Review

Men touching other men: How Kenneth Tam's video art playfully nudges viewers toward discomfort

In three videos at the gallery Commonwealth & Council, Kenneth Tam explores the fraught territory of male social relations, specifically the ways in which men interact with one another physically.

Each of the videos, displayed on its own large monitor on the floor, documents interactions Tam arranged between himself and three other men he solicited via the Internet. The result is an upending of expectations and a widening of possibilities about how men might relate to one another differently.

The participants Tam selected seem to be everyday Joes. They are of various ethnic and racial backgrounds but are all somewhat paunchy, middle-aged and dressed casually in T-shirts, khakis or athletic wear. Tam is younger, slim and slightly hipster-ish, but just as much a participant. In each scenario, all four men engage in activities together: They blow up balloons, stuff them under their shirts and bump against one another, sumo-style. They tickle one another. They choreograph a dance together. They crawl underneath one another’s bodies, turn somersaults, slow-dance and even ride one another like horses.

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While some of these activities have sexual or romantic undertones, the work never goes there, and the men genuinely seem to enjoy themselves, chatting and joking about how to perform a somersault, giggling and convulsing in reaction to being tickled, trying wholeheartedly to learn the choreography.

One participant’s comments, reproduced in the press release, express his enthusiasm (with reservations) in all-caps: “Everything was cool except for the male to male stuff that we did like dancing but it’s cool!!!”

This quote captures the nexus of discomfort and warmth that Tam’s videos occupy. They playfully nudge both participants and viewers, edging toward homoeroticism, then roll gently back into congeniality.

In the most astonishing moments — the slow dancing, the tickling, the horsey rides — one marvels at the men’s willingness to transgress deep-seated taboos against male touching. With all the prohibitions against intimacy and vulnerability that men are raised with, it’s a small revolution to see grown men cheerfully participate in such intimate and childlike activities. The videos start out feeling silly and end up feeling exceedingly tender. They suggest how physical and emotional relations between men might be remapped from the dictates of toxic masculinity to something more flexible and real.

The videos are accompanied by a suite of four photographs and a sculpture that extend Tam’s concerns into the realm of sport. Here, the references to homoeroticism are more overt. In the photograph series “Champagne,” Tam plays off the tradition of athletes dousing one another with the titular beverage to celebrate a victory. In each of the four images, Tam embraces another man on what looks like a sports field as the two pour Champagne on each other. Their poses in each image are nearly identical, but the serial format allows us to see the foam in suggestive ways.

The lone sculptural work in the show is an aluminum bucket, the kind used to hold drinks on ice, that Tam has compressed so that it is effectively shut, its rims pressed together to form a tight line. This gesture seems to be a refusal, reflective of the repression that Tam’s other works advocate so emphatically against.

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Commonwealth & Council, 3006 W. 7th St. No. 220, Los Angeles. Through Sept. 10; closed Mondays and Tuesdays. (213) 703-9077, www.commonwealthandcouncil.com

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