Four dancers, four megaphones and two booming speakers created an uncanny world at BAMPFA on Nov. 8. With such a sparse scene, Kenneth Tam’s performance, hailing in his newest exhibition “The Founding of the World,” promised a quiet set but loud message. In accordance with its title — influenced by Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade’s theories on religious world-building —an all-female Asian-American quartet dressed as plainly as its surroundings transformed the stage into Tam’s intended world: frat row.
The Houston and Queens-based performance artist finds a current cornerstone in Greek life. Accompanied by his opening night show, Tam enters into BAMPFA’s Matrix Series alongside video installation, “MATRIX 281: The Founding of the World,” his most recent articulation of male intimacy, its relationship with intimacy and how these themes are manifested in fraternities. This isn’t a juvenile exploration for Tam — he’s been deep-diving into fraternity settings since his 2020 performance “The Crossing.” Both works center themselves on this concept of the probate, a pledging ritual seen in Asian-American fraternities that, opposite of rites such as hazing, are often publicly witnessed, extensively rehearsed and intended as a celebration of the rebirth of a pledge.
Such a resonant topic can’t be separated from its inspiration. For Tam’s recent undertakings, he finds a stimulant from Dec. 6, 2013, when college freshman Michael Deng, pledging Asian American fraternity Pi Delta Psi, participated in a hazing ceremony referred to as the “glass ceiling,” where pledges are beaten to the ground and battered with racial slurs. Though Deng never stood back up. This phenomenon — adolescent men going as far as death to find intimacy within masculinity — has been an impactful light illuminating Tam’s work.
Thus, “The Founding of the World” becomes a beacon into themes of masculinity, intimacy and identity, simultaneously permitting speculation into the private with the purpose of demystifying unspoken violence. Tam’s Nov. 8 performance is only a precursor to the intricacies of his interpretation; with a concurrent video installation of three interwoven acts currently featured at BAMPFA, Tam cuts deep into the heart of fraternity mechanics.
Tam’s performance, however, doesn’t always align with his intended profundity. An inconsistency that found itself denying his original connotation: the performance was centered around sorority paradoxes as opposed to fraternity intimacy. By using female dancers, sorority rush chants for musicality and fluid grinding movements indicative of female sexuality, there was an obvious focal point on the feminine. But Tam’s previous focus isn’t feminine energy, it’s masculine familiarity. Centering it on a concept that found minimal relation to the original premise had the dancing expression in “Founding of the World” falling on its face while simultaneously feeling extortive of meaning where there was none.
This wasn’t helped by the sparse set design, which, though not inherently a negative configuration choice, was perhaps unsuitable for the chosen space. The open layout was pseudo-stadium; carved wooden benches peered down on a cement floor with no professional lighting or surround sound system. Sound was essential, but the tracks Tam streamed from his laptop were lost in the high ceilings of the main BAMPFA cavity. A singular moment of distinct sound was during a dancer’s solo as she pounded her soles into the cement flooring and slapped her hands against her body until they pulsed red, alluding to the various clapping patterns of rush chants and the torturous and repetitive nature of the pledging process.
Because of the barren nature of the set, laser-sharp lighting could have been invaluable in creating visual depth. Instead, it was as if someone had flipped on every light switch in the museum; the seemingly millions of spotlights flooded the room with a harsh glow that made it straining to focus on a specific moment for too long. The only props engaged were megaphones for each dancer, whose metallic twangs and echoing projections were intended to represent the abrasiveness of Greek life. Despite flitting instances of realization, in a performance that demanded full sensory attention, there was generally no grab for it.
However, his performance did find a place among its lineage in redeeming moments where Tam carefully studied the body. Tam tends to focus on the use of the body in rituals such as the probate, using it to mobilize tangible ideas of intimacy; this kind of exploration finds continuity in his live performance. Using dance as his medium, Tam overtly examines the body and its ritualistic connotation. Their movements fluctuated from intimately bound to distantly spaced, with the four girls either hanging on to each other’s hips in a human-centipede-esque formation or retracting to opposite corners to convey a physical conflict between proximity and isolation. In a change of pace, the dancers clumped together center stage and slowly rotated their limbs over each other, careful not to come undone. The dancers created shapes and scenes within their formations, completing the world-building “Founding of the World” is contingent on.
This performance is only a precursor to the extent of Tam’s world-building in “The Founding of the World.” Open to audiences following the performance, its brother installation harbored the resonance the on-stage performance lacked, a first indication of this in the solitary existence of the viewing room, a denotation of a private ritual-focused immersion evocative of the probate. Though the space was as bare as the stage for his show, the exhibit was crammed with bearing. A screen consumed the wall with a looping video of young male dancers clad in rich hues against glowing backdrops of alternating primary colors. They imitate the probate seamlessly by moving in sync and regrouping in military-inspired formations. Their gauzy masks oozing black blotches reminiscent of the “What do you see?” mental health tests call on anonymity, violence and privacy — all probate-adjacent. Apart from the screen, empty cologne and alcohol bottles hung by ribbons from the ceilings, trophies of masculinity and college adolescence. The installation hands audiences the sensory totalization they were previously edged with during the show.
The Matrix Program at BAMPFA is intended to highlight distinct voices of contemporary art, and right now, Tam is screaming. “The Founding of the World” and its concurrent pseudo-dance performance, though in an infantile stage, land Tam as one of the voices within contemporary art to listen to.