Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes
On ViewQueens Museum
February 24 – June 23, 2021
It’s fitting that you have to walk down a long, dark, unmarked tunnel to get to Kenneth Tam’s show, Silent Spikes, at the Queens Museum. Tam’s exhibit gets its name from a book about the “voiceless” Chinese laborers who helped build the US Transcontinental Railroad, digging tunnels through the mountainous West to create and connect the infrastructures on which this country is founded. In a similar way to the 1619 Project’s vital reframing of the contributions of African American slaves to American history, Tam proposes that Asian American history and the history of Westward expansion are inextricably linked.
One emerges from the tunnel and immediately comes face-to-face with a cowboy. Or a ghost. Or an angel. The sculpture (The Stranger (two step), 2021) is illuminated, glowing in the darkness. He is one sharply dressed dude. Vintage Wranglers that would incite the envy of any hipster graze brown lizard cowboy boots. An embroidered belt accents his slim build and a buckle the size of Texas proudly gleams its mined silver. His face is featureless; his torso a saddle of rich, soft leather, fenders splayed, resembling wings. The figure floats just above the earth.
Tam is primarily a video artist, and the centerpiece of Silent Spikes is a 20-minute two-channel video installation (Silent Spikes, 2021) that—how often does one say this?—could be longer. Tam’s work focuses on the performance of masculinity within traditional sites of Americana (summer camp, prom); here he explores the myth of the Asian American cowboy. Can an Asian man inhabit the costume and identity of the Marlboro Man?
Five Asian American men dressed as cowboys in some reimagined, minimalist Western—an ethereally lit studio serves as “landscape” —speak to each other affirmingly: “I think there’s a real cool factor about you,” one says. “You seem really relaxed in your own skin.” Tam puts these cowboys into both archetypal and uncomfortable territory, asking them to embody certain poses or movements (lassoing, riding a manual bull as another man pushes it up and down like a see-saw), and express things they would not normally express with each other. The mood between the men is awkward, yet gentle. They stand side-by-side along a fence, hands almost touching, look to each other for clues about how to pose, nod and smile as they listen to their good qualities being described. In other scenes the performers, dressed as themselves, articulate what sensuality means to them—the sensation of brushing one’s arm hair back and forth, a quick kiss from a lover before she leaves the apartment in the morning. Then they perform, via movement, what sensuality feels like for them.
These scenes are juxtaposed with long, cinematic shots of a dark, rocky tunnel—light visible at the end—paired with narration in Cantonese. The laborers are speaking: about the strike of 1867, about their hunger, how their children will become citizens but they will not. Like the work of Saidiya Hartman, Tam uses the historical record to imagine what these laborers were thinking and feeling: “I would press my body against the rock and imagine someone doing the same on the other side of the mountain. Could we feel each other through miles of stone?”
With his recent work The Crossing (2020), created while in residence at The Kitchen and performed this past December, Tam forayed, for the first time, into live performance. Four masked dancers moving largely in formation performed the rituals of hazing at (Asian American) fraternities. In the video Silent Spikes, dance is also significant. Tam collaborated with the same choreographer—Alyssa Forte—in both works and the result presents scenes of a lone dancer, dressed entirely in black, as he solos in the middle of a deserted New York street. His movements are slow and gymnastic—cheek pressed against pavement, legs in the air—an urban adagio. You can see the river and skyscrapers in the distance. The perspective—warehouses lining both sides of the long, empty streetscape—mirrors that of the railroad tunnel.
Another lone figure flanks the far-end of the installation (The Stranger, 2021). This sculpture is unadorned: canvas pants with a simple tie at the waist, dirty work boots, same saddle wings, but here the leather is worn, weathered. This ghost (or angel) hovers towards the back, as if forgotten, overlooked. He is the laborer to the two-stepping cowboy, the “voiceless” foreigner to the expressive performers of the video. All of these figures are connected, descendants of the same historical lineage.
What I’m trying to say is that Tam’s work is relational. He collaborates with groups of men who are willing to investigate, with him, collectively, that liminal space between vulnerability and masculinity, sensuality and sexuality, performance and selfhood, belonging and otherness. At one point in the video we briefly hear the voiceover of one of the participants: “Have you ever experienced discrimination? Do you feel that you have to straddle two different worlds and that you have to assimilate?” Watching Silent Spikes one can’t help but think about our past and current history of discrimination and escalating anti-Asian violence. Like all of Tam’s work, Silent Spikes uses vulnerability (and humor) to invoke empathy.
The exhibit, like the history it foregrounds, seems hidden. There are no signs or markers for Silent Spikes within the Queens Museum itself, which is unfortunate—and just plain ol’ wrong—because this show, small but fierce, deserves to be seen.