Making the Iconic Mysterious

Tufts Art Gallery hosts first major retrospective of photographer Tseng Kwong Chi
Tseng Kwong Chi at Niagara Falls
Detail from "Niagara Falls, New York," 1984, by Tseng Kwong Chi, part of the exhibition on display at the Tufts University Art Gallery through May 22. Photo: Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia
February 19, 2016

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The curious image repeated in each of the large, square gelatin silver prints in the Tseng Kwong Chi retrospective at the Tufts Art Gallery is that of the Chinese-American artist himself. In each photograph, he wears a Mao suit and mirrored sunglasses, and in most he has a nametag bearing his headshot and the words “Visitor • Visiteur.”

Tseng poses before a different iconic Western tourist site in every shot. Here he is in front of Niagara Falls, and here by the Brooklyn Bridge, and here again at the foot of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in the late 1970s. The photographs are much like the vacation snapshots that American families pasted into albums in the latter half of the last century, or the selfies stored in the cloud of the early 21st century. Except these photographs are painstakingly executed with a cumbersome Rolleiflex camera and shutter-release cable instead of Instamatics or smartphones—and the tourist is conspicuously out of place.

The photographs in Tseng’s “East Meets West” series are flashbacks to an earlier time. Nixon had only recently made his famous trip to China in 1972, and that nation and its people seemed mysterious to Westerners then. So an Asian man, standing stiffly at attention in a Mao jacket, posing like an American tourist at treasured Western destinations, probably seemed like an oddity that bordered on the subversive. Viewers might have wondered if Tseng was a visiting dignitary or a worker on a cultural exchange—and that is exactly the impression the artist wanted to achieve.

New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge), 1979, by Tseng Kwong Chi. Photo: Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York Referring to himself as “an ambiguous ambassador,” Tseng asks his viewers to think about ethnic and cultural stereotypes, to imagine how out of place he might feel in his enigmatic costume and how uncomfortable, or at least curious, we might feel meeting him at one of these shrines of Western culture.

“By self-identifying as a ‘conceptual performance artist,’ [Tseng] conveys the idea that the activities outside and around the camera’s lens are equally—if not more—important than the final image,” wrote the show’s curator, Amy Brandt, G05, in her essay in Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera, a companion book to this show of the same name, which runs through May 22 at the Tufts University Art Gallery. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

Ambiguous Adventures

In 1980, Tseng famously wore his Mao suit to fashion editor Diana Vreeland’s annual gala benefit for the Metropolitan Museum’s costume collection. The museum had just opened an exhibition of 150 lavish robes worn by Chinese royalty of the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1912). At the gala, Tseng took snapshot-like self-portraits using his Rolleiflex and shutter-release cable and posing with the museum’s major donors and the city’s most celebrated socialites, a few dressed in couture chinoiserie. The presence of the artist in his Mao suit challenged not only cultural stereotypes but economic disparities—the communist tourist cavorting with captains of capitalism.

Tseng’s performance was more witty than confrontational. His facial expressions remained gentle and respectful of his surroundings. That’s true, too, in his “Moral Majority” photograph series. For the Soho Weekly News, a counterculture publication, he managed to convince leaders of the conservative movement—including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, William F. Buckley and Pastor Ed Dobson—to pose in front of a crumpled American flag in an ironic, yet somehow strangely sweet-hearted sendup.

“Keith Haring (New York),” by Tseng Kwong Chi, 1988. Photo: Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, and Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York. Artworks © Keith Haring FoundationAll of these photographs appear in his Tufts retrospective. With more than 80 wall-mounted images, light boxes and handmade photo books, and several audiovisual components, the show is divided into 11 sections that showcase Tseng’s four major types of work: self-portraiture, portrait photography, documentary photography and magazine work.

Capturing an Era

Tseng’s formal training included both traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, starting at age 6 with a private tutor in Hong Kong, where he was born and lived until immigrating as a teenager with his family to Vancouver. As a young man, he studied at the École supérieure d’arts graphiques in Paris before moving to New York City in the late 1970s and plunging into the vibrant East Village art scene, where, writes Brandt in her essay, he found his calling.

His creative co-conspirators included fellow visual artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the dancer Bill T. Jones, Madonna and many other local denizens who merged fashion, live performance, visual art and music at nightclub happenings and pop-up shows, decades before the term was coined. Along with his art portraiture, Tseng became one of the primary photo-documentarians of his time, appearing as much behind the lens as before it, capturing the fleeting zeitgeist around him before he died of AIDS in 1990 at age 39.

“East Meets West Manifesto,” by Tseng Kwong Chi, 1983. Photo: Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc., New York Tseng’s work focused on the urgent creative energy of his times, and the retrospective at the Tufts Art Gallery, with its soundtrack of ’80s pop songs—Bowie, Madonna, the B52s—and large projections of the party scene splashed across a big screen, almost gives viewers a sense of walking into one of the happenings it celebrates.

Capturing the Artist

In a cruel coincidence, show curator Amy Brandt died on May 15, 2015, at age 37, just weeks after her Tseng retrospective opened in New York.

As a Tufts graduate student in art history, Brandt worked closely with Amy Ingrid Schlegel, director of galleries and collections at Tufts. During her Ph.D. coursework at the City University of New York, Brandt researched Manhattan’s downtown arts scene of the 1980s.

“She was such a wonderfully brilliant and ambitious person,” Schlegel says. “Right after she completed her dissertation, she landed a great job at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, where she was the curator of modern and contemporary art.”

The Tseng retrospective was to be her first major show. To create it, Brandt worked closely with the artist’s sister, the dancer Muna Tseng, who manages the estate of her brother’s more than 100,000 works and who lived with her brother when he first moved to New York.

Brandt, Muna recalls, would fly up to New York to sort through thousands of slide transparencies, negatives and prints. “What became very evident was the incredible life that was captured in these images. They just jumped off the light table,” Muna says. “I loved working with Amy. It was almost like putting on one of the happenings. It took a lot of gumption and spirit.”

It was Brandt’s idea to partner with NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, which has devoted numerous shows to the downtown art scene in Manhattan, on co-organizing the exhibition before sending it on to the Chrysler Museum and then to Tufts. Its last stop will be at the Block Museum at Northwestern University in Chicago in the fall.

“Although she couldn’t be at its opening,” Schlegel says, Brandt “was thrilled to see the New York Times review that came out two days later.” 

Rob Phelps is a freelance writer in Quincy, Massachusetts.

The Tufts Art Gallery is located at 40 Talbot Ave. on the university’s Medford/Somerville campus. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday until 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://artgallery.tufts.edu.

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