between documentary and essay. They probe the trouble spots in how we think about sex, history, family and race. Even better, they probe what we mean when we say “we.” He’s mingled that work with teaching, art activism and critical writing. His essay ‘Looking For My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn’ is seminal in every way. It’s an impressive body of work. But is it art?

“The question of whether or not I’m an artist isn’t important to me, actually,” he says after much prodding. “That question is not as important as what I do and what I get to do.”

But even though he holds down a day gig running the Centre for Independent Visual Media and Education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education – that mouthful may be the only inelegant thing about him – recent accolades are forcing artist status on Fung. Bringing criticism and activism to art has made him interested not just in what is being said, but in how things are being said. Early on, he understood that the form carries part of the message.

“One of the things I’ve always struggled with is that tendency to want to work things through too much, to work through all the problematics of a piece rather than allowing the audience to work it through themselves. But at the same time I try to leave some gaps so the audience can invest themselves in the work.

All of Fung’s work considers his audience. That’s not just a strategy. That’s his nature.

“One of the things I grew up with that’s hard for me to take in other people is pomposity,” he admits. “I’m not saying I can’t be pompous, but it’s something I try to undercut. I try to pull the rug out from under myself even as I made an argument. So there are those foolish bits in My Mother’s Place of me dancing around.”

Perhaps Fung’s most influential role has been as a public intellectual. In countless lectures and panel appearances here and abroad he has pushed forward the debates about queer sexuality, Asian identity and the queasy borderlands of culture and politics. He always undercuts easy certainties, and does it with the casual confidence of a kinder, more rarified, Jon Stewart.

“You know I was painfully shy as a child,” he counters. And, “I remember putting my hand up in anthropology class at U of T and almost shaking, but forcing myself to ask a question. You can see in My Mother’s Place that I was a clown within my family, but outside I was completely silent.”

In that tape, Fung charts the nature of consciousness under colonialism through the eyes of his mother, a third-generation Chinese Trinidadian. Fung’s family, and the net their lives have cast across the globe, has proved the source of three of his most celebrated tapes. As the youngest, he was the only one allowed the privilege.

“There was a pressure to succeed,” he recalls, “and I escaped by going to art school. “ He continues demurring like crazy, “My siblings are all much more successful than I am.”

One sister is a doctor in Malaysia, and his brother is corporate financier Robert Fung, chair of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation. For Richard, who failed high school math three times – “I always say it was my early work against racial stereotyping” – it’s been a long road from underachieving son to acclaimed activist. These days he’s even planning to do a video installation. In a gallery. “I’m interested in projected light,” he says almost shyly. “The installation I want to do is with projected light, shadows and porn. Now it’s how to make this idea meaningful and more rigorous.”