TSENG KWONG CHICape Canaveral, Florida, 1985, silver gelatin print, 38.1 × 38.1 cm. All images courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong.

Citizen of the World

Tseng Kwong Chi

Ben Brown Fine Arts
Hong Kong

The legacy of Hong Kong-born photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (1950–90) is currently being presented in a comprehensive exhibition titled “Citizen of the World” at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong. In collaboration with the artist’s estate, managed by his sister Muna Tseng, the exhibition offers an exemplary selection of his iconic black-and-white self-portraits from the “Expeditionary Self-Portraits Series” (also known as “East Meets West,” 1979–89), in which he is posed in front of various tourist sites dressed in a Mao suit. Tseng’s works have been exhibited worldwide, including at the 1985 Whitney Biennial and posthumously at the 2004 Shanghai Biennale.

There are several reasons this exhibition is worth the visit. For the first time in the artist’s exhibition history, several of his self-portraits are being shown in a remarkably large-scale format, finally fulfilling the wish of the late artist. During his lifetime, Tseng had desired for his self-portraits to be displayed on a monumental scale; however, technological limitations and his premature death prevented his dream from coming true. The exhibition is also remarkable in its inclusion of rare sepia landscapes from the later part of the “Expeditionary” series, as well as Tseng’s photographic documentation of the infamous Mudd Club—and the “creative denizens of the artistic underground”—from New York’s East Village of the late 1970s and early ’80s.

The icing on the cake are two self-portraits in color that have not been publicly shown since 1983, both entitled East Meets West Manifesto (1983). The two images portray Tseng, partially obscured between the Chinese and American flags, wearing his infamous Mao suit and reflective glasses, and holding a cable release that is attached to his camera. In one print he is seen examining a little booklet of Mao quotations.

Tseng was truly a citizen of the world. After spending his childhood in Hong Kong, Tseng moved to Canada with his family at the age of 16. He later studied photography and painting in Paris before finally settling down in New York in 1978. He quickly found a home in the artistic underground of the East Village, forming close circles with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Julian Schnabel. And it was in New York that the legend of Tseng Kwong Chi was created. The story goes that during one fateful visit from his parents, Tseng and his sister were to attend a dinner at a high-end restaurant, which had a dress code. Tseng, at this time, did not own a suit, so he improvised and donned a Mao suit that he had purchased by chance from a thrift shop in Montreal. While his parents, who were Nationalists, were unimpressed by Tseng’s choice of attire, upon seeing Tseng in his Mao suit the restaurant’s maître d’ allegedly treated him like a Chinese dignitary—a VIP. In this moment, his artistic persona, the “Ambiguous Ambassador,” was formed.

The black-and-white photographs from the “Expeditionary” series portray Tseng posing in front of various iconic monuments and architecture in both the United States and Europe. He was intrigued by the notion of world travel, the clash of Eastern and Western cultures, and inspired by postmodern artists such as Andy Warhol, who believed that, in the future, everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. Tseng set off to cultivate his own persona: an Asian-American world-traveller, which was a particularly important identity in an era where in China—the land of his ancestral heritage—the ordinary national could not travel outside of the country.

TSENG KWONG CHIHollywood Hills, California, 1979, silver gelatin print, 180 × 180 cm.

TSENG KWONG CHINew York, New York, 1979, silver gelatin print, 180 × 180 cm.

TSENG KWONG CHIParis, France, 1983, silver gelatin print, 180 × 180 cm.

Each photograph from the series is carefully staged. In a short, intimate documentary created in collaboration with filmmaker Christine Lombard, we see Tseng in action as he travels with his camera and tools from one site to the next. Here, we also see the magic of his photography come to fruition. For Tseng, wearing the reflective glasses allowed him to assume a desired “surrealistic quality.” In an attempt to express “the mystery still surrounding China” at the time, Tseng purposely looked away from the camera, conveying a cool and distant attitude. In a print entitled New York, New York (1979), Tseng makes clear the presence of the camera’s cable release in order to emphasize that his fictional identity is a performance.

There is a certain allure to Tseng’s photography. He toys with the familiarity of the tourist snapshot, displacing recognizable frames of reference by distorting the scale and proportion of the self in relation to the iconic tourist sites—which included the Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco, California, 1979) and the Eiffel Tower (Paris, France, 1983). Tseng inscribed upon these locations a paradoxical narrative of his own Asian-American identity and the foreignness of Chinese tourists in the Western world.

TSENG KWONG CHIGrand Canyon, Arizona (Vista with Shadow), 1987, silver gelatin print, 91.44 × 91.44 cm.

In the later years of the “Expeditionary” series, Tseng played with another familiar concept; ditching the cable release, he photographed himself amongst the wilderness of the world’s great landscapes. No longer confined to the interaction between the East and West, his landscape photographs takes him as far as Japan, as in Oshima, Japan (1988), taken only two years before his untimely death. His landscapes portray a quieter, more meditative time, referencing classical Western paintings such as that of Caspar David Friedrich, or Ansel Adams’s wild photographs of the American West. In Tseng’s images, the artist is photographed as a tiny figure within a much larger plane. With these images, Tseng pulls away from the power and glory of the (Western) constructed world and returns his focus to the uncontrolled beauty of nature.

Tseng believed art to be a universal language, an act that could bring people together. People who knew the artist perceived him to be the opposite of his steely, “Ambiguous Ambassador” persona. Tseng is remembered fondly by friends, acquaintances and loved ones as a joyous and risk-taking person with a flamboyant personality. His photographs are engaging, because they explore the never-ending questions and issues associated with the representation of the “self.” They resonate with the contemporary cultural phenomenon of the “selfie”—an obsession with documenting one’s self-image. In the foreword to the exhibition catalog of “Citizen of the World,” Muna writes, “[Tseng] taught me that there was a bigger world out there and it was there for the taking.” Tseng was truly a “witness” of his time, and through his photographs we, in turn, are able to experience his world, his time, his East Village, his America—and perhaps this is the ultimate legacy that he has left us.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s “Citizen of the World” is on view at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong, until January 24, 2015.