Kenneth Tam confronts Asian American masculinity in ‘Silent Spikes’

Referencing the cowboy archetype and the narratives of Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers, the artist tackles the complexity of male-to-male bonds in his latest exhibition

For nearly a decade, Queens native Kenneth Tam has been creating video, performance, and sculptural works that address masculinity. Working with non-professional male actors/participants, Tam stages unrehearsed scenarios that prod them into moments of social-emotional vulnerability. See, for example, 2018’s Griffith Park Boys Camp, in which a cohort of working-age men attend a 3-day series of outdoor games, jaunts, and campfire jingles. The activities are premised on play, not competition; the mood is jovial and gentle, and the men appear relieved. “I came here to be a kid again,” a participant says.

Nostalgia can remind a man what he blotted out and bartered in his passage to manhood, but a masculinity reimagined can’t and won’t replicate the past. The solution is not to be found in Peter Pan’s proverbial wish; the point is not to go back and, as per psychoanalytic pith, “just honor your inner boy.” What Tam’s playful scenarios accomplish, however, is a man’s recasting of himself as fluid and relational—traits that free men of their patriarchal roadmap.

Tam’s latest video installation, Silent Spikes, is his most intricate yet, weaving narrative, interviews, and choreography into a two-channel film, now on view at the Queens Museum. Its title is in reference to the Chinese immigrant laborers who built America’s Transcontinental railroad. Both Silent Spikes and Tam’s recent live performance-piece The Crossing anchor masculinity in Asian diasporic history. Whereas The Crossing (performed at The Kitchen last December) considers the rituals of Asian American fraternities, Silent Spikes considers the unstructured fraternity, the life-sustaining relationships between America’s earliest Chinese immigrants. The story of male-to-male bonds forged in rail tunnels and tracks is told by an imagined laborer. His narrated voice-overs, spoken in Cantonese, crosscut throughout the film; one subtitle reads: “My heart aches for the companionship born from solidarity.”

In 1867, some 3,000 Chinese immigrant railroad workers staged a labor strike, protesting brutal conditions and ludicrously low pay before their white overseers. It’s a historic moment that should be understood, as Tam explains, “within the same continuum of struggle that necessitated the creation of the term Asian American in the 1960s.” Discrimination, resistance, colonial-imperialist histories—all form the crucible out of which this term arises. And while the story of the Chinese transcontinental laborers offers a germinal example of counter-hegemony, it’s far from isolated, directly informing and collapsing into the nowness of Asian American identity.

Silent Spikes emphasizes the racializing logics of Western expansionism through the trope of the American cowboy—Hollywood’s surrogate for male heroism and perfection. Displayed across from the video screens are two traditional get-ups (boots, jeans, belt, and saddle), weighty with cinematic mythos. The same costumes are worn by the male-participants in Tam’s video, seen gesticulating with Wild Wild West and rodeo grammar before backgrounds of pastel colors. In other scenes, the cowboys sit side-by-side, gently addressing one another with (unscripted, genuinely attempted) compliments, “you have a lot of charisma […] you’re cavalier but not overbearing […] you’re a very comforting presence.”

The racial and racist underpinnings of cowboyism, and the prototypic criteria of ideal maleness, surface by way of the cast’s makeup. All of the actor-participants in Silent Spikes are of Asian descent, but Tam’s intentions are clear. Tam is both refusing and sardonically inviting the cowboy as a representational ideal/win for Asian Americans, and for that matter, men of any racial-ethnic descent. Qualities we’ve come to expect and revere as male, gloriously cowboyish, and thus immanently human—self-possessing, self-determining, autopilot confidence—are entwined in violence.

The film’s hybridic bounce of audio and images—from cowboys, to rail tunnels, to yogic dance movements, to interviews and narration—reinforces its intersectional conceits. The Asian diasporic past is also the Asian diasporic present. Moreover, the standard-bearer of who/what is white sets the mantle for who/what is masculine, and both produce the political-philosophical bundle, the Michelangelo David or the gunslinging Eastwood, of who/what is “human.” Clarifying hegemony and its ideological bedfellows is always necessary. If folks are to refuse the “way things are” and invent something liberatorily anew, art becomes the multitasking maven: alerting us to what and why shit exists, while also adumbrating the living possibilities of something else—the latter maneuver as the definitively queer maneuver. Tam’s exhibition does this artistic double timing to a critical and prophetic pitch.

In our following conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Tam discusses the importance of male sensuousness, the issues that attend attempts to represent Asian men, and Silent Spikes’s resonance with today’s anti-racist current. Hate crimes against Asian and AAPI communities have apexed, and the cause is, and has always been, the structuring logics of a patriarchal masculinity that shores and uplifts white supremacy. No one is exempt from these logics. The patriarchal avatar need not be physically or wholly present for his standards—of validity/worth/excellence…— to govern one’s imagination and longevity. But as Tam reminds, efforts at resistance have always existed and will endure until the next world is beautifully born, unburdened of its previous likeness.

Jordan: There’s a recurring tracking shot of a rail tunnel in Silent Spikes and I was curious about its significance. The tunnel motif also runs throughout the film, and the narrator-railroad worker speaks of the rail tunnels as “portals.”

Kenneth: That section of tunnel [in California] has historical relevance. It’s one of the many sites where the train laborers dug their way through a mountain without the aid of any modern equipment. I learned that there was a major labor action that happened there, involving all of the workers going on strike for a short period of time.

I wanted to investigate what other symbolic or even metaphorical qualities this tunnel might have. The transcontinental railroad is about bridging the east coast and west coast of America, but really, it was about bringing Asia closer to the US and the US closer to Asia for a whole host of reasons. So that little section of tunnel started to take on a greater significance.

The tunnel also bridges different points in Asian American history. With each new wave [of immigrants] comes a whole different set of histories. And so it’s often difficult for these disparate groups to form a lineage or a more concrete sense of history. So I wanted the tunnels to connect different points of struggle within Asian American history.

“Asian Americans are often seen as a kind of racial wedge against other minorities. It’s so important to continue to seek solidarity with other movements, with other groups, and to not be this racialized wedge.”

Jordan: How you use time and pace in Silent Spikes really conveys this—the entanglement of the past and the present. Can you say more about this decision?

Kenneth: Yeah, there was an attempt to sort of collapse time, and to make it more apparent that the struggles that Asian Americans are facing today, particularly the rise of these racist attacks and hate crimes, is nothing new. This has been happening for quite some time. In fact, it’s embedded in the way this country sort of created itself; [the US] realized its current order through Manifest Destiny and the expansion into the West […] My project doesn’t necessarily address what’s happening now, and it was certainly conceived way before recent events, but I think that it can still resonate.

Jordan: One thing I noted while reading about the Chinese labor strike: one of the ways the overseers and railroad financiers quelled the strike was by, essentially, weaponizing the Chinese laborers’ disposability with the disposability of ‘freed’ Black people. Basically, racial-capitalist intimidation. I was thinking about this tactic—wedging different identities against one another—in light of today’s struggle to build cross racial-ethnic solidarity, as well as cross-movement solidarity.

Kenneth: Yeah, that was fascinating to me too. So the overseer, his name is Charles Crocker, was working for the Central Pacific Railroad Company that was owned by Leland Stanford of Stanford University. He very quickly saw that you could play one group off of another, which is kind of amazing, or terrifying.

But that idea had already existed. And again, that continues to resonate today. You have groups being played off of one another. Asian Americans are often seen as a kind of racial wedge against other minorities. It’s so important to continue to seek solidarity with other movements, with other groups, and to not be this racialized wedge.

Jordan: There’s also a kind of male-to-male solidarity and comradeship happening between the Chinese laborers.

Kenneth: It’s important to note that part of my interest in this history, but also this kind of fictional narrative that I created. There’s very actual little historical information about these people that still exists. There are almost no actual recordings, written recordings, written documents from any of these people; nothing written from their perspective. I wanted to kind of fill in that gap with this [fictional] voiceover. Much of my interest is not just about the labor strike itself, but the fact that most of these people that came over were almost entirely male.

Part of the way in which the [US] government wanted to control this group was by not allowing women to come so that [Chinese immigrants] couldn’t start families, and wouldn’t want to live in the US. There is this kind of vile political mechanism at work to keep these people here temporarily.

So you have this massive bachelor society with thousands of men just working together. And I was really curious about, like what was the emotional space of one of these men? Were there moments of intimacy between the men; I’m not even speaking about erotic intimacy. But just, how did they feel about each other? I’m sure there were moments of affection.

What little history that is afforded to these men is just about how they functioned as labor units, as part of the mechanism that created the railroad. But I wanted to find a way to afford these individuals humanity. This ties into the larger aim of Silent Spikes too—how can I give my participants a kind of humanity that is not afforded to them, in the current, let’s say, Asian American representation that exists right now. How can I show them as complex individuals with desires, with feelings, feelings towards each other?

“What little history that is afforded to these men is just about how they functioned as labor units, as part of the mechanism that created the railroad. But I wanted to find a way to afford these individuals humanity.”

Jordan: A few days after Silent Spikes opened, Steven Yeun appeared on the cover of GQ, in full cowboy garb! The profile of him repeatedly references Yeun’s, and the larger representational struggle to show Asian’s, and Asian American’s full emotional lives. The decision to dress Steve Yeun as a cowboy seemed to undermine the politics of the profile.

Kenneth: It’s funny, you know, I think you’re the third person to mention the Steven Yeun profile. It is a funny coincidence—suddenly there are multiple versions of the Asian cowboy. While on the surface they [the Yeun cover, and the cowboys of Silent Spikes] may look similar, I think they come from very different impulses and have different aims. Yeun (who I admire quite a bit; I respect him quite a lot) in the article he talks about allowing for complexity in the representation of Asian Americans, [but] the shoot itself does not seem to do that. It might [the images of Yeun] seem satisfying in a recuperative way, but I don’t think it actually enlarges the space for Asian American men to exist in.

I do understand the importance of representation and allowing for more roles and opportunities for Asian American men to exist within popular culture. For those that are really invested in that as an end goal […] that always felt very shortsighted. The kind of expectations we have for these roles—these roles can never meet these expectations. Maybe it’s because the structure that undergirds these roles is always entirely problematic and never addressed. Representation is important, but that should not be the only way in which we evaluate our sense of value and self-worth and ultimately humanity.

Through my various projects and through working with different Asian American actors, I definitely understand that they do struggle to find meaningful roles. They’re so typecasted; the kinds of roles written for them are so myopic in scope. It may be gratifying to see Steven Yeun on the cover. But, people shouldn’t have a misplaced faith in merely having mass images of Asian men, because they also reproduce the kind of hegemonic masculinity that is the problem in the first place. The racist trope of the cowboy itself is a problematic image, and why are we aspiring to these images? A lot of the project is really about subverting the image of the cowboy, and thinking about how if Asian American men play that role, how can we make it more complicated instead of reifying it? How can I make it do something else?

Jordan: Could you talk about your process of finding and working with your actor/participants?

Kenneth: I find my participants through various internet postings and posts on Craigslist. I’ve even used Reddit before [laughs] which is a whole other venue. But I’m not “casting.’ I’m interested in working with people that are just interested in my project.

Everything that we do is unscripted. [We use] this improvisatory space to find moments of vulnerability and intimacy. A lot of what comes out can feel awkward and stilted, and that’s intentional. What I’m trying to do is ask my participants to not work off of that [male] social scripting. I think for men [the male script] is the one where you have the most to lose if you’re not performing it in the way one expects you.

Jordan: There’s an activity in your 2016 film Breakfast in Bed, that reappears in Silent Spikes, where participants are asked to compliment one another. But the complimenting typically turns clunky, and therefore, kind of sad to watch. People have described your work as awkward. I feel an awkwardness, but also a poignancy. There’s some spectre of sadness baked into masculinity and male-male interactions.

Kenneth: Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. There is a sadness or loss that is experienced and made visible within these kinds of clumsy, awkward, unrehearsed moments between men.

The people that end up writing about or even just being mildly interested in my work tend to be people that can really identify with these moments. And they’re not just men. A lot of women see this too in the interactions with their partners or close family members—the inability of men to express themselves or put words to certain kinds of emotions; or when asked to do something as simple as giving a compliment, the sort of tortured response that yields.

I think that [poignancy] can help open up a space of critique, but that’s also where we can start to reimagine these kinds of performances [of masculinity]. That’s a really important part of what I’m trying to do with my participants—to get to these moments that are really emotionally loaded, even though they might seem totally quotidian or even banal.

Jordan: Showing male vulnerability can risk cliché or melodrama. Like, an attention-grabbing appeal for forgiveness; directing attention away from, perhaps, the man’s complicities and flaws. But your work avoids this trap. Male “vulnerability” is often best revealed in the kind of quotidian moments you stage. It’s not just about showing male tears, which I’ve seen, although that can be it too…

Kenneth: Yeah, I don’t want to create a spectacle of male self-pity. It’s really not about that. It’s about the sort of everyday sadness, or even the violence in which we’ve come to groom men [so that] they’re unable to step outside of these very prescribed roles. That is not to say there is only one particular masculinity out there. There are many masculinities that one can inhabit. I’m interested in, as much as possible, creating spaces for my participants to step into these different masculine roles.

Jordan: One of the ways you do this is by giving men the latitude to explore and reimagine their kinesthetic language. In Silent Spikes, the dance scenes operate like a refusal. A disavowal of the kinaesthetics of capitalist labor which continue to infect the body. How does dance and movement serve the contestation of hegemony?

Kenneth: I don’t even want to call it dance, but just movement in general— particularly from people who have no training in movement—is another way in which to get to a space of vulnerability and even intimacy. If language proves too difficult, bodily [movement] can allow for a certain kind of expressiveness to come through. Particularly in relation to sensuousness, this word that is mentioned in Silent Spikes. Sensuous is different from sensual. Sensual is much more tied to sexual desire. Whereas sensuous is about gratification from all of one’s senses. I think that’s something that can open up male performance— being more responsive to the body, and the sensations that the body can allow for.

One of the problems I had [in Silent Spikes] was like, ‘How can resistance be made into movement? Into dance?’ And this was actually partly inspired by the stuff I was seeing over the summer with the various BLM protests. There were a lot of dancers out there. There were people moving their bodies [and dancing] in front of the police, in front of masses of people. In that moment of physical confrontation, dance and choreography was the solution. [The Chinese Transcontinental railroad workers] were only seen as laborers. What is the best way to undo that? How does one decolonize the body? Movement, dance, choreography, might be a way.

“I don’t want to create a spectacle of male self-pity… It’s about the sort of everyday sadness, or even the violence in which we’ve come to groom men [so that] they’re unable to step outside of these very prescribed roles.”

Jordan: Why is body affirmation so difficult for men?

Kenneth: [Laughs] Or affirmation in general.

Jordan: Yes, right! And this kind of attachment, let’s say, to shame and punishment and pain. Do you have any thoughts?

Kenneth: At least in normative male culture, the way one shows affection is through insults. That’s one popular way of showing that you care. The thing that you actually want to say, you have to sort of attach it to a joke, or something.

In terms of the shaming of the body. You know, I don’t really know. So much of male identity is invested in one’s physique, like a hypertrophic body. Protecting, or crafting and controlling the body. But then when it comes to affirmation of the body, it becomes much more difficult and complicated. I think it just might be because a lot of men are just not raised in an environment where they can feel like they can be generous and complimentary.

Jordan: What are you noticing about gender and gender performance now; what changes are you observing?

Kenneth: I’m very struck by how young people are thinking about gender identity and gender performance. When I teach and see my students at different schools, they don’t have these hangups. It’s not a big deal for them to imagine multiple genders, or not conforming to any one [gender]. I find that they are just way ahead of the curve in thinking about this stuff. It’s really, perhaps, people of my generation who are still dealing with these questions or hangups—the really narrow spaces in which to think about themselves or perform themselves.

But then, of course, it’s complicated when you factor in race. Racialized groups do not have the opportunity to explore the same [gender] roles in the same way. There’s more at stake if they deviate.

Jordan: As a final question Kenneth—what would a liberatory masculinity look like? Or what does it already look like? What could be the future of masculinity?

Kenneth: I think even trying to define something might be problematic. I think creating spaces where there are no set parameters for this kind of performance could be considered liberatory. I think finding a way to sort of transcend or erase clear demarcations of what is acceptable [for a man] is really important. A lot of the reason why I’m drawn to working with groups is because when men are placed in a position with their peers, a consensus is formed around what is acceptable and what isn’t. That’s why I often use the group to model different kinds of performances.

I don’t have a clear image of what a liberatory masculinity could be. But perhaps it’s something that we [wouldn’t] recognize it as such if we saw it. That’s something that’s really exciting for me. I know when one of my scenes is successful when I create an image or a moment that I don’t really know how to place; I can’t identify it. Perhaps not being able to identify it is a good first step.