Kenneth Tam, Squat Thrust with Twist, and Heel (in background), 2013

Kenneth Tam, Squat Thrust with Twist, and Heel (in background), 2013

Kenneth Tam

Night Gallery / Los Angeles

Kenneth Tam produces strange and consistently intriguing work. His videos, which are driven by encounters with strangers that the artist has met online, are investigations of the negotiations and power dynamics that occur during uncomfortable social situations. Through the scenarios Tam creates (which have included taping himself to a middle-aged woman and negotiating an encounter with a gay man while the latter sits inside a cardboard box), awkward relationships unfold as tensions emerge, are played with, and ultimately recede again.

Tam’s most recent exhibition at Night Gallery took a few new tacks while continuing the artist’s general exploration of human relationship dynamics. Titled “Polite, Intelligent and Respectful,” the show focuses on themes of domestication and subservience. The large main gallery was filled with an array of sculptural objects and wall hangings that referenced the domestic lives of dogs—bulky masses of dry dog food hung from steel racks, resembling beehives, while dramatic photographs of doggie beds hung on the wall. In Sit with stand (all works 2013)—a large photograph mounted on a stand—Tam was pictured kneeling on the ground in his shorts while holding a bag of dog food in front of his face. In Scissor kick, a video monitor dangling from a rack showed a found clip of a large dog mounting his female owner from behind. These jarring arrangements of common objects seemed to upend traditional pet/owner relationships and reveal a more dynamic flow of dominance and submission.

Behind a wall, Tam’s latest video played in front of a large workout mat. I replaced your genitals with another relinquished Tam’s usual improvisations in favor of a scripted narrative that he developed with his collaborator, whom he met online when the latter “liked” one of Tam’s posted videos. The collaborator plays Rick, a life-drawing instructor, while Tam plays Ken, an artist taking his class. After the female model cancels at the last minute, Rick asks Ken if he would serve as the model instead. Ken is hesitant, protesting that he is there to draw, not model, but Rick eventually cajoles him into it.

Throughout the entire video, both men are wearing orange hoods over their heads, which obscure their individual identities and also recall the sadomasochistic content of the notorious photos taken at Guantanamo. There is a sense that Ken is being emasculated by assuming the passive role meant for a female model; at the same time however, Rick’s desperate need for Ken’s help turns him into Ken’s servant, as he teaches him how to pose, takes photos of him to show how he’ll look, and even takes his own clothes off in order to make Ken more comfortable. The two men seem to bandy passivity back and forth between them, even as each tries his best to hold on to a degree of agency.

Tam’s videos and installations have an air of banality about them, composed as they are of everyday things. His careful manipulations, however, reveal a rich underlying landscape of constantly shifting desires, needs and roles.