“For Our Own Pleasure”

YYZ Artists' Outlet

The Orientalism that has framed Asian women’s sexuality was addressed by some of the Asian diaspora artists in “For Our Own Pleasure” in the alternately witty and fatigued tones of deconstruction. Their works provided the support for the more perilous explorations of desire engaged in by other artists. Brenda Joy Lem’s and Helen Lee’s playful, sensual celebrations might have been the stuff of softcore porn without the acerbic analyses of stereotypes provided by other works in the show. Kyo Maclear, for example, pinned 24 butterflies to a cork-covered wall and attached ostensibly descriptive labels that together formed a mocking taxonomy. The Latin or quasi-Latin names—Nupta Papyrus (Paper bride), Encantia Alabania (Mimic white), Ukiyo-e Imago (Ukiyo-e Imago)—cleverly reflect images for export to the West: the easily collectible, decorative, and mute Asian woman.

Lem’s The Temple of My Familiar, 1994, was the centerpiece of the exhibition. Visitors entered the small, wooden temple and knelt to look at a video tracing Lem’s sexuality to her ancestral village and a childhood spent among women. As with Lem’s film work, the beauty of this installation risked being reabsorbed by an Orientalist paradigm. That the images were slightly “off” barely averted such a reading. The intimate gesture of combing an elegant woman’s marcelled gray hair was surprisingly erotic when juxtaposed with snapshots of groups of girls and footage of Chinese farmers shrouded in mist.

Like Lem, Shani Mootoo searches for the latent eroticism in traditional and quotidian imagery, transforming elements of Indian religious custom and popular culture to fit lesbian meanings. Her collage series, “Is desire gendered? Must desire be gendered?,” 1994, portrays lush cunts decorated with North American fruit-bearing plants, and gilds them with shamelessly romantic love poems.

In this show the only indisputably exotic Asian femmes fatales are drag queens. Pablo Tapay Bautista hijacks vintage airline-safety demo films in his infectiously campy, safe-sex video Fly That Friendly Sky, 1992, which employs towering Asian drag stewardesses with names like Miss La Toy R Us to demonstrate safer ways with latex. In Karen Kew’s and Ed Sinclair’s video Chasing the Dragon, 1993, a dark-haired, ruby-lipped beauty caters, literally, to Western fantasies on a 900 number. “How about clams marinated with garlic and hot peppers . . . is that hot enough for you?” This parody of oral gratification reaches its culmination when it is revealed that she too is a man. In addition to peeling the signifiers of Asian femininity, the tape attacks Orientalisms in a series of interviews with young Asian-Canadians about the sexual fetishization they encounter daily. These interviews offer a documentary subtext for the entire exhibition, one that is necessary to understanding the show’s agenda, yet mercifully localized in a single work.

Laura U. Marks