Kenneth Tam

Silent Spikes

November 6, 2021 through February 27, 2022

In Silent Spikes, New York-born artist Kenneth Tam reflects upon the underrecognized connection between the histories of Westward expansion and immigration in the U.S. The artist brings attention to the role of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the construction of the treacherous western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad (1863-1969), and explores archetypical expectations of masculinity in relation to intersections of gender, economics, and race. Tam’s two-channel video Silent Spikes reimagines the iconic trope of the cowboy, and juxtaposes this figure against the backdrop of little-known histories of immigrant labor in the American West.

In his research, Tam encountered the text, The Silent Spikes: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads, a publication by Huang Annian, former professor of American History at the Beijing Normal University, China. The exhibition’s title refers both to railroad spikes, the large nails used to secure tracks, and the over 20,000 exploited and silenced Chinese laborers without whom this most arduous segment of the railroad would never have been completed. The video incorporates visual and narrative references to the labor strike organized by Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers in 1867—one of the earliest instances of racialized protest in the U.S.

Organized by the Queens Museum in New York by Assistant Curator Sophia Marisa Lucas, the exhibition travels to MMoCA after its recent presentation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Exhibition and Programming Support

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.

Generous support for Imprint Gallery programming has been provided by Findorff.

Exhibition Image Credits

Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes, Queens Museum (February 24-June 23, 2021). Courtesy Queens Museum, photo credit: Jason Mandella.

Conversations with Kenneth Tam