In 1979 artist, social diarist, and cultural provocateur Tseng Kwong Chi embarked on East Meets West, an exploration of truth, fiction, and identity using photography and performance art decades before the advent of the selfie.
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Born in Hong Kong to Chinese Nationalists escaping the reign of Chairman Mao, Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990) was hailed as a child prodigy when began painting at the age of 10. In 1966, his family emigrated to Vancouver, Canada. Tseng then set his sights on studying photography at L'Académie Julian in Paris, graduating in 1975. Three years later, he arrived in New York and quickly became an integral part of the downtown art and club scenes of the 1980s. With three continents under his belt, Tseng viewed himself as a citizen of the world, rather than labeling himself or his art as Chinese.
Yet Tseng understood how he was seen, and began mischievously playing with his identity. In 2015, his sister Muna recounted a story of Tseng arriving at a dinner his parents threw at the posh Windows on the World restaurant located at the top of the World Trade Center wearing a Zhongshan suit purchased in a Montreal thrift store. His parents were appalled but the maitre’d treated Tseng like a visiting dignitary. That encounter planted the seeds for the “Ambiguous Ambassador,” a persona Tseng adopted for East Meets West (a.k.a. Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series), a selection of which is now on view in an intimate exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York.
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East Meets West traces Tseng’s Grand Tour across America in a selection of crisp black and white photographs he began making in 1979 with a 1940s Rolliflex. Positioning himself as an outsider, Tseng uses self-portraiture, the tourist snapshot, landscape photography, and performance art to explore how the photograph shapes our notions of truth, fiction, and identity decades before the advent of the selfie.
Donning his suit, dark sunglasses, and occasionally an ID badge clipped to his left pocket suit that alternately said “visitor” or “slutforart,” Tseng maintained an austere yet playful persona to subtly satirize the American obsession with symbols of power and glory. “I heighten the irony of the icons and symbols of Western popular culture… all of which are worshipped, exploited and exported through the media of television, Hollywood movies and Madison Avenue magazines,” Tseng is quoted as saying in Tseng Kwong Chi: The Expeditionary Works (Houston Center for Photography, 1992).
Posing in front of popular destinations such as the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Disneyland, the Lincoln Memorial, Cape Canaveral, and the Grand Canyon, Tseng becomes a self-described “inquisitive traveler” bearing witness and having fun, creating his own carefree world far removed from the tragedy of AIDS, which was ravaging the globe and would eventually claim his life in 1990 at the tender age of 39.
By Miss Rosen
Tseng Kwong Chi: East Meets West
Until April 4, 2020.
Yancey Richardson Gallery, 525 West 22 Street, New York, NY 10011, USA