Artistic inspiration often occurs unexpectedly. In 1979, Tseng Kwong Chi, born in Hong Kong, educated in Vancouver and Paris, and at the time living in New York City, went to meet his parents for dinner at the top of the World Trade Center. He had nothing formal to wear, so Tseng, a carefree prankster, improvised: he put on a Mao-style suit that he’d bought in a thrift store. Yet instead of being treated like a commie, he was accorded the respect of a foreign dignitary. It was an epiphany: the ideology of a uniform will always be overshadowed by its appearance. The default behavior for Westerners isn’t to question exoticism or authoritarianism, but to embrace it.
Tseng reacted accordingly: he started wearing the Mao suit on a regular basis. Soon afterward, he photographed himself in the uniform with an old Rolleiflex camera, whether with partygoers outside of the downtown Manhattan nightclubs he frequented, with wealthy socialites at uptown galas, or eventually by himself in front of famous landmarks in New York, the rest of America, and then all over the world. These photos form the bulk of “Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera,” a retrospective exhibition cocurated by the Chrysler Museum and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University and now open at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art.
“Performing for the Camera” is in some respects a companion piece to “A Feast of Astonishments,” an overview of avant-garde performance artist and cellist Charlotte Moorman that ran at the Block during the first half of 2016. Both exhibits address the work of relatively overlooked 20th-century New York City artists (and NYC transplants). Both are single-subject shows that furtively incorporate the work of significant collaborators: in Moorman’s case, video-art pioneer Nam June Paik; in Tseng’s, Keith Haring. And disease figures heavily in the subtext of both retrospectives: Moorman had a decade-plus battle with cancer, and Tseng—along with many of the artists who appear in “Performing for the Camera”—died of AIDS-related complications in 1990, shortly before his 40th birthday.
Yet “Performing for the Camera” mostly feels celebratory. There are collages of photographs taken outside of Tseng and his friends’ nighttime hangouts, dance clubs such as Club 57 and the Mudd Club, in which downtown artists like Kenny Scharf and Dan Friedman are smiling and posing during an evening of dancing and pharmacological merriment. Friends appear in group photos that resemble snapshots from family picture albums. An image of Haring’s birthday party in Paris in 1987 has all the voluptuous splendor of a Renaissance painting: shot in an ostentatious ballroom, the guests are bathed in orange, red, and yellow light and stare directly into Tseng’s camera.
Tseng’s breakthrough occurred in 1980, outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the opening gala for an exhibit of 150 ornate robes worn by Chinese royalty. As art-world A-listers and socialites filed into the museum, Tseng approached them dressed in his Mao suit and charmed everyone from Andy Warhol to Nancy Kissinger into posing alongside him for pictures. Manhattan’s finest were sauntering into the Met to witness exotic relics of history, but Tseng brought a more contemporary and honest representation of China—unfettered by frosty institutional distance and free of the baggage of snobbery—directly to the attendees on the red carpet. And while he was acutely aware of the political undercurrent of the project, Tseng doesn’t appear judgmental or sarcastic—he and his subjects genuinely look like they’re enjoying themselves.
Politics are inescapable in images where a Chinese man in a Mao suit stands in front of landmarks like the Statue of Liberty or Checkpoint Charlie. Yet interviews reveal that appearances were equally important to Tseng’s work. In 1982, on the New York cable TV public-access show Your Program of Programs, Tseng mentioned to host Kestutis Nakas (now a professor at Roosevelt University) that he was fascinated by body language, how a person’s behavior often conveyed their emotional state, and how New Yorkers tended to adopt twisted or crooked postures. Tseng’s uniform was designed with the purpose of keeping his spine straight, a deliberate strategy to make his presence in the self-portraits all the more defined. In the documentary short East Meets West, Tseng explains his decision to wear sunglasses in his work: “My mirrored glasses give the picture a neutral impact and the surrealistic quality I’m looking for.” He also expresses how geopolitics and the politics of behavior are inextricable: “This project began in 1979, when President Nixon went to China. A real exchange was supposed to take place between the East and the West. However, the relations remained official and superficial.”
Toward the end of his life, Tseng undertook what he called “The Expeditionary Series,” pastoral and large-scale self-portraits shot with a professional-quality camera. The photographs are on some level symbolic of the AIDS crisis and Tseng’s HIV-positive diagnosis, but the pieces also convey the artist’s unique sense of humor. In one work Tseng is dwarfed by Mount Rushmore, a tiny Maoist ambassador overpowered by American imperialism; on the other hand, the image could be seen as a representation of Tseng’s awe, his appreciation of mankind’s achievements. Throughout “Performing for the Camera” Tseng is seen as someone who was happiest in the company of others, whether they were friends or strangers. That’s why the most poetic and haunting piece in the exhibit is Lake Nineveh, Vermont, which was taken shortly before the artist’s death. He’s wearing the Mao suit in a paddleboat on still water, a light fog on the surface. He appears ready and willing to surrender. v