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Party Like It’s 1989
What would the late provocateur and self-proclaimed “SlutForArt” Tseng Kwong Chi have made of the annual Met Gala paparazzi fest, particularly the opening of the blockbuster 2015 exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass? The much-blogged-about fundraiser—tickets cost $30,000 each and brought in $12.5 million that year—featured a star-studded roster of global celebrities, including Rihanna, Fan Bingbing, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian West, Jennifer Lawrence, Madonna, and so on, conjuring varying degrees of chinoiserie. The New York Times has called the event—held the first Monday each May on opening night of the Costume Institute’s annual exhibition—the “Oscars of the East Coast” for its red-carpet celebrity coverage and international media reach. Perhaps due to such hype (and ever-lingering Orientalist interest) the show, curated by Andrew Bolton of the Costume Institute, broke previous attendance records.
How does one commit subterfuge in the age of selfies? Working pre–social media, photographer and performance artist Tseng Kwong Chi proffered timely tactics, as outlined in the exhibition catalogue Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera, with essays by Lynn Gumpert, Amy Brandt, Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson, Alexandra Chang, and Muna Tseng. This monograph accompanies the traveling show installed at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, and Grey Art Gallery at New York University, among other places.
Throw back (to appropriate social-media-speak) thirty-five years: here is Tseng Kwong Chi posing as “ambiguous ambassador” in a Chinese military uniform (his “Mao suit”) with the day’s sociopolitical elite at the Met opening of the 1980 exhibition The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644–1912. In contrast to his iconic images in which he appears unsmiling against international landmarks, here the artist grins next to Paloma Picasso, Nancy Kissinger, Andy Warhol, and Jacqueline des Ribes, among other glitterati. Today would the artist (or his subjects) post on Instagram and deploy the hashtag #SlutForArt? Scholar Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson suggests that Tseng’s performance-based practice was a mode of both (dis)identification (as theorized by queer studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz) and “minoritarian infiltration—a militant tactic geared toward surreptitiously entering into spaces and structures that one struggles to disrupt and even destroy” (97). Chambers-Letson argues that both (dis)identification and infiltration serve as a “guerilla tactic that is geared toward the emancipation of the minoritarian subject from conditions of oppression or undue constraint” (102). The artist was multiply minoritized: a queer immigrant artist of color who lived during Reaganism and died of AIDS in 1990. For such an artist, would “emancipation” be a drag or a drag ball (or both)?
Within the canon of contemporary Western art history, perhaps Tseng has been interpreted as operating under “undue constraint.” Ken Johnson’s New York Times review of the Grey Art Gallery (2015) show suggests that Tseng was both minoritarian and relegated as minor—despite his major conceptual and formal talents. Tseng never reached the superstar status of many of the friends and contemporaries he chronicled (some in his Portrait of the Artist series). These supernovas included Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and most notably Keith Haring, whose ephemeral subway renderings and other works Tseng chronicled and collaborated on (including the famous images of Scharf and Bill T. Jones in body paint).
Scholar-curator Alexandra Chang counters the suggestion that Tseng was a peripheral player, the moon to the artistic sons and heirs of downtown New York City. Chang observes that Tseng shone in his own right at shows during his lifetime at significant galleries and museums in the US and abroad. Tseng had a major blazing and trailblazing influence on artists of a globalized art circuit studying, working, and living in the East, West, and in between. At a crossroads, as it were, Tseng’s work was in conversation with East Coast Asian American activism (Godzilla, Basement Workshop) as well as artists from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan then living in New York, including Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, “Frog King” Kwok Mang Ho, and Tehching Hsieh. Chang notes that “artists from China who did not know Tseng personally were also deeply influenced by his work,” having learned about his performances from teachers at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (134). Further underlining this point, Amy Brandt’s essay traces Tseng’s influence on artists such as Nikki S. Lee, Yasumasa Morimura, Rong Rong, Feng Wen—generative work from post–Pictures Generation generations.
Minor/ Major Keys
Brandt’s essay reads Tseng’s work in his Expeditionary Series as both evoking and upending Western landscape and tourist tropes. In these images, the subject is depicted in a “minor key”—the subject and object of the image are switched, and the landscape dominates, the place of manifest destiny, the soundtrack of Blazing Saddles in the background. Tseng’s subaltern tourist and his Othered ambassador/party crasher destabilize the iconic image’s logic, rendering our icons illogical, strange and familiar. In these crosshairs, the artist performs as both a stranger and a familiar stereotype—the effect is stereoscopic, as in early photographic landscape images. With both eyes looking through the apparatus, one had to suspend belief to see the one-dimensional image fully. Palestinian American critic Edward Said ends his memoir by noting that as an exile, he “learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place” (Out of Place, New York: Vintage, 2000, 295). Tseng’s work playfully hints that we are all out of place.
Shifting from North American glitterati to Chinese literati, Chang’s essay complements Brandt’s interpretation. Alongside Western images of the sublime, Chang asserts that the artist is also immersed in a tradition of Chinese landscape full of negative space, representational ellipses, and misty voids, in which “the landscape of the painting conveys the feeling and emotion of the artist” (136). Although self-dubbed the “ambiguous ambassador,” the artist and his searing, wry images are anything but ambiguous—though perhaps ambivalent.
Tseng’s ambivalence and ambiguity are both strategies. In the Intimacies of Four Continents, Lisa Lowe writes of “ambiguous designations” that are outside the purview of common registers of legibility/visibility for minority groups (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015, 164). For a moment, one is not an ethnic Other, eternal foreigner, or wholly assimilated. Lowe writes, “The moment of ‘passionate intensity’ in which the community joins together is not dependent upon the equivalence or identity of its members; in that moment, the community does not demand a shared origin or typology” (163–64). That brief moment is the “decisive moment” (a nod to Henri Cartier-Bresson) and a constructed moment. Tseng captures this social momentum again and again, the moment burning with desire and despair. Monuments and memento mori: in this passionate moment, the artist and his subjects are enthralled, ensnared, subcutaneously enraged.
In various series, Tseng Kwong Chi’s complex positionality—as subject, object, and objectifier—negotiates the gaze and the gays. Nationalism and hetero- and homo-normativity are embraced and challenged with a sly smile. In Tseng’s Moral Majority series, right-wing politicians and other figures pose in front of a wrinkled US flag pasted on cardboard, “blowing in the wind,” as the artist explained to his subjects. Behind the camera, Tseng wears a seersucker suit, passing as a young Republican. Commissioned by the SoHo Weekly News, the portraits accompanied an article on the Reagan revolution. Jerry Falwell, William F. Buckley Jr., Alfonse D’Amato, and John “Terry” Dolan, among others, appear optimistically unguarded, a crumpled national emblem looming behind them.
In another layout for the SoHo Weekly News, entitled “It’s a Reagan World!,” with text by Ann Magnuson, Tseng poses his urban friends as yuppie suburbanites in front of sprawling ranch-style homes—a postapocalyptic, post–Apocalypse Now, post–World War American dream and nightmare. Created during the height of Reaganism, these series can be read as double-edged critique. On the surface they constitute a repudiation of conservatism. Look closer and the works are also a prescient warning against the assimilationist logic of gay marriage. Tseng’s oeuvre can also be read as indictment of art-world hierarchies and the classism, racism, and (binaristic, cisgendered) sexism of LGBTQIA community formations across the globe.
Minor (a Child)
Dancer and choreographer Muna Tseng—Kwong Chi’s sister, collaborator, and current holder of his estate—notes that her family members are byproducts of both East and West. They are cosmopolitan, postcolonial citizens. Here are black-and-white images of the Tseng siblings in Hong Kong. (As Chang points out, the seersucker suit Tseng donned for art was a staple in the British colonies, including Hong Kong—adding another critical layer to the overt Americana the Moral Majority series exudes. Again, the familiar is recontextualized.) Muna Tseng traces life paths bisecting Vancouver, Paris, and New York. One gets a sense that the siblings’ shared lives together and beyond are much vaster and richer than the endless vistas in Kwong Chi’s later work. Walt Whitman, the classically American poet, famously wrote, “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I am full of multitudes” (“Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, Mineola: Dover Publications, 2007). In image after image, Tseng Kwong Chi contradicts the viewer and himself, casting a figure writ large in the social landscape—a lone man multitudinous.
Assistant Professor, Visual Studies, Visual and Critical Studies, California College of the Arts