LONDON — When artist Patrick Staff visited for the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles for the first time, in the summer of 2012, he was expecting to find the usual, sober atmosphere of an archive. What he came across there instead was so different from his expectations that he felt the need to create something out of the experience.
Back in 1984, Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland (1920–1991), established the foundation with his friend Durk Dehner in their house, with the original purpose of preserving and promoting Tom’s vast catalogue of work along with other homoerotic art. Through the years the foundation has kept its original character; in Staff’s words: “a sort of leather cooperative, commune, brotherhood, sex space.” The place is still home for Dehner himself and other friends, while also hosting events, including life drawing workshops and parties. The foundation’s atmosphere is dominated by a marked homoeroticism and by a precise idea of male identity largely constructed on and influenced by Tom of Finland’s works.
Kake, Tom’s personal hero and main character, is the embodied symbol of this constructed idea of hyper-masculinity: a muscular, mustached leatherman, he is a powerful reaction to the stereotype of the effeminate gay man popular until the 1970s. He travels the world riding his motorbike, looking for occasional sexual encounters with other equally ridiculously huge men.
The impact of Tom of Finland’s work on the gay community has been so great that even today, two generations after Tom’s, there’s hardly any young gay man who doesn’t know who he was. His imagery has been influential for decades now, shaping desires and sexual fantasies. Moreover, the upcoming unauthorised biographical movie, last year’s exhibition at MOCA, Los Angeles, and the series of stamps featuring his drawings, are all clear symptoms that the cultural industry has managed to completely digest Tom of Finland’s erotic imagery, once considered shocking if not obscene.
Staff, who identifies himself as transgender, couldn’t possibly be farther from the strict sexual identity typical of Tom of Finland’s legacy. “[After my visit] I began to think much more about my identity and the dichotomy of being queer, identifying as trans, and trying to understand my relationship to the home of a certain kind of image masculinity,” he said.
When the artist returned to London, he couldn’t stop thinking about the foundation, and he decided to sketch out a proposal for a film. It took a whole year before the artist could go back to LA again. During that time, Staff tried to understand his relationship with the place and the community living there, deciding he wouldn’t make something as straightforward as a documentary.
The resulting work is The Foundation, a film installation premiering at Chisenhale Gallery, London, and co-commissioned with Spike Island, Bristol, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver.
Structurally, the film is divided into two interconnected halves. The first part, shot at the foundation during Staff’s time at the house, is an almost anthropological documentary. Here the artist focuses on the foundation’s décor and the ubiquitous erotic drawings on the walls, using long takes that allow the gaze to linger on objects and furniture, framing the ambient light and the ever-present dust floating in the air. Human presence is denied in these intimate images with the only exception of the drawn bodies, suggesting melancholic thoughts.
In more informal footage, Staff underlines the nature of the place — the set of relations involved there and, at times, its queerness: we watch the community living at the foundation, talking and eating amongst themselves. In a visually complicated sequence — one of the best of the video — a group of friends sings “Happy Birthday” in the dark, while an 8mm gay porno movie is projected on the chest of a man wearing a t-shirt with the Finnish flag printed on it.
At times, sequences from the second half also verge on documentary. Staff shot these scenes in the form of a recorded performance at Spike Island, Bristol. In this playful footage, the artist recreates his experience at the foundation through experimental, theatrical choreography.
Though the stage resembles the Tom of Finland home, it’s different — it’s a safe space. The artist needed a neutral space to develop his work and it’s indicative that in one scene he shows himself setting up the stage of his performance, stressing the fact that he is working in another space, which is his own.
In these scenes, Staff performs and interacts with the body of an older actor: “very much the type of man you would meet at the foundation […] he’s a bit of a daddy, he hangs out in those scenes and so he could be it.” They look at each other, they touch each other. One of the sequences shows the artist wearing false eyelashes and a leather harness, performing with the full-bodied actor the same set of movements, simultaneously. The elegance and fluidity of Staff’s moves contrast with the rigidity and slight clumsiness of his older counterpart. While the actor personifies confident gender identity (in particular, the very kind shaped by Tom of Finland’s works), the artist’s body is at once continuously forming and transforming.
Staff here claims a gender fluidity that is rarely taken into account by the collective. “Society grants us very little freedom in our gender. ‘I’ am always in relation to ‘you,’ which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only malleable or fluid as ‘you’ will allow, to paraphrase Terre Thaemlitz.”
The very props worn by Staff speak to the gender collapse that his body represents: the eyelashes, a symbol of female identity, clash against the leather gear, a fetishist object of accentuated virility.
The visual contrasts between the two men (young vs older; hairless vs bearded; slim vs muscular) speak of roles, relationships of power and discipline. Even though these are dynamics well present for everyone within the gay community, the strongest point of the work is that it interests a broader number of people. Staff poetically puts on stage the experience — common to everyone — of discovering sexuality and identity while facing social pressure. He confronts his own body with another that represents what he will never be, yet caressing the idea of becoming that very (different) one. In doing so, the artist turns a private experience, or rather a state, into a shared one, making visitors consider their selves in relation to their bodies.
The film ends with a sequence showing foam on the stage after the performance. The foam acts as a perfect metaphor of social interactions: a shapeless, ambiguous substance that reaches and touches everything. Staff doesn’t seem to refer to any particular set of relationships here, nor does he give the spectator many elements to decipher this scene. The foam, slowly moving on the stage, could be read as an eroticized element if thought to be the leftover of a foam-party, a potential occasion for sexual intercourse. Though the artist’s interpretation is more inclusive: “The foam dies, it dissipates, but everything has been touched indefinitely from then onwards. In that moment it’s like all of these feelings and all of these questions […] are on everything and in everything.” The quiet intensity of an encounter that inevitably leaves a mark.