Recently presented at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, ‘The Foundation’ is an ambitious video work by British-born, Los Angeles-based artist Patrick Staff, that uses the iconic oeuvre and legacy of Tom of Finland to explore historic and intergenerational queer relationships. The video is made of two distinct halves. The first half is a lucid dream-like exploration of the house and grounds of the Tom of Finland Foundation in Echo Park, Los Angeles, and the people that maintain its archives of erotic art. The second half presents a contemporary theatre or dance production set within a purpose-built sound stage that Staff had designed and constructed as part of a residency in the sprawling studio and industrial spaces of Bristol’s Spike Island.
The film considers the cultural legacy of Touko Laaksonen, better known by his nom de plume of Tom of Finland. Born in 1920, Laaksonen’s childhood was spent in rural Finland, where his parents, both schoolteachers, encouraged Laaksonen’s artistic tendencies.1 Coupled with early realisations about his sexuality, the grounds for his future artistic work were defined by the heroic, masculine rural tropes of the farmhand or stableboy, and later by Laaksonen’s conscription into the military during World War II, after some years in Helsinki where he studied advertising. When Stalin invaded Finland in 1939, Laaksonen was drafted as a lieutenant, and embraced casual sexual encounters with fellow male soldiers. When German soldiers arrived, he took particular interest in their distinctive leather jackboots, worn as part of their standard issue uniforms. In a number of ways, Laaksonen’s sexual experiences at war came to play a significant role in defining a then predominantly gay male culture of leather.2 A focus on leather gear and play became a distinct theme in the drawings of Tom of Finland, soldiers doling out punishment, and establishing the grounds for military roleplay and fetishisation that would take place in future decades, outside the context of actual warfare.
Patrick Staff completed undergraduate studies at Goldsmiths, South London—a school renowned as the incubator of the Young British Artists including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Michael Landy.3 To this day, in comparison to London’s other visual arts colleges, the school has a reputation for encouraging a ‘hot house’ style competitivity between fellow students, placing importance on criticism and supporting, even idolising sole authorship. Staff’s early practice was informed by a resistance to this environment. In many ways, his practice is founded in a resistance to the art market and the commercialisation of art-making—their interests lie in an engagement with collectivity and an ongoing focus on maligned social groups and counterculture.4 Of particular interest to Staff are the Free Festivals in the United Kingdom, which came to prominence in 1972 with the Windsor Free Festival. The Free Festival was a sprawling, open-to-all rural gathering of travellers and free spirits. It resisted increased economic pressure to embrace urban living and came to define a key meeting of subcultures.5 These countercultural movements were catalysed by the current political or cultural climate of the nation, and a collapse of community or communal spirit. Today, in our era of late capitalism, scenes of Woodstock-style inclusion and love encourage sneers and contempt from conservative society. Staff sees productivity in new age thinking, and an inherent resistance to structure and convention.
In their 2012 Tate Modern commission, Staff brought together these interests in collectivity and grassroots activism. They presented Chewing Gum for the Social Body, a performance work for the newly restored Tanks spaces, combining improvisational and free form dancing with more structured, classical styles such as ballet. Within these styles, Staff set about to erode preconceptions of these dance forms, revealing opportunities for transgression in ballet’s rigidity, and vice versa.6
During the development of the work, Staff travelled to Los Angeles to visit the Tom of Finland Foundation. Situated in a typical suburban LA home, the building was purchased in 1970 by the Foundation, and considered firstly as a commune—at the time, Echo Park, where the house was situated, was the centre of Los Angeles’ gay leather scene. Laaksonen had made initial moves into the United States of America on the back of a number of exhibition opportunities in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.7 During these visits, Laaksonen had connected with high profile artists including Robert Mapplethorpe who was an ongoing supporter of the art of Tom of Finland. In 1981, with the help of his friend Durk Dehner, they established the Tom of Finland Foundation. With the remit of preserving the significant collection and archive of Laaksonen’s work, the Foundation also encourages the support and promotion of erotic art for future audiences.
The Tom of Finland aesthetic consists of burly muscled men, leather, uniforms and punishment mixed with pleasure. Laaksonen described a need he felt to counteract a mid century stereotype of gay men as predominantly effeminate and dainty.8 His are hyper masculine images that attempt to rebalance preconceived notions of gay men, sometimes to a point of overcompensation. Figures verge on the hyper real—their billowing, bulging muscles testing the strength of the clothes they wear. Bulges in their blue denim jeans threaten to burst through their zippers.
In some ways, it feels a little like the establishment of a binary. The question being for gay men who do not fit in either camps, how and where does one find the middle ground? As much as Patrick Staff’s work is about the Tom of Finland Foundation, it is also very much about existing outside of or between these terms of reference that Laaksonen, to a certain degree, helped define.
Under these terms, Staff arrived at the Foundation expecting white gloves and pristine archival conditions. Staff was surprised to find a community built on the shared interest of Tom of Finland.9 It is a space of acceptance, structured around and within the history of gay erotica. In an interview between S.R. Sharp, the Vice President of the Tom of Finland Foundation and Staff in the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Sharp discusses the reasons for this:
The story is—they often tell us—that they were in a small town, in the Mid-west or Upper State New York, and they went into the drug store and they saw Physique Pictorial there. Tom of Finland’s work was on the cover and they went, “Ah, oh my God!” For the first time they realised they weren’t alone. The desire, the figures they saw on the front, they could identify with. And it wasn’t just ‘beefcakey’ pictures— there was a gaze—a desire between two men, or three men and they connected with that. They realised that the feelings they had had were validated; that someone else felt like that.10
The footage from the first half of Staff’s film The Foundation is captured on location, within the context sketched out by Sharp in the above quote. Locked-off shots of the interior of the house/museum show the domestic nature of the spaces—it is lived in, and active with energy. At one point the camera shifts outside; down near the laundry, a load of washing is spinning. Staff, filming on an iPhone, tilts the view around the garden, bright sunshine trickling downwards through palms. At another point, a Labrador sits on a dog bed inside the house. A man enters the shot and begins speaking, presumably at Staff, before noting that the camera is rolling. The feeling is of a casual, welcoming space—a home environment, which also functions as a cultural archive.
Mixed in amongst these more typical relaxed, domestic scenes, Staff’s eye captures smaller details that speak to the Tom of Finland aesthetic: aged biker boots; military uniforms on coat hangers; white plaster busts of muscled torsos; glossy black leather lounges; the Foundation’s basement dungeon, replete with shackles; a bathroom shelf of pump dispensers and a drooping silicone dildo. We also see the workspaces of the Foundation’s staff, collection storage, filing and scanning equipment. Staff discusses in the publication that it is the sort of place where, if you stand around for a period of time, you are given a job.11 In Staff’s case, Dehner asked Staff to assist with digitising their archive of analogue film—a mixture of donated porn from the 1960s and further back, as well as films that the Foundation began to make itself in the 1980s and 1990s. Staff includes some of the video work that they personally digitised, such as documentation of a leather party in the early 1990s. In 2012, we see a number of the Foundation’s volunteers organise a party for Tom’s birthday. Staff was the projectionist for the evening, and screened a selection of the digitised 8mm pornos from the archives. At one point in the evening, we see a man step in front of the projector—writhing bodies light up his chest and his body becomes a screen.12
With this image lingering in our minds, the film shifts to a quasi-theatre set, constructed by Staff in the cavernous spaces of Spike Island, Bristol. Here we see Staff, replete in a leather chest harness, hair up and eyes did, joined onstage by a Tom of Finland-esque ‘daddy’ figure—big-bearded and older. A porno soundtrack (that Staff stumbled across while digitising the Foundation’s archive) begins to play. The two figures move in unison, dancing in time but apart. At certain points the bearded figure touches Staff, moving arms, hands and fingers to specific poses—directing Staff’s head by chin and forehead, shifting Staff’s gaze. Between these scenes, we cut to Staff and the bearded figure organising papers on set. Filing and categorising, their lubed hands leaving oily marks on the pages. Suddenly we cut to a shot of the set. The figures have gone. Instead, a billowing, libidinal cloud of foam or bubbles envelopes the stage, smothering a line of worn, black leather boots. Then we cut to Staff again, but now their hair is swept sideways, with fake lashes in place and rouged lips. The film jumps between the bearded figure and Staff, who is dressed in the bearded figure’s clothes. And then, some dialogue from the bearded figure, who declares to us and to Staff down the barrel of the camera: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll grow into it, being a man.’
As much as it is a place of inclusion and acceptance, Staff discusses at length in the accompanying publication that there was a sense of presumption about Staff’s gender upon arrival in 2012 at the Foundation—that by being welcomed into this family as a gay man, Staff was coded that way.13 Staff mentions in passing Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, identif[ying] it as “the experience of standing underneath a sign that you simultaneously do and do not belong to”—that there is more to identity than identifying either with or against a dominant culture.14
At the time that Staff made the work, they were considering more fully their own gender identity and embracing a non-binary position, parallel to being inducted into a cultural structure focused on archivally protecting and maintaining hyper-masculine tropes. The second half of the film reflects upon the expectation in that line of dialogue—of growing into being a man—the anticipation that it is an identity that Staff has a responsibility to inhabit. Returning to Staff’s discussion with S.R. Sharp, the Tom of Finland Foundation Curator, the two consider the importance of history and legacy for a historically misrepresented and repressed minority; that to document and archive a culture’s own construction of how they wanted to be represented is an incredibly important thing. Of course, this representation is still presumptuous—it is neither conclusive nor correct for all, but in its success is the potential for expanded terms for queer identity and self-determination. Sharp mentions his “fantasy” to Staff—that being queer would soon be seen as “…very, very natural [with] no societal attachments…”15 Collectively, we all have a responsibility that is greater than mere tolerance. Staff, eloquently, engages us in this role in conclusion:
Society grants us very little freedom in our gender. To paraphrase Terre Thaemlitz, ‘I’ am always in relation to ‘you’, which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only as malleable or fluid as ‘you’ will allow.16
Patrick Staff’s ‘The Foundation’ was shown at The Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, and co-organised by the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, Chisenhale Gallery, London and Spike Island, Bristol.
1. “Tom of Finland: A Short Biography,” Tom of Finland Foundation, accessed October 12, 2015, http://tomoffinlandfoundation.org/foundation/touko.html
3. “Young British Artists (YBAs”, Tate, accessed October 18, 2015, http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/y/young-british-artists
4. Patrick Staff, ‘Patrick Staff: Artist talk’ (talk presented at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, August 13, 2015).
5. George McKay, Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (London: Verso, 1996), accessed online October 12, 2015, p. 21
6. Patrick Staff, ‘Patrick Staff: Artist talk’
7. “Tom of Finland: A Short Biography”
9. Patrick Staff and Katie Guggenheim, “Interview: Patrick Staff and Katie Guggenheim,” in Patrick Staff: The Foundation, ed. Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh. (Brisbane, Vancouver & Milani: Institute of Modern Art, Contemporary Art Gallery and Mousse Publishing, 2015), 114
10. S.R. Sharp and Patrick Staff, “Interview: S.R. Sharp and Patrick Staff,” in Patrick Staff: The Foundation, 9
11. Patrick Staff and Katie Guggenheim, 116
13. Patrick Staff, ‘Patrick Staff: Artist talk’
14. Patrick Staff and Katie Guggenheim, 117
15. S.R. Sharp and Patrick Staff, 10
16. Patrick Staff and Katie Guggenheim, 120
Tim Walsh graduated with Honours in Art History from the University of Queensland in 2008 and completed a graduate course in Art & Business at...