In mid-April, The Grey Gallery at New York University opened Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera. Ever since, the exhibition, a collaboration with the Chrysler Museum of Art, has met with popular applause and critical acclaim, including a stellar review in The New York Times.
The show’s organizer and researcher, our late colleague Amy Brandt, gave us this preview of her exhibition coming to Norfolk starting this week.
The beginnings of 1980s photographer Tseng Kwong Chi’s work are legendary. Scheduled to have dinner with his parents and sister in downtown New York City at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World restaurant, he realized he did not have the required suit and tie. He threw on the closest thing in his closet: a “Mao suit” he had bought at a thrift shop in Montreal. Upon entering the restaurant, to his shock, the maître d’ treated him like a dignitary. He realized that the costume—and others’ ignorance—allowed him unprecedented access to normally inaccessible places.
Continuing to wear the suit, but now having attached a name tag reading “Slut for Art,” Tseng crashed exclusive parties. He photographed himself hobnobbing with fashion figures such as Yves Saint Laurent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s preview gala in 1980, with international dignitaries and debutants such as the King and Queen of Sweden and Nancy Kissinger, and, better yet, with naked lifeguards partying in Wildwood, N.J.
He also began photographing himself at many of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations—Niagara Falls, Disneyland, and the Golden Gate Bridge—and followed suit at similarly famous sites abroad. Tseng Kwong Chi’s ironic new persona anticipated Sacha Baron Cohen, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart’s parodies of television hosts, journalists, and other interviewers. In essence, Tseng’s images ushered in the age of the “selfie.”
In more than 100,000 photographs, Tseng Kwong Chi captured the cultures, contradictions, and celebrities of the 1980s. He is best known for his East Meets West and Expeditionary Series, images that are strikingly formal, yet performance-based. They show the artist posing in front of popular tourist sites, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, World Trade Center, the Eiffel Tower, or Mount Rushmore, and in magnificent natural settings such as the Canadian Rockies and the Grand Canyon.
Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950 – 1990) Niagara Falls, New York, 1984, from the East Meets West series Vintage gelatin silver print 36 x 36 in. Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia Purchase in memory of Alice and Sol B. Frank, and partial g ift of the Dudley Cooper Charit able Lead Unitrust, 96.28
His compositions are careful, deliberate acts of setting the stage for his own performances before his camera. Tseng uses dynamic backgrounds, bold designs, witty interactions with other subjects, and sometimes costumes and props. In the case of his Moral Majority Series, Tseng wears a seersucker suit and uses a crumbled American flag backdrop in order to mock the religious politics and cultural conservatism of the Reagan era. This fabricated persona is an essential aspect of his work. Ironically, while Tseng stood out in his “selfies” as a Chinese dignitary (he called himself an “ambiguous ambassador”) and the only Asian in the room, the Mao suit allowed him to be accepted into certain social and political circles considered off-limits to non-Caucasians.
Once living in New York, Tseng thrust himself into the heart of its 1980s art and counterculture movement. He quickly became a pivotal member of New York’s downtown scene and a vital documentarian of that rich decade. Village Voice critic C. Carr described him as “something of a party animal,” as he was hanging out in all the hottest clubs: Danceteria, Club 57, and the Mudd Club.
Tseng created large Polaroid panels that show the nightlife and the raucous rabble-rousing of the East Village scene. Among those pictured in his circle of friends were leading artists of the decade—Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring.
Tseng and Haring were close friends for 12 years, and during their time and travels together, Tseng captured more than 25,000 photographs of Haring’s ephemeral subway drawings and exhibition art. Well before 1990, when the two friends died from AIDS-related causes within a month of each other, Tseng had become known as “Haring’s photographer.” Though this reputation helped him in the New York art world, it hindered recognition of his much broader talent. In a way, then, Tseng’s images of Haring’s art have inspired this exhibition, providing just a starting point for this retrospective. Considering his short career, Tseng produced a prodigious oeuvre of surprising depth and breadth—and left an indelible impact on the generation of artists who followed.