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Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera

Tseng Kwong Chi, East Meets West Manifesto, 1983, from the East Meets West series, C-print, printed 2014, 71 x 71 in.
Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York


Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera


Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990), was a photographer and performance artist, who in his brief ten year career span documented the superstar artists of downtown New York City and deeply explored Western culture through a satirical Eastern lens. In a new landmark retrospective currently on view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, titled ‘Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera’, curator Amy Brandt, McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, of the Chrysler Museum of Art, has selected about 80 photo-based works and archival video footage that is highly provocative and compelling. The exhibition is seamlessly divided into three components - his ‘Self-Portraits’ or selfies, his curiousity for American conservative politics, and finally the counter-cultural art movement that swept downtown New York in the 1980s, which Chi effectively chronicled. The exhibition is absolutely brimming with rich history of an older New York, the New York of the 1980s - you can sense the downtown art world’s disdain for President Reagan’s ideals and conservative culture. Through his various photographs and photo-montages, Tseng Kwong Chi presents two extremes present in the city at the time - New York’s elite congregating at a posh Metropolitan Museum of Art gala contrasted against his nocturnal adventures at the Mudd Club socializing with nightlife personalities such as John Sex and Joey Arias.

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York (World Trade Center), 1979, from the East Meets West series, Gelatin silver print, printed 2005
Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Originally born in Hong Kong in 1950, Chi along with his parents and sister Muna Tseng, emigrated to Vancouver, Canada. Initially studying at the University of British Columbia, Chi relocated to Paris in 1974 and furthered his education at the reputable Academie Julian. In 1978 Chi eventually settled in New York, becoming fully acclimated to the city and found his way to the nucleus of the downtown art world through various fortuitous friendships. Around this time Chi began his seminal ‘East Meets West’ series which eventually evolved into the ‘Expeditionary Series’ - a series of self-portraits taken at numerous iconic sites throughout America and Europe. Donning a 'Mao Suit', a plastic name tag, and sleek sunglasses, Chi self-proclaimed himself as the ‘ambiguous ambassador’ or ‘inquisitive traveler’ who jetsets around the globe capturing himself at quintessential American landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, World Trade Center, Disneyland, Niagara Falls, Mount Rushmore, etc The moods vary in each portrait, an energetic jump in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, an austere stance in front of the Eiffel Tower and an overly slick almost superficial pose in front of the Twin Towers. These photographs are wonderfully surreal, meticulously executed and excel in fully engaging the viewer. Permanently an outsider in America and Europe, Chi delves into his cultural identity, his ‘Mao Suit’ serves as societal armor shielding him from certain harsh realities, bypassing the immigrant status and being perceived as a respectable dignitary.

Tseng Kwong Chi, Hollywood, from the East Meets West series, C-print, printed 2014
71 x 71 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

In another series titled ‘Moral Majority’ from 1981, Chi swaps his highly political ‘Mao Suit’ for preppy attire to shoot portraits of the stalwarts of American conservatism. Subjects such as William F. Buckley, Jerry Falwell, Alfonse D’Amato unknowingly pose for a satirical editorial to be published in The Soho Weekly News. Chi photographs each politician individually in front of a wrinkled American flag, the act is completely subliminal and slightly subversive - a queer Asian man defying the heights of white, male privilege. In another social experiment, this time a year earlier in 1980, Chi crashes the Costume Institute exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644–1912, curated by former Vogue editrix Diana Vreeland. Armed with his ‘Mao suit’ once again, Chi  hobnobs with the creme de la creme of New York high society, rubbing shoulders with Nan Kemper, Carolina Herrera, Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. Chi enters a powerful space where a small, exclusive circle govern a place where perhaps his ethnicity would exclude him, but through his social prowess and performance art savvy, he is able to infiltrate and participate. Ironically enough thirty-five years later, Chi’s ‘Mao Suit’ is included in the current exhibit ’China: Through the Looking Glass’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 16, 2015. The suit is prominently displayed at the start of the exhibit and provides for an engaging dialogue in regards to fashion and societal perceptions.

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

Tseng Kwong Chi, Monique van Vooren, Andy Warhol, his entourage, and Tseng, Kwong Chi, 1980, from the Costumes at the Met series
Gelatin silver print, printed 1997, 7 x 7 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Chi reached his true apex as the official documentarian of the downtown art set in New York during the 1980s. Chi formed vital relationships with his contemporaries which included Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, George Condo, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, Bill T. Jones, Madonna and Grace Jones. In a series called ‘Artists in the Studio’, Tseng was invited to shoot environmental portraits of these now legendary artists, and built an illustrious body of work, shooting nearly 100,000 color and black & white photographs. The portraits now serve as historical testaments to an older, grittier, bygone era of New York.  

Tseng Kwong Chi, Keith Haring (New York), 1988, from the Portraits of the Artists series, C-print, printed 2012, 30 x 30 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, and Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York

Chi also became Keith Haring’s ‘official photographer’, shooting about 40,000 images of Haring’s work, from his early subway drawings to his grand-scale international commissions, fully intended for creating Haring’s personal archive. Although succumbing to AIDS-complications and dying tragically at the age of thirty-nine in 1990, Chi has achieved a highly impressive and relevant catalog of photographs, ranging from the engaging, to the witty, to the delightful. One can only imagine his work today in the overwhelmingly narcissistic, immediate, celebrity-obsessed, technologically-dependent era of the present. WM

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera will be on view through July 11, 2015 at the Grey Art NYU Gallery, New York City. 212 998 6782 http://www.nyu.edu/greyart


Jasmin Hernandez


Jasmin Hernandez is a native New Yorker with a deep passion for visual culture and a rich background in fashion, editorial and digital media. Ms Hernandez is the founder of Gallery Gurls where she covers the contemporary art world and also regularly freelances for digital outlets. Visit Jasminhernandez.com and gallerygurls.net Instagram and snapchat: @GALLERYGURLS

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