TSENG KWONG CHINiagara Falls, New York, 1984, from “East Meets West” series, vintage gelatin silver print, 91.4 × 91.4 cm. Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.

Performing For the Camera

Tseng Kwong Chi

New York University Grey Art Gallery
Hong Kong USA

Currently on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery is a fine, focused retrospective of the works of Tseng Kwong Chi. Tseng’s father, who had fought for the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) during China’s civil war (1946–49), fled with his family to Hong Kong shortly after the Communist victory in 1949. There, Tseng was born in 1950, but eventually his family moved to Vancouver in 1966. He received his formal art education in Paris at the Ecole Superieure d’Arts Graphiques (ESAG) in the 1970s, before finally arriving in New York in 1978 to join his sister, choreographer and dancer Muna Tseng. A tireless presence in the downtown art and performance scene, Tseng died of AIDS-related causes in 1990 at the age of 39.

Tseng is known by some as the close friend and loyal documenter of Keith Haring, producing over 25,000 images of Haring and his ephemeral subway works. But Tseng was also a prolific artist in his own right, leaving behind an extraordinary body of work, crafting an enigmatic persona and anarchic performance-based practice, and bringing a devious and incendiary sense of humor to his highly sophisticated inquiry into the politics of representation. The exhibition is succinctly curated by the late Amy Brandt from the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, where the exhibition will travel in August. Accompanied by a generously illustrated catalogue with essays by Brandt, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, Alexandra Chang and Muna Tseng, the Grey Art Gallery exhibition makes a strong case for Tseng’s photography-based performances as an essential critical intervention in the historical representation of the Asian “other” in the West—and one that is rooted in an interventionist queer practice. In many ways, Tseng’s impulses were in lock-step with his feminist contemporaries in the Pictures Generation, such as Cindy Sherman or Louise Lawler, but his works also stand out for their spontaneity and rootedness in action and performance. 

In 1979, Tseng was meant to meet his family for dinner at the Windows on the World restaurant at the World Trade Center in New York. Lacking a dress suit, Tseng donned a “Mao” suit that he had purchased in a second-hand shop in Montreal and was surprised to see the staff treat him like a foreign dignitary. In the late 1970s and ’80s, China was still a highly remote and mysterious place to most Americans. It was only in 1972 that Nixon visited China for the first time; in 1973, Andy Warhol returned to painting with his portrait of Mao Zedong, whom he deemed the most famous person in the world; and contemporary Chinese immigration to the United States was then still a relatively new phenomenon. Into this cultural and historical moment, Tseng inserted himself as an “ambiguous ambassador,” initiating a decade of performance-based projects, each of them unsettling distinct histories of representation and the unspoken power structures inherent to the form.

In his earliest “East Meets West” series, Tseng is dressed again in faux-communist garb, posing before iconic sites around New York, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the World Trade Center Towers and in the middle of a Veterans’ Day Parade. Additional works from the series find him California, at Disneyland or before the Hollywood sign. In his flat-top haircut, retro Ray-Ban sunglasses, and peasant-as-diplomat attire, Tseng appears at once cosmopolitan, enigmatic and radically out of place. In the later “Expeditionary” photographs, he focuses primarily on landscape as a subject, choosing iconic natural destinations such as the Rocky Mountains or Niagara Falls in the US, as his figure appears in the scenery in ever more quixotic positions. The works harken back to photographic and filmic traditions as disparate as B-movie science fiction, tourist photography, popular postcards, as well as Chinese and European traditional landscape painting. The tone is variously droll, naive, foreboding or giddily triumphant. As such, his meanings are multivalent and shift fluidly from one locale to the next, at times satirizing Cold War-era fears of an “alien” Chinese invasion, critiquing notions of authentic cultural and touristic experience, or radically reordering the relationship of the subject to the landscape.

TSENG KWONG CHI, Keith Haring (New York),1988, from “Portraits of the Artists” series, C-print, 76.2 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, and Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York. 

TSENG KWONG CHIAndy Warhol (New York), c. 1986, from “Portraits of the Artists” series, C-print, 76.2 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, and Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York.

TSENG KWONG CHIWilliam F. Buckley Jr., 1981, from “Moral Majority” series, gelatin silver print, 25.4 × 25.4 cm. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

The political impulse behind Tseng’s photographs as social interventions become apparent in the welcome display of some of his lesser known projects, such as the portraits taken at the Metropolitan Museum’s annual Costume Institute gala. In 1980, the gala’s theme was “The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644–1912. Tseng crashed the party using journalist credentials, interviewing guests (Yves Saint Laurent asked if he was a diplomat) and having his photograph taken with socialites and fashion luminaries—an exuberant send-up of the attendees’ apparent obliviousness to the artist’s satirical, radical-chic persona. In “It’s a Reagan World!” (1981), Tseng—on assignment for the SoHo Weekly News, a now-defunct New York newspaperdressed in “straight drag” and donning a seersucker suit, ventured to Washington, D.C., where he talked his way into the offices of the key figures of the Moral Majority movement—from William F. Buckley to Jerry Falwell—and took semi-serious portraits of them fatuously posed before a crumpled American flag, which Tseng had prepared as a prop and told his subjects that it was meant to appear blowing triumphantly in the wind.

TSENG KWONG CHIShrine of Democracy: Mount Rushmore, Black HillSouth Dakota, 1986, from “Expeditionary” series, vintage gelatin silver print, 91.4 × 91.4 cm. Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia.

Tseng never left home without his camera, and the Grey Art Gallery exhibition features rarely seen images he took that document the downtown performance and club scene of 1980s New York. These images give further color to Tseng’s practice and the larger context of the art world back then. From Keith Haring’s “Party of Life” to a slideshow heavily featuring Ann Magnuson performing various acts at the Pyramid Club, Danceteria, PS1 and elsewhere, the exhibition effectively conjures the contagiousness, permeability of forms and urgency around creative practices at the time.

New York has been privy to a number of exhibitions delving into the figures and cultural life of the 1980s as one of the city’s most creatively generative decades—from last year’s Greer Lankton retrospective at Participant Inc. gallery, to the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition of Martin Wong’s graffiti collection, to this excellent and necessary re-evaluation of Tseng’s career. Created under the shadow of Reagan-era conservatism and, later on in the decade, the increasing anger, confusion, and tragedy of AIDS, Tseng’s work reminds us of an extraordinary period in our recent cultural history—exuberantly relentless and insolent, but also full of humor, pathos and life.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s “Performing for the Camera” is on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery until July 11, 2015.