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I grew up watching fellow Asian men over-perform generic models of white masculinity. Whether they played the raunchy everyman or the fitness bro, they seemed to evade Asian stereotypes only to assume white ones, sculpting their bodies and minds in response to them all the same. At times, I was guilty of this too. With Silent Spikes, now on view at the Queens Museum, Kenneth Tam considers these white archetypes via the iconography of the cowboy, tracing its influence on Asian American masculinity from the Reconstruction era through today.
Tam’s work often explores white American standards of masculinity and how they are interpreted and performed by men of color. In his films, he places groups of male non-actors in simulated environments like a faux summer camp (Griffith Park Boys Camp), or High School Prom (All of M), and observes them as they naturally assume roles with minimal direction.
Much of Silent Spikes’ two channel video segments feature Asian American men dressed as cowboys, interacting with each other. Some are asked to imitate horse riding, while others conjure how they imagine a 19th-century Asian American cowboy might have danced. Tam focuses his camera on the awkwardness of these imitations, how they have been warped in recollection and given the fact that Asian American men have historically not seen themselves reflected in cowboy imagery. Cut between these scenes, on either screen, are shots of men outside the cowboy simulation, experimenting with movements on a stage. Their strange, improvised contortions make it clear that none are professional dancers. Together with the simulations, their unpracticed motions paint a portrait of Asian American men trying to find themselves in their bodies.
The other half of the two-channel video installation is composed of two lulling dolly shots that travel back and forth through the inside of a rail tunnel; one inches toward the light at the end of the tunnel, while the other recedes from it. Sometimes appearing simultaneously, they evoke an endless tunnel. Fictional voice-over narrates these scenes from the perspective of one of the 20,000+ Chinese immigrants who worked on the transcontinental railroad for significantly lower wages (and in much poorer conditions) than white workers.
Although there are few known primary sources from the perspective of the Chinese laborers, Tam does not hesitate to speak for them and takes liberties in doing so. The narrator considers the labor his “long painful birth” into America (an idea echoed by the shot leaving the end of the tunnel), the railroad his personal claim to the land. Reflecting on this period of his life, he is simultaneously filled with longing and sorrow.
Tam’s installation is presumptuous at times — the narrator’s longing for the “intimacy” of working in the claustrophobic tunnel, for example. The artist, I felt initially, romanticized the dangerous labor often delegated to workers of color to enable a thematic bridge to his other video elements, which also explore male intimacy. But mulling this over in the galleries, I find myself swayed by Tam’s sentiment, cognizant that adversity demands we come together in ways we normally do not.
Back in the cowboy simulation, Tam creates a space for intimacy between Asian American men without adverse conditions. In one segment, he splits them into pairs and has them compliment each other, permitting a rare and relieving opportunity to witness men concentrating on each other in a way that is not primarily sexual or laden with ulterior motives.
Further upending the cowboy trope, Tam asks his subjects to define sensuality. One individual focuses on the feeling of textures: hair being brushed in the opposite direction that it’s laid, the softness of a material building to a sort of comfortable climax. This idea extends to the two sculptures on display: a Chinese rail worker’s cotton work pants sit in opposition to the hard, coarse denim jeans of the cowboy. From each pair of pants, displayed on either side of the two screens, a saddle protrudes, its fenders splayed out to the side like a spinal cord and arms.
Tam always comes back to the body, but decidedly excludes sexuality from the language of his experiment. What stands in relief are those compliments free of performativity, ulterior motives, or deflections. Here are two Asian American men looking right at each other, trying their best to articulate what they see and what they like.
Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes continues through June 23 at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens, NY). The exhibition was curated by Sophia Marisa Lucas.