Illustrator Touko Valio Laaksonen (1920-1991), better known as Tom of Finland, made a name for himself depicting hypersexualized masculine men, with images that defined the visual tropes of “leather men” and “the gay clone” in the 1970s. States of Desire: Tom of Finland in the Queer Imagination, an international video showcase of works released by Casa de Duende for this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, celebrates, wrestles with, and reflects on the gay icon and his influence.
Truly on the fringe
Laaksonen’s men in leather jackets, outfitted with police uniforms, or riding on motorcycles, all became part of an increasingly macho sexual culture that pushed perceptions of male queerness away from those of feminine men and “the pansy.” However, Tom of Finland’s work maintained a Eurocentric standard of beauty that simultaneously fetishized Nazis and people of color in a kaleidoscopic fantasy that, in hindsight, reinforces a white male gaze.
How do we reckon with such a legacy in 2020, on the centennial of the artist’s birth? The benefit of the Fringe Festival’s pandemic-era virtual pivot is that these pieces represent a truly international body of work, with pieces from the Philadelphia region appearing alongside work from India, the United Kingdom, and Chile. The diversity of the artists selected for this project is matched by a variety of genre, tone, and production value. While the works are not uniformly successful, I can’t remember a Fringe experience that felt more queer, more revolutionary, or more, well, on the fringe.
“Cruising the Dream” and classic leather
Two standout pieces engage with Tom of Finland's legacy in rather literal ways. In “Cruising the Dream” by Christopher Michael (Philadelphia), we see vintage footage and audio clips of gay cruising overlaid onto Google Maps and Street Views of San Francisco. The viewer is reminded of the adventurous and risky gay subculture of urban centers before the AIDS epidemic. Utilizing contemporary technology, the work brings to mind to the virtualization of gay hook-up culture and the ever-present surveillance that has pushed public sex out of the world’s gayborhoods.
Kareen Labbé Weber’s (Santiago, Chile) “KAKE-MURTA” provides the only invocation of the classic “leather” look. While a chanteuse sings a torch song in a public square, someone presenting as a modestly dressed woman transforms into a traditional leather daddy, complete with leather cap, motorcycle jacket, and a handlebar mustache. This transformation rips open the cis-male-bodied expectation of Tom of Finland’s characters and creates a rupture in which others can find themselves in the erotic charge of gay camp and leather.
A video monologue by Jose Luis Cortes (San Juan, Puerto Rico) in “Criando un Pato” (“Raising a Fag”) inserts the reality of being an Afro-Latinx sex worker; we see and hear struggles that are glossed over in Tom of Finland’s work.
Philadelphia artist Evie Snax’s “Breakfast, Bathtime, and Butts” creates a domestic and sensual fantasia of queer sexuality filled with warmth, flesh, and liquid to contrast the hard-lined angularity of Tom of Finland’s erotica. As the video progresses, viscerally sexualized food pushes the boundaries of acceptability, mirroring the reception of Tom of Finland’s work in the mid-20th century.
States of Desire: Tom of Finland in the Queer Imagination is available for free on the Philadelphia Fringe website. The Vimeo video runs a brisk 40 minutes, with each piece lasting 5 or fewer minutes. Not every video is enjoyable (I found the first, “WRONG KIND OF FAT: SOME BEAR OVER THE PAIN-BOW,” to be especially cringe-inducing), but there are moments of queer delight and erotic truth that make the showcase worthwhile.
What, When, Where
States of Desire: Tom of Finland in the Queer Imagination, curated by Heather Raquel Phillips, Ron Abram, Gerad Silva, Gabriel Martinez and David Acosta. Through October 4, 2020 as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Find it here.
Portions of some of the videos have captions.