In a fitting analogy to BDSM’s closeted nature to enter the Leather Museum in Chicago you have to go downstairs. There, in a carpeted and windowless basement are the collected ephemera of the lives of a diverse leatherfolk and dungeon culture: caps and leather jackets, buttons and pins, so-called pervertibles (everyday objects with suggested other uses), pamphlets and original memorabilia of long-lost bars—everything sits in glass display cases. It may feel like you’re looking at the annotated display of a hardware store or a flea market, at objects and stories of a profoundly mundane nature: outings with friends; a lament of heavy price gouging for leather accessories. But there is more. There are the AIDS marches and dyke consciousness raising events. There is a celebration of dominance and submission in the dungeon, a darkened room off to the side, which presents explicit uses of the toys outside. And this is what the museum is about: every object you see has a hidden purpose, every place mentioned has meant something to someone.
When the clothes come off in exhibitions the lights go out. The Fotografiska Museum’s nudes, shown in a similarly darkened setting, feel tame and adolescent by comparison. You enter and exit this new museum in Manhattan’s jet setting Chelsea neighborhood through the cafe and giftshop, then take a stylish mirror-clad elevator all the way up. Also on show is a selection of Polaroids by the grandfather of all Instagramers with low self-esteem, Andy Warhol. This clearly isn’t a culture come out of hiding. You won’t find any stand-ins for a life lived in the shadows here; rather what you see is lives dependent on the limelight, a culture that exists because it is on display. For the exhibition it means that it, too, has to be shared to be fully experienced. And the colorful, spotlighted walls do photograph exceptionally well. But while the Leather Museum might feel a little DIY and outdated, Fotografiska’s ritzy galleries make me think of how the club feels when they turn on the lights at 4 a.m.: empty and like you should’ve gone home a long time ago.
Leather Museum, Chicago, Illinois