Silent Spikes is an exhibition by artist Kenneth Tam that investigates the intersections of masculinity, race, and labor. Featuring a two-channel video installation with accompanying photographs, the show examines the performance of gender and considers the power of image production and circulation, asking who has been silenced, erased, or left out of the frame.
Tam reflects on the underrepresented relationship between histories of Westward expansion and Chinese immigration in the United States. The central video installation is composed of vignettes of a group of self-identified Asian American men inhabiting the figure of the cowboy – an archetype of white American masculinity – and engaging in intimate conversations on a hazy, dreamlike set. These scenarios are combined with references to an 1867 strike undertaken by thousands of Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers – the largest organized labor action in United States history to that point. The video is accompanied by three black and white photographic portraits that depict Tam’s cowboys at close range and in high relief, gazing resolutely into the distance. Working with contemporary subjects to unravel popular portrayals and expectations of masculinity, Tam reimagines longstanding stereotyped representations of Asian males in media.
Interweaving past and present, expression of self and performance, Silent Spikes establishes a realm of potential where vulnerability, underrepresented histories, inherited struggles, and revised tropes present counter-narratives and offer soft, sensuous, and more expansive forms of male embodiment.