The Brooklyn Rail
Silent Spikes explores intersections of masculinity, race, and labor economics connected to the building of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad (1863-1869). Silent Spikes highlights an aspect of this history that remains underrecognized: with this incredibly ambitious, arduous, and costly enterprise of connecting the East and the West coasts by rail, Chinese immigration and American Westward Expansion became intertwined. The exhibition’s title comes from “railroad spikes,” the large nails used to secure tracks, and refers to the exploited, marginalized, and “silenced” Chinese laborers without whom the railroad would not have been completed.
This cinematic two-channel video composition incorporates references to a strike that was organized by thousands of these Chinese laborers working in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1867. Interpretative narration of their act of defiance is interwoven with dramatic location imagery and documentation of Tam’s work with five untrained performers. In loosely scored individual and group activities, the Asian American men generate new, unconfined expressions of male selfhood and intimacy. Together they reflect on the cowboy as a looming icon of American masculine values to which other ethnic and cultural expressions of maleness are measured and devalued, including their own. Inhabiting and adapting this archetype, the artist and his participants honor inherited struggles while centering vulnerability and connection as reparative forms of male embodiment.
Curated by Sophia Marisa Lucas
Commissioned by the Queens Museum with support from the Asian Art Circle of the Guggenheim Museum
Participants: Tyler Chen, Theodore Lee, Virgo Raaz, Alfred Tom, Ahnaf Zitou
Dancer: Andrew Chung
Director of Photography: Christian Carroll
Additional Photography: Camen Hodges
Choreography: Alyssa Forte
Cantonese voiceover and translation: Christopher Sin
Sound Technician: Jeffrey Rowell
Wardrobe Stylist: Daisy De Jesus
Costume Designer: Curie Choi
Fabricator: Francis Louvis
Photographs by Jason Mandella and Hai Zhang