Tom of Finland (1920–1991) is arguably one of the world’s most celebrated and influential creators of queer-erotic art. TOM House the VR Experience is a documentary virtual reality piece that immerses visitors into Tom’s legendary Los Angeles residence, where he lived over the last decade of his life. The VR-piece features three thematic tours around the house guided by Mr Durk Dehner, the co-founder and president of Tom of Finland Foundation, and a virtual art gallery, which presents Tom’s work like never experienced before. The VR experience is produced by Donkey Hotel, directed by Márton Jelinkó and Carlos Marroquin, we also invited them to share more about the production and their expectations of this VR documentary.
Where did the idea for the piece come from?
In winter 2019 we had just completed our previous VR documentary piece and were brainstorming new topics for the next VR piece. By coincidence, we learned that Tom of Finland Foundation had thought it would be great to have digital content featuring Tom, and we realized that the legendary Tom House in Los Angeles could be a fascinating setting for a VR documentary.
A few months later on a filming trip to California, Mara (Márton) and Sami visited L.A. and took the Tom House tour guided by Durk Dehner, and were convinced that not only the House deserved a VR documentary, but its story needed to be told by Durk.
What kind of research did the team conduct for the production?
To understand the house’s rich history, we did quite a long research through archives, books, and the vast artwork collection that Tom left behind. We looked at over 500 pieces of artwork to do a final curation, witnessing his development not only as an artist but also as a human being.
We were also fortunate enough to shoot in the TOM House in L.A. and roam freely through its rooms and its archives. It was also clear to us that it would be fundamental to interview Tom’s long-time partner and companion Durk Dehner.
For years, Durk has been the keeper of Tom’s legacy and the spirit in the house, so we decided to use his voice and tell the story through his eyes. It was extremely valuable to hear the experiences he had not only with Tom but with hundreds of people (staff, artists, collaborators, residents, visitors) that have contributed to the history of the house before, during and even after Tom’s journey in it.
With each story, Durk not only shared memories of the house but also from his heart, giving this experience a vital heartbeat. For that, we will forever be grateful to him.
Why is virtual reality the right medium for telling this story?
The TOM House has become a historical landmark in L.A. and a pilgrimage destination for fans of TOM and queer art in general. It has been worked on and enhanced to represent the Tom of Finland Foundation not only as a place to operate from but as a physical and visual place to experience art, attitude and the way of living the Foundation represents. It is a space where one can almost live and breathe Tom’s art. While there is no substitute for actually visiting the place, virtual reality is the only medium that can take viewers as close as possible to the sensation of being there and having a personal tour around the house.
Also, engaging people in activities and giving them the freedom to experience the house at their own pace enhances the immersion into the world of Tom and the Foundation. It is indeed an experience that will leave its own memory.
What was the most difficult part of the production?
As with most major audiovisual productions, there were surprising and even some upsetting moments during the production of the piece. One of them happened in March 2020 just 3 weeks before our planned recording trip to the Tom House, when practically all travelling was shut down due to the outburst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For a moment it seemed we were forced to ditch the entire project, but we managed to turn the situation to our advantage by developing the script and our techniques during the two years of the pandemic. When it was safe to travel again, we went off to record a much more advanced and refined documentary than we would have been able to do without the development period.
What are the team’s hopes/expectations regarding this piece?
We are super happy and proud about the completed piece and are looking forward to seeing and hearing the reactions of the visitors.
Being part of a major Tom of Finland exhibition by the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki, the piece will have the perfect premiere setting.
We hope that the piece will be exhibited to international audiences around the world at festivals and in galleries and museums so that the spirit and warmth of Tom House can be experienced by as many people as possible.
Interview: Melody Tsang
TOM House THE VR Experience on view as part of the exhibition Tom of Finland Bold Journey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki 28 April – 29 October 2023 Tue – Fri 10am–8.30pm, Sat 10am–6pm, Sun 10am–5pm, closed on Mondays. Tickets 0–18€.
Click here to learn more about Donkey Hotel and the exhibition.