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Research Guides@Tufts

Tufts University Art Galleries: Kenneth Tam: Standing in Soft Formation: Exhibition Overview

Tufts University Art Galleries, Medford , January 24- April 21, 2024


Through his choreographed video, photography, and sculpture, Kenneth Tam has long explored the myths and performative culture that uphold conventional American expectations of masculinity and identity. Kenneth Tam: Standing in Soft Formation features the aTufts University Art Galleries Logortist’s most recent projects, Silent Spikes (2021) and The Founding of the World (2022). These installations explore historical and present-day tropes of Anglo- American masculinity and their impact on Asian American identities; first through the invisible migrant labor that fueled the nineteenth-century dream of the American West, and then again through the fraught rituals of the college fraternity. Together the pieces offer a critical inquiry into the ways in which history embeds itself deeply in our bodies through the organizations we build physically and socially. 

Kenneth Tam

Black and white photography of an Asian American man dressed up as a cowboy/in Western gear

Kenneth Tam, Alfred. 2022. Archival pigment print, lacquer frame. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City

Kenneth Tam is based in Houston, TX and Queens, NY.  He works across video, sculpture, performance, movement, installation, and photography, and makes work about the performance of masculinity, spaces of physical intimacy and the transformative potential of private ritual. Tam received his BFA from the Cooper Union and his MFA from the University of Southern California in 2010. 

He has had solo exhibitions at Ballroom Marfa, TX; MoCA Tucson, AZ; Queens Museum, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN; MIT List Center for Visual Arts, MA; the Visual Arts Center at UT Austin, TX; Commonwealth and Council, CA; and ICA LA, CA.  Tam has participated in group shows at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, CO; the Hammer Museum, CA; SculptureCenter, NY and at The Shed, NY.   

Tam is currently an Assistant Professor at Rice University and faculty at The Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. 

Fraternity Resources

Kenneth Tam. Still from: The Founding of the World, 2023. Single-channel 4K video, color, sound, 14 min 19 sec, butterfly knife

The articles and books in this section unpack the world of fraternities, both nationally and here at Tufts, as well as examining the allure of Asian American fraternities for Asian American men. In The Founding of the World, Tam draws on fraternity rituals, such as the probate, to explore the dynamics of violence and intimacy within male social organizations.

Chinese Railroad Workers and the American West

Epoxy resin, dirt, sand, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, dried bamboo shoots, steel

Kenneth Tam, He does not know the custom. 2022. Epoxy resin, dirt, sand, dried mushrooms, dried seaweed, dried bamboo shoots, steel. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City

Tam’s video installation Silent Spikes and its accompanying sculptures deal with the ways in which narratives from the Old West resonate in the modern day, exploring and contrasting the untold story of the building of the transcendental railroad by Chinese laborers and the more ubiquitous myth of the cowboy. Both narratives are explored, first through the archeological traces of railroad laborers and then through an exploration on the cowboy trope and its ramifications. 

Identity and Performance

Kenneth Tam. Drop Barrel. 2022. Archival pigment print, lacquer frame. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles, Mexico City

Tam’s works deals with identity, performance, and the ways in which identity is performed. Through videos, podcast, articles, and books, explore theories on how identity is shaped and how it affects the way we move about and interact with the world. Also included are sources specific to Asian American identities and masculinities. 

Key Questions/Questions for Self-Guided Exploration:

  • Tam explores the formation and performance of a masculine identity through many different iterations and influences, such as the Old West and modern-day fraternal organizations. How have ideas of masculinity changed throughout the time periods of the works in the exhibit? How have they remained constant?  Where do you see tensions between traditional Asian American culture and Anglo ideals of masculinity?

  • Much of Tam’s work is performance-based, looking at various types and qualities of movement, often with non-professional performers. Why might the artist choose to work in this way? What does this approach say about Tam’s work with identity? 

  • How can the body and its movements be a vehicle for identity? How do bodies hold history?  

  • Tam references the popular media trope of the cowboy throughout the exhibit. What role has media played in the formation of identity (gendered, racial, or otherwise)? How does it continue to shape how people present themselves?  

  • What is the role of material culture in Tam’s work? How has he animated the everyday trappings of Asian American men throughout time to reconstruct and comment on their developing identities?