Kenneth Tam Picks Apart Asian-American Masculinity

With a new work on view at the Queens Museum, the artist continues to probe the paradox of Asian-American visibility and ‘model minority’ myth

BY Alex Jen in Profiles , Reviews Across Asia | 09 APR 21

One of the scariest things about the murder of six Asian women in Atlanta on 16 March was the numbness I felt on hearing the news. The tragic, racially motivated killings didn’t seem surprising after a year of rising anti-Asian sentiment in the US, spurred by the pandemic. Asian-Americans are more accustomed to invisibility, to the familiar sense of resignation we feel when no one checks in or when we’re subject to a workplace faux pas – a condition that was suddenly, violently ruptured. This invisibility may stem, in part, from our awkward (and sometimes privileged) position at the periphery of the black-white racial binary and, in part, from the vast ethnic differences between Asian communities in the US, which make the categorization feel unmoored.  

Such is the refrain of Kenneth Tam’s performance The Crossing, which was curated by Lumi Tan and premiered at The Kitchen, New York, via livestream in December 2020. The Crossing starts in darkness, as barely rhythmic cymbals clatter and echo before a projected bonfire of burning US$100 bills. Single-file and linked at the arms, four masked spectres in sweats saunter into frame, stepping gingerly over a demarcated bagua before stomp-chanting: ‘ASIAN-AMERICAN IS A MOSTLY MEANINGLESS TERM.’ The line is from Jay Caspian Kang’s 2017 article in The New York Times Magazine on the 2013 fraternity hazing death of Chun Hsien (Michael) Deng. The atmosphere is that of a Taoist funeral. Burning paper money for the afterlife is customary but, hearing Kang’s refrain, I could only see that image in a twisted, exhausted light: having money to burn – as in success – is often the binding, if mistaken, purpose of Asian-American fraternities and families, who believe it will protect them. 

Kenneth Tam, The Crossing, 2020, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

One lone performer stays in the centre of the bagua as three others peel off and circle him. They pick up rubber Bumper Bully protectors and muffle them across their faces, yelling: ‘WHO AM I?’ The central performer does one push-up. ‘WHO AM I?’ they repeat, and he does another push-up. The question is almost trite but, when repeated aggressively, becomes unsettling, as if there could be a wrong answer. Eventually, the performers split and conduct their own drills concurrently. One crawls across the length of the room. Two charge and wrestle each other at centre stage. Another repeatedly slams his Bumper Bully to the ground, interrupting the quavering yet calm voice reading from the Tao Te Ching: ‘The name that can be named is not the eternal name.’ The text switches to facts about the first Asian-American fraternities in the US, which served as support groups for students on majority-white campuses. Off to the side, a performer quietly does push-ups until failure. Strength here is measured by its breaking point.

In The Crossing, acts of hazing become choreography and vice versa. Focusing on the performers’ trancelike movements, Tam encourages us to question the delusion of masculinity, particularly Asian masculinity. A Pi Delta Psi probate video he found on YouTube during research is set to Drake’s Over My Dead Body (2011) and shows men clad in black tearing off Rorschach masks, pumping their fists and shouting soundlessly. It is eerily sad. Do young Asian men feel so side-lined that they yearn to explosively shed their past lives? Pi Delta Psi was founded to educate brothers on key moments of Asian-American history, like Korematsu v. United States (1944), which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans, or the 1982 racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin, but missing questions on these history tests meant push-ups. Confronting a collective history of suffering – including the almost-unfathomable sacrifices made by immigrant parents – is an exercise in guilt. Perhaps, for many Asian-American men, this guilt gets mixed up with a fear of invisibility, a belief that to be noticed you must be professional, confident and masculine. 

‘I think Asians never know what they can get away with, in the same way that their white counterparts are more hip to. I would always sublimate that disadvantage through hard work,’ Tam told me when we spoke over the phone a few weeks ago. Is hard work supposed to convey composure? I can’t confirm if the origins are Asian, but my mom loves to remind me of the analogy of the duck paddling furiously underwater, without displaying any sign of struggle. Is that really so admirable? 

Kenneth Tam, I no longer worry about shoes being worn inside the house, 2010, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Tam was born and raised in a thoroughly East Asian suburb of Queens, New York. He was accepted to the BFA programme at Cooper Union with a portfolio of oil paintings with cubist tendencies. Once there, he felt unease towards white classmates’ confidence in expressing or being themselves. Though his work at the time did not focus on Asian-American identity, he observed that, if it had, the art world would likely not have been interested. This seems to be typical of the Asian-American condition: we wonder whether disinterest is a symptom of whiteness, and if it’s even OK to point it out for fear of appearing minoritarian.  

Tam took a break from making art after Cooper Union. After working a few odd jobs, he applied to graduate school with totally new work, involving a series of imperceptible alterations to IKEA Stefan chairs that he then posted on Craigslist. He found that the online marketplace allowed for brief moments of structured intimacy between strangers. Cathy (2009), a video made in his first year at the University of Southern California, has Tam sitting in the corner as a group of middle-aged friends share ribs and talk into the night. He observes, moves out of the way a few times, and is ultimately ignored – a disruption he has set up to be meaningless, but one that pricks like a clear-cut case of imposter syndrome. Tam says that, at the time, he didn’t know why he was making such videos, or if they were even art. He might have stopped if Bruce Hainley, his professor, hadn’t encouraged him to continue. Right before earning his MFA in 2010, he made I no longer worry about shoes being worn inside the house (2010): set in a carpeted studio apartment in Los Angeles, Tam and his partner from Craigslist interlock as if playing a stand-up game of Twister. They trade shirts, blindfold one another and give each other banal directions. Perhaps they wonder if they can be friends, or what will happen after they’re done filming. Closeness between men is so often qualified. 

It’s hard to tell if Tam is uncomfortable in his videos. Sometimes, he’s solicited to do things he doesn’t want to, and you wonder who is in control. ‘I foregrounded my insecurities in a way that I perhaps could never have done in a lived, casual kind of way,’ Tam told me recently. We first met on a muggy Houston summer day in 2016, halfway through his Core Residency at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tam’s studio was lined with the wood panelling that forms the backdrop of Breakfast in Bed (2016), an unexpectedly sweet culmination of his instructional videos. Men invited from Craigslist tag each other with paint and rustle around in aluminium foil suits while holding back laughter. There’s an oddly peaceful moment when the men inexplicably appear in panda masks, mime acts of swimming and end up on the floor, as if at kindergarten naptime. Do they feel the intimacy we project onto them? 

Kenneth Tam, Breakfast in Bed, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Breakfast in Bed signalled a shift in Tam’s work, as he sought to examine larger structures of masculinity from behind the camera. His latest work, Silent Spikes (2021), currently on view at the Queens Museum in New York, takes the masculine trope of the cowboy and the 1867 strike of Chinese Transcontinental Railroad workers as its starting point. In the video, Tam is disarmingly direct, asking a group of Asian men what they think sensuality is – something I never thought would be a matter of public concern.  

Recently, Tam has been exhibiting sculpture alongside his videos. Objects sit on or lie against each other, as if their corralled connotations are heavy enough. In graduate school, Tam made deadweight out of Abercrombie & Fitch bags by pouring concrete into them. In 2018, he began crafting, out of UltraLite and metal, enlarged gold watch links of the kind found dangling from the wrists of Chinese grandpas. The titular work in ‘The Glass Ceiling’, Tam’s 2020 exhibition at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, which was named for the violent hazing ritual to which Deng was subjected, consists of three plastic beverage tubs sliced in half, topped with all-weather Bumper Bullys and bottles of Bleu de Chanel, and draped with creased polyurethane sheeting. The central tub is red; a black dress belt snakes out from underneath; things are stacked precariously, as if pulled from a storage unit. In light of the frantic cover-ups ordered by fraternity brothers via text message as Deng lay dying, these party cast-offs take on a brutal connotation. 

When I woke up to the news of the Atlanta shootings, my first thought was of my mom and dad. Just a few days prior, I was home in San Diego, overstaying an escape from the Chicago winter. I wondered if my mom would slip into further paranoia with the recent hate crimes, and if I should’ve made more of an effort at conversation with my dad before leaving. (We’re close, but only seem to talk when life decisions are in play.) I thought about how angry I was when my dad and I were subjected to a possible microaggression at Costco, and how he explained in the car ride home how he was unaffected because he was sure he was more successful than our aggressor. I thought about how I came home angry to my mom, who was devastated because the man ‘might’ve done something bad’ if I had tried to confront him. And then I thought about Tam’s video sump (2015) because, for seven minutes, the artist appears so exceedingly close to his own father.  

Kenneth Tam, sump, 2015, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

In the video, the two men scroll through Google Images together, shirtless in the dark. Crammed in a basement full of things saved that will probably never be used again, they finger-paint swirls on each other’s bodies. In one scene, Tam appears on the ground with four strips of packing tape running down his chest; his father picks at them gingerly, as if inspecting a wound, but never pulls. Though mundane, the video reminded me how no one warned me that I’d spend progressively less time with my parents after leaving home at 18, nor how fast they would age, nor that none of us would talk about it. 

Tam said it took no explanation or convincing to get his father to participate. ‘Sure,’ he said – as if Tam was just asking to borrow the car. ‘He thought it was a responsibility, so he took it seriously,’ Tam told me. 

I understood that, too. Work is a language we seem to be stuck with, inextricable from our model minority myth. Paddle harder and make it to the top, or paddle slower and take a little break – won’t people see the same duck anyway? Tam’s videos make me feel uneasy, as if I’m witnessing my own repressions. But then there is the rippling melancholy, the shrewd levity, the silent care, the mundane discomfort, the intense beauty – these, too, are familiar to us. They show us what it’s like when you have nothing left to lose.  

Main image: Kenneth Tam, Silent Spikes, 2020, film still. Courtesy: Queens Museum, New York

Alex Jen is a writer and curator based in Chicago.