Silent Spikes is the first solo institutional presentation of Brooklyn-based artist Kenneth Tam (b. 1982) in Los Angeles. Silent Spikes, a two-channel video, recently commissioned by the Queens Museum, New York, explores archetypical expectations of masculinity in relation to the intersections of gender, economics, and race. Tam reflects upon the underrecognized connection between the histories of Westward expansion and Chinese immigration in the U.S. and considers how Asian men have been marginalized against the standards of the “All-American” iconic trope of the cowboy, despite the fundamental contributions of Chinese laborers to the building of the American West, specifically the treacherous western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad between 1863 and 1869. The work incorporates visual and narrative references to the labor strike organized by Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers in 1867, the response to the intense exploitation and marginalization of the laborers—one of the earliest instances of racialized protest in the United States.
Composed in a cinematic style combining interpretative reenactment performed by a group of diverse, Asian-American male participants and location footage, Silent Spikes can be taken as a response not only to this history but also to centuries of stereotyped representation of the Asian male in media, particularly in Western-genre films. Inhabiting and adapting the archetype of the American cowboy, Tam and his participants honor inherited struggles while centering vulnerability and connection as reparative forms of male embodiment and selfhood. Tam’s work acknowledges the complex dynamics impacting the experiences of young men living and working in American society today, and Silent Spikes continues his explorations into the affective space created between them.
Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes was organized by the Queens Museum and made possible with support from the Asian Art Circle at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
The presentation at ICA LA is organized by Jamillah James, Senior Curator.
ICA LA is supported by the Curator’s Council, Fieldwork, and 1717 Collective.