Artists these days don’t confine themselves to toiling in draughty studios. They collaborate, get out there. Really out there, in the case of rising star Patrick Staff. Working across film, installation, performance and publishing, and alongside other artists, historians and dancers, the 27-year-old has made a name for himself with massively ambitious works that look at how counter-cultures and alternative communities exist within the mainstream. For his biggest show to date, Staff ensconced himself within the close-knit gay community at the Tom of Finland Foundation in LA, an archive devoted to the work and legacy of the legendary homoerotic artist. It considers Tom’s influence on subsequent generations of gay men, how legends are created and their heritage curated.
How did you come to make a film at the Tom of Finland Foundation?
‘It all came about because I was in LA for an exhibition in 2012. I was intrigued. What struck me most was how the foundation is basically a big commune. It’s a normal house on a suburban street. When I first visited there were two guys in full leather smoking on the porch and a guy came out in a boiler suit, undone down to his stomach. He was clearly naked underneath and he just said, “Hey, come in. You want to look at the archive, why sure. Do you want a cigarette? Cup of tea? Let’s hang out.” From that moment on I was in that world.’
So is the film a homage to Tom and his disciples?
‘Tom’s not that present in the work. He’s referred to a lot, like: this used to be Tom’s bedroom, Tom used to feel like this. But he sort of becomes this ambiguous figure in the film. In part it’s about how cultural figures like Tom of Finland become figureheads for a certain culture and how gay culture is passed down generationally.’
Who does the older man in the choreographed sequences of the film represent?
‘On the one hand he’s the type of man who hangs out at the foundation: he’s a teacher, a mentor. Then at other points he’s a parent that makes you want to go: “Fuck you, I’m going to do what I want.”’
How does the work relate to your own sexuality?
‘I suppose at this point in my life I identify as transgender, so I’m trying to understand these older men who are very manly.’
Is wanting to understand who you are part of why you became an artist?
‘When I was at school, I was fully on track to do languages, and at a certain point I realised I was too angry, emotional and too queer to do anything other than art.’
How are you showing the film in the gallery?
‘There’s this kind of documentary element but then there is this other bit of the film that is a bit more like a play within a set. The installation will bring the set into the gallery space. It’s made from the sorts of materials you build a house with. So there’s carpet underlay and scaffolding but they are used in unexpected ways.’’
Why did you want to include sculptural elements?
‘I work a lot with dance and, as an artist, I process ideas through feeling. So bringing them into the space continues that experience because it’s so physical. I think this show is deeply bodily.’
Will the film be on a continuous loop?
‘We’re going to play it on the half hour. Showing film in galleries is a tricky thing to do and if you can specify a time, it’s a little bit of structure that helps people navigate the experience.’
Do you like structure in your work?
‘I think all of my work is about discipline: how bodies are disciplined through cultural spaces and artwork as much as the police force. I’m a total Foucault-head.’
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