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There is something alluring about the group of Asian-American men featured in Silent Spikes (2021), a two-channel video installation by Kenneth Tam recently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA). In the film, the men seem kind and open-minded as they attempt to embody the mannerisms of a Western bull rider in an empty black box theater. Tam juxtaposes these scenes with a series of historical narratives from the American West in an attempt to locate where historical racism and gender performance intersect. The resulting work raises poignant questions about American culture and masculinity, and how the historical past lingers in our contemporary present.
The cowboy is a central figure in the film, serving both as a performable character and as a rich site of critical inquiry. While the figure has long been recognized as a quintessential symbol of the American frontier, Tam intervenes to explore what it means to create a new, nonwhite iteration of the cowboy archetype. Much like in his previous videos, the men in the film are a group of strangers placed in various scenarios—in a rehearsal style scene, they don cowboy costumes, and without props or horses, pantomime a horseman’s presumed movements. In a way, the film reads like a social experiment examining how Tam’s Asian-American cast each performs this archetype. Will they adopt the hypermasculine persona historically expressed by white American men, or will their embodiment of the figure take on a different angle? As they perform onstage in what reads as a sort of drag, many of the men move with a remarkable softness, enacting simple gestures—such as the slow lifting of an arm high above their head or the synchronized rotation of their chest and hips—that open complex dialogues surrounding the performance of self.
The actors’ movements demonstrate a sensuality that is also addressed during interviews with them spliced into the film. Some share their thoughts on male sensuality and how social codes define when and how it is expressed. One actor describes sensuality as the building and releasing of tension, while another marks it as an intimate expression of the mind and body—both are beautiful metaphors that play themselves out across the video as they practice their cowboy movements, present final performances, and engage with one another on set. In a scene where two cowboys share the stage, Tam grapples with the boundaries of male-on-male intimacy as the actors push one another on a saddle armature designed to represent a moving horse, and in related scenes complement one another based on their experience working together. “I think you are a very nice guy, just by how you treat people and how you speak to them,” says one man to his cowboy peer. “I also think you are a very good-looking guy, with great height. Sometimes [I am] a little envious of the height.” These intimate moments are both earnest and sensual, providing a tender counterpoint to the more distanced and masculine cowboy portrayed across American media.
Cut between these moments are 19th century narratives that provide robust context. One voiceover, coupled with footage of a long railroad tunnel, tells the story of the 1867 labor strike in which Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers demanded better pay and labor conditions that would put them on par with their white counterparts. The fictional script, which was written by Tam and is read by a Cantonese narrator, was inspired by The Silent Spikes (2006), a book by historian Huang Annian from which Tam’s film borrows its name. In the film, a Chinese laborer discusses his frustrations with the strike’s failure, signaling the ongoing racism and exploitation he and his peers experienced. As lawyer and scholar Bryn Williams has noted, Chinese male immigrants in the 19th century also experienced discrimination and emasculation for their clothing, long braided hair, and other forms of cultural expression, which were deemed too feminine for Western norms.1 In Silent Spikes, Tam links this historical period with the present day, eloquently drawing cross-temporal connections between Asian men in America since the 19th century. He provokes us to consider the ways in which historical events inform American cultural beliefs and behaviors, and how interventions on masculinity, as expressed through the figure of the American cowboy, powerfully challenge both male social codes and hegemonic structures of power.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 26.