Traditions, as the Pi Delta Psi video is plainly titled, was my introduction to Tam’s research around Asian–American fraternities and probate ceremonies in which new pledges are publicly revealed. The video follows a well-trodden narrative path of a performance documentary by first starting behind the scenes to build up emotion. An elder brother charts the inspirational journey which lies ahead, an opportunity to show the audience “who you were, who you are and who you’ll be” in the video’s only audible dialogue. There’s a huddle up—gun signs blazing—that establishes the bond between the pledges, before they assemble into the line up, which proudly features the fraternity shield of Pi Delta Psi with a yin yang at its center. After a quick edit of the ceremony itself, shaky camera footage captures the eruption of emotion at the conclusion. The journey has been completed, but there has only been a single soundtrack: the hook from Drake’s 2011 song “Over My Dead Body.” The hook is notably the section of the song which focuses on the severance of relationships, rather than the notions of success addressed in the verses.
That relatively small detail is perhaps one of the only parts of the video that feels surprising. The stereotype is that Asian parents want their American-born or raised children to assimilate to American ideals of success as much as possible, which often results in our over-investment into American ideals of individuality. Which is likely why I found more comfort aligning myself with white dreams of artistic outsiderness in my late teens than in Asian American groups, like Pi Delta Psi, that seemed to only promote model minority conformity. While my older sister pledged to a non-culturally specific (a.k.a. white) sorority in college, to me the belonging—and mainstream (a.k.a. white) pathways of success—promoted by Greek Life felt very alienating. So, in 2013 when Michael Deng’s death during a hazing ritual for Pi Delta Psi made the news, I found it tragic, but not surprising. Another toxic result of a toxic frat culture. It wasn’t until Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times magazine story on Deng came out four years later that I learned about these fraternities’ focus on educating their members on centuries of Asian oppression. In their quest to prove the strength and resilience of the Asian subject, Deng’s fraternity brothers still could only uphold violence as a defining, transformational act for Asian Americans.
This was the understanding of Asian American fraternities I brought to my first viewing of “Traditions.” Videos are made for circulation and repetition, just as the choreography and staging of these probate ceremonies are. Probate ceremonies find their symbolism in their (literal) linearity, which set up choreographic structures that pledges eventually break free from (but not too free). The line formations of stepping and probate ceremonies have clear origins in military formations so that you’ll never forget that these brotherhoods—no matter how heartwarmingly presented, with pop songs to match—are also rooted in enacting power over others, and a belief in the necessity of being broken down as an individual to find strength as a collective. “Traditions” offers a promise and potential of what it can mean to participate in a cycle, a packaged brotherhood which allows little room for diversion. But when I think of who it’s speaking to, their pressures and roads to success, it’s also a bit heartbreaking. Despite the video’s promotional function, this unwavering belief in its own message comes off as purely sincere. Honestly, the whole thing works.
Kenneth Tam presents The Founding of the World, the artist’s third exhibition with Commonwealth and Council. Returning to his research around the history and ceremonial practices of Asian American fraternities, Tam’s presentation in new sculpture and video inquires into the dynamics of male intimacy and ritualized violence implicated within these culturally specific organizations.
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. They mark the climax of the fraternity initiation rites, a traditionally secretive process which has received public scrutiny in recent years for their use of hazing, in which group bonding is often forced and forged through acts of isolation, humiliation, and physical/psychological violence. Tam’s interest lies in unpacking how these ritualized constructions of belonging and identification end up undermining these very bonds.
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. They are juxtaposed against footage of a black-clad dancer moving within a dreamlike, ungrounded space. His movements translate as both graceful and menacing, by turns presenting moments of fluidity and beauty as well as moments fraught with peril. The dancer occasionally performs with a handheld fan or a Japanese oni (demon) mask, Tam’s nods to disparate traditions and iconographies (and thus racial stereotypes) mirroring the uneasy ways in which these brotherhoods choose to represent and explore their Asian heritage. Tam’s research for the film focused on the ceremonial traditions of Pi Delta Psi, whose chapter at Baruch College in New York was banned following the death of freshman initiate Michael Deng in 2013. The film makes reference to where these probates are often staged for the public, interweaving footage of computer-generated aerial footage of Washington Square Park and the varied inscriptions of its stone memorial.
The room with 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 liquids consumed as part of a 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.
Kenneth Tam (b. 1982, Queens; lives and works between Houston and Queens) received an MFA in 2010 and a BFA from Cooper Union in 2004. Tam is currently assistant professor at Rice University, Houston. Solo exhibitions have been held at Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles (2023, 2019, 2016); Ballroom Marfa (2022); Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson (2022); Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2021); Queens Museum (2021); Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (2021); The Kitchen, New York (2020); Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville (2020); Visual Arts Center, The University of Texas at Austin (2019); 18th Street Arts Center, Santa Monica (2018); Minneapolis Institute of Art (2018); and MIT List Center for Visual Arts, Cambridge (2017). Selected group exhibitions have been held at The Shed, New York (2021); SculptureCenter, Queens (2019); 47 Canal, New York (2018); Hollybush Gardens, London (2017); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2016); and Museum of Fine Arts Houston (2016). Tam is a recipient of a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists (2023), New York State Council on the Arts Grant (2023), New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Interdisciplinary Work (2021), Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant (2023, 2019, 2016), California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists (2015), and Art Matters Foundation Grant (2013). He has participated in residencies at 18th Street Arts Center (2018); Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace (2017-18); and Core Program, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2015).
Tam's work is in the collections of Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Dallas Museum of Art; and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.