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The Founding of the World takes as its framework the ritual of the probate, originally explored by Tam during a 2020 residency and livestreamed performance with The Kitchen in New York City, organized by Lumi Tan. In these stylized and structured public ceremonies, synchronized choreographies of death and rebirth illustrate the retelling of a brotherhood’s history, the liturgical embodiment of an origin myth. 

Featuring an original score by interdisciplinary artist eddy kwon, the titular video opens with a line-up of young men dressed in red and black. They stand crammed inside a dark wood-paneled room reminiscent of a basement or recreation room, some staring directly at the camera with arms crossed while others fidget with their hands and t-shirts. Together they recreate certain elements of the probate (donning masks, group movement, military-inspired line formations) while inventing others, intermingling acts of violence and tenderness. 

The video installation demarcates a private and ritual-focused experience of sacred space with a quasi-memorial as well. Empty liquor and cologne bottles, objects an adolescent might keep in their bedroom as trophies, hover above the gallery floor on pipes affixed to the ceiling with tactical flashlights illuminating them from below. Their presentation reminds us how these vessels serve ritualistic functions, as products associated with the rite-of-passage into adulthood.

A separate gallery features a new series of Aqua-Resin wall sculptures cast from molded arrangements of hoodies and varsity jackets, common articles of dress in probates. Their dark and spectral formations–resembling coats of arms, ritual tablets, and other heraldic symbols—suggest writhing and wrestling bodies. Together they stand in as the emblems through which fraternities assert presence and dominion in public space. A number of these sculptures have embedded accessories, such as metal watch bands, imitation gold chains, razor blades, handcuff keys, dog tags, and Chinese coins. They speak to the displays of excess, cultural syncretization, and violence associated with the probate and tropes of masculinity more generally.

For Tam, while fraternities are one space in which the idea of Asian America is constituted, their function in many ways serves more as a reflection of the expectations placed on young men in a country that perpetuates and demands harmful performances of masculinity. The installation’s meditation on the ritual movement and consecration of space within the probate—partly taking inspiration and title from the writing in Mircea Eliades in 1957’s The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion—elicits the contradictory forces inscribed within a community’s “founding of the world;” the creation myths through which “the real unveils itself [and] the world comes into existence.” For young Asian American men in these fraternities, the world is constituted through a highly specified and often contradictory performance of gender and race, in which violence is often conflated with intimacy, at times with tragic outcomes. For Tam, the probate is a space where urgent questions about group identity, assimilation and cultural authenticity are asked, and given haunting, physical form.

Production Credits:

New York
Director of Photography: Christian Carroll
Assistant Cameraperson: Vadim Aynbinder
Lighting Designer: Kelley Shih
Assistant Lighting Designer: Xiaoyue Zhang
Choreographer: Juri Onuki
Performers: Huiwang Zhang

Director of Photography: Tyler Swanner
Gaffer: Esteban Caicedo
Production Assistant:  Dylan Scardino
Location Scout: Chris Lacher
Performers: Daniel Bacuyag, William Chao, Jeffrey Huang, Stephen Hunt, Alan Kim, Alex Kim, Steven Luu

Composer and Vocalist: eddy kwon
Digital Animation: Taylor Shields
3D Rendering: X Art Services/Tellef Tellefson
Colorist: Huephoric
Studio Assistants: Claudia Corujo, Matthew Li
Fabricators: Shisanwu LLC, Rest Energy/Caleb Engstrom, American Fine Arts Foundry

Additional support provided by: The New York State Council on the Arts, UnionDocs Center for Documentary Arts

Photographs by Paul Salveson