Patrick Staff Institute of Modern Art / Brisbane

October 15, 2015

Patrick Staff’s latest film installation, “The Foundation,” takes as its subject the organization set up to celebrate and archive the work of popular homoerotic Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), better known as Tom of Finland.

In a thirty-minute film, combining archival and observational footage, Staff focuses on the internal spaces of the foundation’s Californian house to explore the construction and contestation of queer masculine identities.

The artist sets a calm scene. A Labrador idles in the Craftsman-style bungalow. Wind chimes tinkle in the background. Its residents seem at ease in their surroundings, a casual mix of urbane domesticity and erotica where phallocentric images of buff men in leather have pride of place. The cultural ideal of the home as a space that shelters and protects, in this case Tom’s legacy (we are twice told to treat the foundation like a community center), mingles with the more clinical act of archiving that involves organization, precision and documentation. The film’s focus on the social construction of queer identities is revealing in that Staff invites us to consider space as an active ingredient in this set of relations.

Stability collapses as the film progresses. Poised and effeminate, Staff performs a dance with an older, bearded man. Their movements are suggestive but stiff. Though engaged, we are unsettled by the suggestion they are acting out the desires of others. The older man becomes a puppeteer, twisting a doll-like Staff into position. Later, he tells Staff’s character, “Don’t worry, you’ll grow into it — being a man.” The unease underpinning Staff’s exploration of masculinity carries through to the film’s climax. We are transported into the foundation’s archives, to a fetish convention of sorts. The pace is frenetic. We are alienated in a crowded fairground.

The film ends quietly on a set constructed to invoke the foundation. Foam melts away to reveal a limp soldier’s boot and a cheeky penis carved into the wood. Staff leaves us with a sense that masculine representation is a minefield with many rooms to navigate. How fixed are our identities in the end?

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