Tseng Kwong Chi at the Block: Traveler, witness and ambassador

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

“Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera” features over 80 photographs that investigate somewhat forgotten photographer Tseng Kwong Chi’s diverse  artistic practices.

The exhibition is on view at the Block Museum from September 17 to December 11, 2016.

Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990), born in Hong Kong and later based in New York, was a photographer who called himself an “inquisitive traveler, a witness of my time and an ambiguous ambassador.”

His most famous photography series, East Meets West, greets you first when you enter the exhibition.

In the shots, Chi is decked out in mirrored glasses and a Mao suit, holding a remote. He  stands in front of famous landmarks in Western culture such as Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower. In his most memorable work, he poses firmly in between a Chinese and an American flag, his own play on “East meets West.”

He also shot iconic landscapes in the United States and Canada in the Expeditionary Series . In the Mao suit, the uniform named after Chairman Mao of China, he seems a little out of place in those playful and witty pictures. Adopting the persona of a visiting Chinese ambassador and an outsider in a Western foreign land, Tseng directs the viewer’s focus to the complexities embedded in his multi-culture identity  and the relationship between the East and the West.

As you wander deeper into the gallery, another highlight of the exhibition is Tseng’s  Costumes at the Met series. Tseng  crashed the exclusive reception for The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ching Dynasty, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980. More than 600 guests, mostly celebrities, attended the reception. Tseng, who performed as a Chinese dignitary, took photographs with famous figures such as Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent with the help of his assistant. As the only Asian in the room, his immutable Mao suit further marked him as an outsider in a group of white, upper-class celebrities. The artist’s seemingly out-of-placeness criticizes the dominant logic of “white supremacy” and racial oppression.

As “a witness of [his] time”, Tseng captured the dynamic downtown Manhattan art and club scenes of the 1980s. After moving to Manhattan in 1978, he adapted easily to the bohemian life of downtown New York and started to collaborate with other ambitious artists like Keith Haring. As an eager and reliable witness, he documented not only Haring’s subway artwork, but also the vigorous lives of artists in downtown New York.

“Tseng’s photographs address issues of popular culture, politics, cosmopolitanism, and cultural diversity,” said Janet Dees, curator at the Block Museum. “Humor and a keen observational eye combine to produce work that is both intelligent and accessible.”

The exhibition is also accompanied by a series of events happening on campus, such as A Conversation with Muna Tseng, Tseng’s sister, and A Walk Through the World(s) of Tseng Kwong Chi, which are all free and open to public.

 

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