October 23, 2021

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Codes of the West: Kenneth Tam at the Queens Museum

A solemn tone prevails as one walks through a slim corridor into the dimmed exhibition space of “Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes” (on view at the Queens Museum, New York, through June 23). The Stranger (two step), 2021—an armature supporting Wrangler jeans, a leather belt, and cowboy boots, with a dark-brown saddle in place of torso and head—appears to guard the installation with masculine self-seriousness.

Inside the gallery, two large screens standing at an angle on the floor display the two-channel video that gives the show its name. The title alludes to Chinese scholar Huang Annian’s 2006 compilation, The Silent Spikes: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads. The video shuffles a series of segments: three separate close-ups of Asian American males, each articulating what “the sensual” means to him; several scenes where two men wear cowboy outfits, as one quietly compliments the other; a male dancer performing in an industrial backstreet; and other participants, in different locales, executing both choreographed and free movements. Occasionally, we see men in street clothes filming each other, echoing the work’s own technological mediation and its concern with self-reflection and self-performance. Finally, in the most narrative portion of the video, the camera moves inside a tunnel at varying speeds, sometimes toward and sometimes away from the light. The austere Cantonese voiceover of a fictional Transcontinental Railroad worker, with English subtitles, tells the story of the labor strike in 1867, in which Central Pacific authorities squelched Chinese workers’ demands for better wages and shorter workdays by curtailing the strikers’ food supplies.

The tracking shots in the tunnel are reminiscent of a documentary film. But what can one make of the others? Whenever the cowboys appear, the synthetic sheen of a colored backdrop and lighting, coupled with the peculiarity of Asian men in cowboy attire, renders the scene absurd. But with continued viewing, awareness of the stylistic choices begins to fade, allowing the emotional nuances between the two Asian cowboys to emerge. One says to the other, “You are a very nice guy and an attractive guy”; the complimented cowboy nods but avoids eye contact. Something tender begins to form as the men sustain this initially uneasy interaction.

In the tunnel, the unseen railroad worker recalls pressing his body against a wall of rock and asking, “Could we [the laborers] feel each other through miles of stone?” This question chimes with the earlier scene of the cowboy paying compliments, as well as another scene involving two different cowboys: one standing behind the other, whose torso jerks and sways in a slow bucking-barrel ride. While these moments could be read as sexually suggestive, the overworked railroad laborer yearning for the presence of another makes clear that Tam is reaching for an Asian American male intimacy that values sensuousness beyond sexuality. After all, as the half-forgotten mistreatment of Chinese railroad workers attests, Asian American male relationships in the United States are fraught with violence, both of the body and the imagination.

A sculpture consisting of a saddle and a pair of pants stands in the foreground, while a two-channel video depicting a person holding a pick-axe is visible in the background.

View of the exhibition “Silent Spikes,” 2021, showing The Stranger, 2021; Silent Spikes, 2021; and The Stranger (two step), 2021, at the Queens Museum.

To one side of the installation stands The Stranger (2021), a companion to the cowboy at the entrance. But this second assemblage matches its upended saddle with shabby cotton trousers and worn-out leather work boots. Both the lone, self-actuated hero of Wild West mythology and the historically exploited worker are strangers to Tam, a New York–born and –based artist whose recent performance at The KitchenThe Crossing (2020), focusing on Asian American fraternities—also explored male intimacy and bonding rituals. Disrupting tropes of masculinity is a persistent theme for Tam. Asian boys who play cowboy games can never grow up to be cowboys, and so the Marlboro Man–style imagery in “Silent Spikes” is at once painful and farcical. But Tam neither fully embraces nor completely subverts the cowboy ideal. Instead, he stretches and expands it, making room for alternative visions.

At the end of the video, the railroad worker imagines that he is back in his home village, where he meets his younger self. He decides to board the ship again, to get a glimpse of the ocean. He says, “Crossing the Pacific once more, I was overcome with emotion. The saltwater tasted like tears and sweat and cut the inside of my mouth like sharp stone. Floating on an endless sea, I realized actually that I was still in the tunnels.” Somehow, these last words do not suggest passive resignation to his sad fate, revealed in the middle of the video, of dying before he could leave the mountain. History may have moved on from this silenced worker, but Tam’s choice of ending the video with the words “I was still in the tunnels” implies an ongoing struggle for self-determination. It continues not only for those now-vanished laborers, but beyond—outside the museum doors—in Queens and countless other neighborhoods, where Asian Americans still live, work, and love.