MMoCA Presents “Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes,” Opening in November
Tam reflects upon the underrecognized connection between the histories of Westward expansion and immigration in the U.S.
Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes Press Release
MADISON, WI—The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is pleased to announce the exhibition of Silent Spikes by New York-born artist Kenneth Tam. 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.
In this solo exhibition, 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.
Composed in a stunning cinematic style combining interpretative reenactment 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 films. Involving a group of diverse Asian-American male participants, Tam acknowledges that the complex dynamics have resounding sociocultural impacts on the experiences of young men living and working in American society today. Over the course of several sessions, Tam led members of his five-participant cohort through various loosely scored individual and collective activities, aimed at promoting connection and self-expression unconfined by these long-ago constructed categories.
This is a characteristic approach for Tam, who explains, “I’m very drawn to the kinds of vulnerability that can emerge when people are asked to perform for the camera outside of their usual behaviors. Sometimes it results in awkward or even uncomfortable performances. I find that these awkward moments can reveal how our everyday presentations are guided by unwritten but internalized scripts. We carry ourselves and behave in a way that I feel is structured by expectations and conventions. How we construct our identity is tied to things like our race, gender, occupation and class, and each one of these categories carries within it information on how we perform ourselves.”
Together the cohort reflected on the cowboy as a looming icon of American masculine values to which other ethnic and cultural expressions of maleness are measured and devalued, including their own. In several of the sessions, participants donned classic Western attire while engaging in movements inspired by rodeo bull riders. Inhabiting and adapting this archetype, Tam and his participants honor inherited struggles while centering vulnerability and connection as reparative forms of male embodiment.
After traveling from New York to California, the actual span of the Transcontinental Railroad, Madison is a prime location for a third venue for Kenneth Tam: Silent Spikes. Although a route from Prairie de Chien, Wisconsin, to the Pacific was initially proposed by Asa Whitney as early as 1849, it was ultimately rejected in favor of the Overland Route originating in Council Bluffs, Iowa. While excluded from the route connecting the coasts, Wisconsin launched a comprehensive railroad development plan in 1847 with its own complex relationship to Westward expansion, labor, immigration, and identity.A small river named Duden flows by their place and supplies it with the necessary regelialia. It is a paradisematic country, in which roasted parts of sentences fly into your mouth.
About the Artist
Kenneth Tam (b. 1982) works in video, sculpture, and photography, using the male body as a starting point for discussions about performance, physical intimacy, vulnerability, and private ritual. Tam received a BFA from the Cooper Union, and his MFA from the University of Southern California. This past summer, Tam participated in The Shed’s Open Call and recently produced his first performance at The Kitchen. He has had solo exhibitions at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; MIT List Center for Visual Arts, Boston, MA; Commonwealth and Council, LA; and Night Gallery, LA. Tam has participated in group shows at 47 Canale, NY; Hollybush Gardens, London; the Hammer Museum, LA; and the 2019 InPractice exhibition at Sculpture Center, Queens. He has participated in residencies including Artist Lab at 18th Street Arts Center; LMCC Workspace; The Core Residency Program at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Pioneer Works. Tam is currently a Lecturer at Princeton University and a Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University. Tam was born in Queens, NY, where he currently lives.
This work was made possible by the Queens Museum with support from the Asian Art Circle at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Visit mmoca.org for announcements about programming associated with this exhibition.
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s galleries are always admission-free. The Museum’s vision is to be an organization that fosters the exchange of ideas and creates experiences that will inspire a wide audience; be a nexus for the work of emerging and established regional, national, and international artists; serve as a catalyst for the continued development of a vigorous community of artists; and provide a forum that will encourage people to be challenged by, reflect on, and make connections between art and the world around them.
The Museum includes four galleries and The Shop, a space to provide interactive contemporary art experiences and educational workshops to Madison communities. The Rooftop Sculpture Garden provides an urban oasis with an incredible view and serves as a lovely venue for weddings, art openings, and cinema. Please visit mmoca.org to learn more.
Director of Communications