Look at me now”–Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, “Jubilee Street”
Walking through the multitude of black-and-white photographs at the Grey Art Gallery’s compelling retrospective of photographer Tseng Kwong Chi’s brief yet prolific artistic career, one nagging questions comes to mind: Who exactly was Tseng Kwong Chi?
Was he the man in the Mao suit with the impenetrable gaze, leaping in front of the Brooklyn Bridge? Or was he the queen dressed in drag at fellow artist and fun lover Kenny Scharf’s Halloween party? Was he the man behind the camera, photographing and slyly mocking Jerry Falwell and the other shit-for-brains Moral Majority leaders who would destroy the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1990s? Or one of a group of Downtown denizens and club kids who transformed the East Village into ground zero for fluid identities?
Looking at the exhibition Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera–an incredible and long-awaited retrospective, it seems like the answer is, in one word, yes.
Curated by Amy Brandt, the curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum of Art, where the exhibition will travel after its run in New York, Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing For the Camera reveals Tseng’s masterful manipulation of photography as a means of performing and constructing identity.While Tseng Kwong Chi may not have the household name recognition of some of his friends and photographic subjects such as Keith Haring, his photographs have surely been seen by most everyone including his famous images of Keith Haring embarking on his subway street art missions and dancer Bill T. Jones covered in Haring’s unmistakable lines.
Unbelievably, most of the photographs displayed in the exhibition were completed within a period of ten years since Tseng, like many of his friends and contemporaries that he photographed, passed away from complications from AIDS in 1990. However, through his captivating photographs, Tseng documented an influential if short-lived period of vibrant, playful and subversive New York art, nightlife and history–one that continues to retain a sense of possibility and performance years later through his photographs.
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, Tseng Kwong Chi arrived in New York in 1978 at the height of Downtown creativity after studying in Paris. Tseng quickly became a part of the campy and queer East Village nightlife scene, particularly Club 57 with Keith Haring, John Sex, Kenny Scharf and Club 57 manager Ann Magnuson
In his authorized oral history biography, Keith Haring remembers meeting Tseng who was then working on a photographic series hilariously and sleazily titled Slut For Art.
As Haring recalls:
“Well, into our circle came Tseng Kwong Chi. One day, in the spring of 1979, I met Kwong Chi. He was standing on a street corner on First Avenue and Fifth Street, and he was wearing these really high white corduroy pants. He was so eccentric looking that I knew I had to meet this person. I ended up sort of cruising him, but then we became friends. He showed me his photographs, which, at the time, was a series of guys in stripper outfits called Slut for Art. I remember a photograph of this male Puerto Rican bodybuilder–this huge guy in this little feathered stripper outfit. Kwong Chi asked if he could do me in a stripper outfit. I said, ‘Of course!’
So Kwong Chi came into the picture and he was part of the Club 57 scene” (48).
By documenting fellow nightlife revelers in celebratory photographs such as “Art After Midnight,” Tseng recorded the near constant and fluid performance of identities in the eccentric world of East Village nightlife in the 1980s. From John Sex’s monumental hair to Joey Arias’s horns, Tseng’s photographs of his nightlife friends present an ever-shifting, ever-evolving approach to identity both in the club and in the photography studio.
And appearing in these photographs, Tseng asserts that he is no different. Not only through his nightlife studio photographs, but also through his other, more well-known series, Tseng compellingly employed photography to perform identity.
Perhaps his most famous two series–East Meets West series and The Expeditionary series–feature Tseng’s merging of personal and political identities, wearing a traditional Mao suit and reflective RayBan shades.
For Tseng, these series of self-portraits began with a bizarrely hilarious experience while dining at the Windows on the World with his parents. Before venturing to the World Trade Center, Tseng realized he did not have a suit or tie to wear to the upscale restaurant so he put on the only suit he had–a Mao-style suit. Arriving at the restaurant, Tseng was treated by the staff as if he were a high-level Chinese ambassador.
Realizing the transformative power of style, Tseng embarked on a series with this character posed in front of iconic tourist destinations from the Brooklyn Bridge and the World Trade Center to the Eiffel Tower and the Grand Canyon. Part tourist snapshot, part pre-selfie and all-subversion, the East Meets West series transforms Tseng into an ambiguous, elusive and curious figure–an solo figure amongst these renowned locations.
Likewise, Tseng continued his investigation into the performative power of photography through his next series–The Expeditionary series. In this series, Tseng photographed himself in various expansive landscapes whether South Dakota, Puerto Rico or Glacier National Park in British Columbia. Rather than close-up self-portraits like the East Meets West series, The Expeditionary series places Tseng’s body in an overwhelmingly grand landscape, harkening back to the history of landscape photography rather than portraiture.
Angling his head so his sunglasses reflect the camera’s glare rather than his gaze, Tseng–in these photographs–resembles Warhol with his cold and impenetrable manner, allowing the viewer to project almost anything onto his reflective gaze. Similar to Warhol–a Polish American gay man from Pittsburgh, Tseng–an Asian gay man–was able to interject himself into the upper echelons of society through both his personae at the Windows on the World and his photography as seen in his documentation of the Met’s Costume Ball.
However, unlike Warhol who could blend in and become a blank canvas due to his whiteness, Tseng could never similarly escape his Asian identity, which complicates and informs his photographs and photographic performances. Despite his seemingly open-ended possibilities of identity in the Downtown scene, Tsengs’s East Meets West series and The Expeditionary series present Tseng as a foreign outsider through these various landscapes.