Kenneth Tam’s solo exhibition Tender is the hand which holds the stone of memory features a series of commissioned sculptures alongside a two-channel video installation. In his exhibition, Tam unearths forgotten histories in order to reimagine our own identities and to question dominant myths that shape and govern our bodies. One of the most enduring myths that still haunts our nation is Manifest Destiny and the conquest of the American West. These ideologies have circulated and remain embedded in popular culture through Westerns and advertising, such as the figure of the Marlboro Man. These images reified claims to Indigenous land as well as distorted Indigenous histories, while also enforcing stereotypes of Anglo-American masculinity that remain pervasive.
Tam’s examination of American westward expansion is rooted in the unrecorded lives of nameless Chinese laborers, who toiled under the most physically arduous conditions in the late nineteenth century. Silent Spikes, the video installation on view at Ballroom, weaves together improvised dialogue and movement sequences from a group of participants, along with semi-fictional scenes of a Chinese worker from inside the tunnels of the Transcontinental Railroad. During Tam’s site visit to West Texas in 2021, his encounter with artifacts and fragments of objects left at workers’ camps along the railroad led him to consider how physical remnants function as stand-ins for the disappeared histories of laborers. Tam’s sculptures suggest other ways of thinking about these men. His use of archaeological fragments as visual and material language complicates the simple narratives that have been constructed about migrant lives. In their lifetimes, Chinese laborers were reviled for their race but praised for their industriousness, their worth as people always tied to their ability to labor. Bits of dried food, broken jewelry and other personal items are integrated into the sculptures to point to experiences of precarity, but also tenderness and care. Physical traces–and even the sounds of the railroad passing through Marfa still today–can serve as reminders of how this nation was built, and by whom.
Tender is the hand which holds the stone of memory is organized by Daisy Nam, Ballroom Marfa Executive Director and Curator with assistance from Alexann Susholtz, Exhibitions and Curatorial Assistant.