New York

Tseng Kwong Chi at Grey Art Gallery

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera is the first major retrospective on the artist, co-organized by the Chrysler Gallery and NYU’s Grey Art Gallery. Bringing Tseng’s body of work to the fore is an important and overdue project; his career was regularly eclipsed by his friends, whose trajectories characterized the 1980s New York City art market boom, most notably Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Performing for the Camera not only reveals Tseng’s mastery in deploying humor and farce to explore intersections of global politics and personal identity, it also reminds us that the most revealing critiques of American culture often do not come from within.

Tseng Kwong Chi. New York, New York (World Trade Center), 1979, from the East Meets West series; Gelatin silver print, printed 2014; 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Tseng Kwong Chi. New York, New York (World Trade Center), 1979, from the East Meets West series; gelatin silver print, printed 2014; 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Tseng was born in Hong Kong in 1950. His father had served in the Nationalist army in the war against China’s Communist revolutionaries and later fled to escape the new regime. When Tseng was a teenager, his family immigrated to Canada. He went on to complete his art education in Paris and then moved to New York City in 1978.[1] This international upbringing no doubt informed the project for which the artist is probably best known, East Meets West (1979–1984), later called the Expeditionary Series. In all of the self-portraits that compose this series, Tseng photographs himself standing in front of major landmarks in the Western world, including Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, Disneyland, and the World Trade Towers.

Tseng Kwong Chi. Niagara Falls, New York, 1984, from the East Meets West series; Vintage gelatin silver print; 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.

Tseng Kwong Chi. Niagara Falls, New York, 1984, from the East Meets West series; vintage gelatin silver print; 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.

In every setting, the artist adopts the same persona of a visiting Chinese Communist government official. He wears a Mao-style suit, mirrored sunglasses, and an ID badge. Many of the images feature him holding the release cable for his camera, revealing the self-sufficiency of the project. Tseng examines the experience of being caught within the tropes of Asian identity that are rampant in U.S. culture: the outsider, the tourist, the Communist, the obsessive documentarian. The time invested in the project and the repetition of the gesture speak to how common this must have been for Tseng in the late ’70s and early ’80s in the United States. The potency of these portraits’ humor is not in their incredulity or exaggeration, but rather how descriptive they are of being Asian under the Western gaze.

Tseng Kwong Chi. Art After Midnight, New York, 1985; Vintage gelatin silver print; 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

Tseng Kwong Chi. Art After Midnight, New York, 1985; vintage gelatin silver print; 36 x 36 in. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

Much of East Meets West is set in New York City, where Tseng was a documentarian of the ’80s Lower East Side art scene, serving as eager witness, archivist, and attendee to many a nightclub opening, art exhibition, and posh social gathering. Dozens of Polaroids and party photos are on display, many of which are composed as sets for each event. All of these works testify to Tseng’s earned “insiderness” within an exclusive and dynamic moment in New York City art society. He took portraits of his artist friends in their studios or home spaces, capturing the heat and mythos surrounding figures like Haring, Basquiat, and Warhol. He was also the most prolific documentarian of Haring’s graffiti practice across the city, with tens of thousands of images of Haring’s early work credited to him.

Tseng Kwong Chi. William F. Buckley Jr., 1981, from the Moral Majority series; Gelatin silver print, printed 2014; 10 x 10 in. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

Tseng Kwong Chi. William F. Buckley Jr., 1981, from the Moral Majority series; gelatin silver print, printed 2014; 10 x 10 in. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Other extremes of the ’80s drew Tseng’s attention as well. The 1981 Moral Majority series documents a range of far-right conservative political figures posing in front of a crumpled American flag. In a trip to Washington, D.C., Tseng dressed himself in a seersucker suit and feigned his sympathy for conservative causes, convincing men like William F. Buckley Jr. and Jerry Falwell to pose in front of the wrinkled prop, assuring them it was meant to look like it was “blowing in the wind.”[2] This was no small feat for the times, especially when you consider the vehemence with which moral-majority leaders denounced the homosexuality and gay activism that were thriving in the New York City arts community Tseng was a part of. This is a core strength in the artist’s practice: a deft utilization of his perceived position as an outsider in order to gain access and record opposite poles of the Reagan-era culture wars. Tseng’s manipulation of his performed identity enabled him to document the excesses and hypocrisies of American culture.

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing For the Camera is on view at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University through July 11, 2015.

 

[1],  [2] http://www.creativephotography.org/study-research/educators/tseng-kwong-chi

 

 

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