Interview with Kenneth Tam:
Rituals of Identity

Kenneth Tam in conversation with Divya Mehra

Still from sump (2015)

With an absurdist sensibility and socially disruptive subject matters, Kenneth Tam explores rituals as a form of cultivating intimacy. Through video, live performance, sculpture, and photography, he destabilizes our assumptions of how people, particularly men, should behave, and prompts his audience to reconsider how we perform identities. Watching his videos, one immediately feels captivated, entertained, and an unexpected vulnerability while watching others shed their protective personas. There is a push-and-pull between playful release and the unsettling experience of facing one’s own expectations and judgments.    

We talk about his interest in historical and invented rituals, masculinity, performance, and what lies ahead for him.

DM: You’ve spoken about the oil paintings you made as a high schooler. Were you always drawn toward the arts? Did you know you’d become an artist?

KT: Art took up a lot more of my time starting in high school. It wasn’t something I did in school, though. I went to a specialized math and science high school, which didn’t offer too much in the way of a fine arts program. So most of what I was doing was through extracurriculars. Fortunately, I had very open-minded and supportive parents. They took me to a local art supply store where they had classes in the back. I took them for a number of years and ended up making oil paintings.

I don’t think I understood what it meant to be an artist yet, but I did know I wanted to continue pursuing art. It was partially just as a way to reject all the STEM things I was doing at school, this small act of rebellion. But I was very passionate about it.

Silent Spikes (2021) installation. Photograph by Jason Mandella.

DM: Do you look back at earlier artwork and recognize themes you’re exploring now?

KT: Some of them: interest in the representation of the male body and its performance. The Marlboro paintings were, in some way, just casual attempts to make an interesting image. I was drawn to them because of their success as images and the way they were constructed in all their artifice.

As a high school student, I don’t think I was necessarily ruminating on their relationship to gender and its performance, but I was drawn to how compelling they were just as images. Perhaps it was the mystique and whatever mythology that they were tapping into. In reality, they were constructing it as much as they were tapping into it.

DM: Your work explores how we use rituals to construct a shared identity, even when said identity is ever-changing. Do you think rituals are an effective way to foster a sense of belonging or do you think they are limiting in how they set specific parameters on behavior?

KT: Rituals are just as malleable as the thing they represent. Yes, they have the appearance of being unchanging or stuck in the past. But in fact, they are constantly adapting to our needs. All rituals are constructed as a response to some basic social need and they continue to evolve, perhaps in very small, subtle ways. 

In my own work, I’m interested in rituals that respond to a particular need for intimacy between individuals and the way in which they can foster intimacy that’s more permissible than the larger culture would allow. I think about rituals as a catalyst for new models of behaviors and social scripts. Fundamentally, a good ritual has the ability to transform something, even if it’s purely symbolic.

Scenes from The Crossing (2020). Photographs by Paula Court.

Scenes from The Crossing (2020). Photographs by Paula Court.

DM: In The Crossing, you combined Taoist funeral rites with fraternity hazing initiation rituals, which are both equally transformative markers. Yet one one is older and symbolizes death, while the other is newer and symbolizes rebirth. Can you speak about your intention behind bringing those two together?

KT: I was really drawn to this particular incident of a young man who was pledging for his fraternity and died during the hazing. It sparked my interest in the subject matter of Asian-American fraternities. His death was certainly very tragic and, through research, I discovered that it was not an isolated incident. Given the small number of Asian-American fraternities, there was a large preponderance of young men dying while being hazed.

So there is already a built-in element of death within these rituals. And there is the symbolic death that happens, where the young men cast off their previous individual identity and assume a group one, of both the fraternity and the larger sense of Asian-Americaness being invented as they go along. I was investigating the symbolic death and also these real, violent deaths that were happening.

This dovetailed into more ancient rituals. I brought in the Taoist aspect largely because yin and yang appeared in some of the symbolism that the fraternities use. For them, it was probably very incidental and an easy shorthand for something about Asian identity. But I wanted to take that further. I thought it might be interesting to collapse these more modern, invented rituals and other ways in which death is understood and explored.

Certainly, these fraternities are not invested in that kind of thinking, but I wanted to see if I could give it that kind of weight. I wanted to give space to these young men who were dying and also what they were pledging themselves to, this thing that they were trying to recast themselves as in terms of their identity. How could a ritual actually give real meaning and substance to it versus these invented things the young men were performing for themselves and for their peers?       

DM: What you lose when trying to inhabit a new identity is a very interesting question. In Jay Caspian Kang’s article, which you mention was an inspiration for The Crossing, he argues that the umbrella term, Asian-American, is very tenuous and constructed on the basis of shared struggle. Do you agree with this?

KT: I’m actually reading his newest book right now, The Loneliest Americans, which follows this idea that Asian-Americans are somehow lonely, not in a dramatic sense that they’re sitting alone on a bench, but the fact that no one is paying attention to their perceived struggle and trauma.

It’s complicated, because while Asian-Americans have certainly faced their share of discrimination, often in very violent forms, it has affected different groups very differently. I think it’s totally valid for these young men to build an identity upon that. The question is how much do they really understand this? Is it just something they are regurgitating? Is it something that is actually felt? And I think Kang’s whole argument is that while there is this overlapping history and it’s certainly a history based on a sometimes shared struggle—more often not,—is that enough to build an identity on? Is this past really one that an incredibly diverse group of people can coalesce around?

I’m less drawn to this idea that people form identity just out of adversity. I think that’s certainly one component of how we create our sense of self and also try to project that onto others in terms of who we seek out. But it’s not just the struggle that defines us. There is a sense of overlapping cultures and histories in the way in which we’re brought up and familial history. That kind of more intimate struggle is a very compelling reason to form an identity. There are many ways in which you can construct your identity that are not just about collective trauma because I think that can only get you so far. And in the case of Asian-Americans, that experience is so wide,diverse and often that trauma was inflicted by other Asian-Americans. It’s not just one clear adversary on which our identity is based around. Certainly, we can say white supremacy is one of them, but that only goes so far.

DM: Why do you think we see men using ritualized violence to create bonds in these spaces?

KT: I think it speaks to a very American way of understanding masculinity and performance.

One of the things I found very ironic was that as these individuals were seeking ways to create ritual and to ground themselves, they chose not to pick from their own cultures, which are thousands of years old and full of content, but borrowed from the most violent of American pastimes. What are they actually trying to articulate? Who are they actually performing for?

There’s this sense that they need to overcompensate because their masculinity has been maligned. There have been a lot of academic papers on this too, which account for the greater percentage of violent incidents resulting in death and the ways in which toxic masculinity has seeped into Asian-American fraternities. It seems really ironic and tragic that they always end up taking away from the same well of violent ritual and that their masculinity is inevitably wedded to how they can brutalize and traumatize each other. In order to be able to get to a space in which they can just be friends, they must first go through this gauntlet of self-inflicted violence.

To me, this has nothing to do with being Asian. It has everything to do with being a young man in this country, or in the West, and the expectations that these people have to live under.

Still from Breakfast in Bed (2016)

I’m curious as to whether you see your art as political. Do you think art is effective in inciting social change?

KT: I’ve never actually thought of my work as political. It’s political in the way that it deals with issues of power and how we can reimagine its expression. I would hope that it’s transformative. I think all good art is transformative even if on a purely aesthetic level. It doesn’t have to necessarily be revolutionary or result in social change, but it does something.     

With a lot of my earlier works, I was really interested in seeing how causing a certain kind of disruption could allow for new ways to understand gender performance or masculinity or whatever word you want to use there. Even if through the very benign means of getting a group of men together and engaging in these seemingly playful activities. How can it leave you unable to fully characterize what you’re seeing? I think that’s very important too.

So if you think of political art as not only wanting to create a certain kind of change, but also knowing exactly what that change should look like, I would say that my work isn’t political. I don’t necessarily know what the outcome should be. While I do hope that my works can be transformative, I don’t know what that transformation should be explicitly. All I’m doing is proposing art as a space for alternatives. That’s really something I believe in very strongly.

DM: Your work does have a lot of playfulness in it. What attracts you to the absurd?

KT: On a very basic level, it speaks to my sense of humor. But the absurd can also be a very powerful place to create change. It can rearrange social order and invert hierarchy in a way that can dislodge the things that seem most permanent and immutable. With the absurd you can toss all that aside and rearrange things. You can use humor to propose very disruptive and even dangerous alternative ideas. Even just as a space of social critique, it’s very useful.

Again, I use ritual as a way of inverting norms. I think a lot about the kinds of rituals that are about casting aside our day-to-day selves and imagining new ones temporarily. We tend to think of Halloween and Mardi Gras as debaucherous events, and they are, but within that is a kernel of social critique and perhaps even something revolutionary:  we can become different selves and upend the social order. That’s the kind of energy that some of my earlier videos tapped into.

When I work with participants in my videos I often tell them: When I turn on the camera, you can use this as an opportunity to reimagine yourself. You can use this space as a way to be a different version of yourself. Really think about that and perhaps cast aside some of the inhibitions or even fears that go along with whatever identity you have.

That was really important for Breakfast in Bed, where I crafted the activities I had these men perform, thinking about what they would and wouldn’t allow themselves to do in their day-to-day lives. Play becomes important.

Still from sump (2015)

Still from sump (2015)

DM: Speaking of casting away your inhibitions, there is a theme in your work (sump, Breakfast in Bed, and All of M) of using these small rituals of touch and applying things to other men’s bodies, whether it be paint or Cheerios. Why did you choose these particular gestures and have the participants interact in this way?

KT: Men tend to be alienated from their own bodies and I wanted to create a way to allow for a space for touch, for men to just touch each other in a way that wasn’t stigmatized and wasn’t connected to shame. So I created these simple activities of applying paint to another person’s body, which started in sump between me and my father, just as a way to see what would happen. It was something that he and I have never done before. I can’t remember the last time I touched his body and vice versa, so I used the ritual as an opportunity to explore that very tender and awkward space. I thought it was a very effective way of allowing this very particular kind of intimacy to unfold. I applied it to Breakfast in Bed and also All of M, creating a very simple way for men to touch each other, which seems so benign and, like, really? That’s the contested ground masculinity has to defend itself against? (laughs) But in actuality, it’s a very loaded sentiment and physical interaction that opens up different kinds of spaces. That’s why I used it so often. A simple, but powerful, gesture on camera.

DM: You’ve used a lot of non-actors in the past and then recently, you did some work with trained dancers and performers. How have you found the way in which they use their bodies and engage in touch differs?

KT: We are all trained to perform in some way. We carry an internalized script and as soon as you turn the camera on, that script becomes more visible. I bring this up to say that the actors I have worked with have the training that gives them the confidence to think they know what I want. I’m much more interested in how people just perform themselves in a way that might be quite awkward, especially when the script that they have is no longer adequate. That’s how I conceive of a lot of the activities or rituals in my videos where I try to create these situations in which  they can no longer rely on the things that they often do in their day-to-day lives. They don’t have a readymade response to a certain kind of behavior or prompt so they are forced to actually be more – I hesitate to use the word authentic, but I don’t know what else to say – yeah, a more authentic or less scripted version of themselves.

For The Crossing, I had to work with actual trained performers because I knew that what we were doing required that skillset. If I were to do it again, I would be interested in working with untrained individuals and seeing the kinds of performances they give. I do think it’s a much more vulnerable performance. They are forced to deal with each other in a way that isn’t some sort of canned response. That’s something I play with a lot in Breakfast in Bed, oscillating between totally unrehearsed, unscripted activities and then things that ask the men to perform in a certain way based on their previous experiences.

DM: I’ve noticed that in quite a bit of work. You go between the participant answering a question and performing a group activity. You also frequently move between mediums and modes of presentation. In your future work, are you more interested in recorded video or live performance?

KT: I’m interested in both. Being able to do The Crossing was really thrilling, even though it wasn’t totally live and mediated by the camera because of the pandemic. It was a very interesting and different set of parameters I was forced to engage with. I still want to continue working with my participants strictly for the camera and trying to create prompts for them that result in more spontaneous responses. But I’m always drawn to the live body, how we experience liveness, and the thrill of being in an actual space with them. That’s an aspect I would love to continue to explore if presented with the opportunity.   

DM: Are there specific themes or directions towards which you see your work moving?

KT: I do want to revisit the fraternity rituals, but this time, looking less at its relationship to death and rituals of grief, and more at the ways in which the rituals overlap with ideas about fascism. The events of the past few years have really created that urgency for me. And not to say that Asian-American fraternities are fascist, but they certainly adopt some of their aesthetics and they certainly perform that in some of the rituals I’ve seen. I’m interested in unpacking the relationship between masculinity and the need to project strength and use violence. What does it mean to use violence to create identity and how might that overlap with some of these fraternity rituals? This is one thread that I’m pursuing.

This idea of masculinity and violence is something I’ve been hesitant to explore too much. With The Crossing I approached it thinking about death and grieving rather than the actual violence in fraternities. But it seems really hard not to think about that now, especially after four years of Trump and all these overt gestures of fascism we’ve been seeing all over the place. It’s hard not to make those kinds of connections between how men organize themselves and what they do when they feel aggrieved or marginalized. I think that’s something that needs to be examined, to put it mildly. I’m interested in seeing how my work can intersect with that.

DM: Why have you been hesitant to approach the subject of masculinity and violence?

KT: I’m simply much more drawn to spaces of intimacy and vulnerability. Those are more powerful emotions or images that are, perhaps, lacking in the culture and I think it is a really vital terrain that needs to be explored. There’s already been so much work thinking about the excesses of masculinity and their often violent expressions, or the ways in which those expressions are mediated through acts of violence. 

That’s basically why I’ve been nervous about entering that space. Also, I’m aware of how my work is perceived and when people say even just the word “masculinity,” it’s often assumed a toxic masculinity is being discussed. I’m conscious of having my work pigeonholed in that way. I want the work to live in a very generous and open space that isn’t defined by these preconceived terms that are, to be honest, overused. We think we know what we’re talking about, but it’s much more complicated than these terms we use. 

DM: It reminds me of what you were saying about “Asian-American” as an umbrella term. The language we use can often lose its meaning and become a placeholder for more nuanced and undefinable ideas. Any upcoming shows we can look forward to?

KT: Silent Spikes is traveling to Marfa, TX in September and I have a solo show at my gallery in Los Angeles in early 2023.

DM: We’ve spoken about different types of rituals in your work. Do you have any personal rituals you use in your creative process?

KT: Oh wow, that’s hard to answer. Offhand, no. I don’t really think I do. What is my creative practice? (laughs) I feel like I find things that I’m interested in and then I will dive into YouTube to find more versions of it and I’ll try to find texts. If binge-watching YouTube videos can be described as ritualistic, that’s one element of my process. I feel that  so much of my work has an anthropological element to it, or concerns behavior. That’s something I rely on in terms of my own research and feeding the creative process.

So yeah, YouTube consumption is one ritual that I put myself through to find interesting things, to find new ideas.

DM: When you asked yourself, what is my creative process, I was thinking about how elusive it is for  so many of us, even while we’re participating in it. It’s hard to look back and say what really happened there.

At the start of our interview, you mentioned that you didn’t have a good sense of what it means to be an artist when you were young. Do you feel like you have a good sense now?

KT: Yeah (laughs), I’d like to think so. It took me a while though. There were people I went to school with who were very confident about what that identity meant. Oftentimes, their parents were artists or they grew up around artists so it was a very clear path for them. But for me, it took a lot longer to figure that out for myself. Also, I felt like an imposter at certain points. Even after graduate school, I still didn’t feel comfortable with the identity. It was like: I do other things, but I also make art.

I guess there is a ritualistic component to even identifying oneself as an artist. But I’ve made my peace with it at this point (laughs). It’s what I do. It’s how I spend most of my time. It’s an identity I feel comfortable with, finally. 

About the Author
Kenneth Tam is based in Queens, NY.  He works in video, sculpture, installation and photography, and makes work about the performance of masculinity, physical intimacy and private ritual. Tam received his BFA from the Cooper Union. He has had solo exhibitions at the Minneapolis Institute of Art; MIT List Center for Visual Arts; the Visual Arts Center at UT Austin, Commonwealth and Council, LA; Night Gallery, LA; Queens Museum, NY, ICA LA and at Ballroom Marfa in Fall of 2022. Tam has participated in group shows at  the Hammer Museum, LA; SculptureCenter, Queens and at The Shed, NY. He is a Lecturer at Princeton University, faculty at Bard’s MFA program, and was recently a Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University.

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