Theatre of photography: Hong Kong’s Tseng Kwong Chi – artist profile

The Chinese artist provocateur merges performance and photography.

The Chrysler Museum in Virginia hosts a retrospective on Tseng Kwon Chi’s oeuvre showing the multi-dimensionality of the acclaimed late artist. 

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) East Meets West Manifesto, 1983, from the East Meets West series Chromogenic color print, printed 2014 71 x 71 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990), ‘East Meets West Manifesto’, 1983, from the “East Meets West” series, Chromogenic colour print, printed 2014, 71 x 71 in. Image courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

The travelling exhibition “Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera” puts the spotlight on world-renowned photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990) and the large body of work he produced from performance to archival. Curated by the late Amy Brandt, the Chrysler Museum’s McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibition works to celebrate an underestimated postmodern innovator. The show opened at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery (21 April 21 – 11 July 2015) and moved to the Chrysler Museum on 18 August, recently closing on 13 December 2015. It will then travel to the Tufts University Art Gallery in Medford, Massachussets (21 January – 22 May 2016) and to the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois (17 September 11 December) 2016.

Tseng Kwong Chi was born in Hong Kong in 1950 from exiled Chinese nationalist parents, and his early life lived in a politically tormented country greatly influenced the work of art he produced. His parents fled China when he was sixteen and relocated to Vancouver, Canada. He briefly studied traditional Chinese painting and Calligraphy at the University of British Columbia, and in 1974 he moved to Paris to attend the École Supérieure d’Arts Graphiques to study photography as an art form. He merged his photographic skills with performance when he moved to New York in 1978, creating the multidisciplinary approach to art marking that he is known for. Brandt stated that Tseng Kwong Chi

[…] emphasizes the aspects of masquerade, theatricality, and performance at the root of his conceptual photographic practice.

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) Hollywood Hills, California, 1979, from the East Meets West series Vintage gelatin silver print, printed 1983 36 x 36 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with fund contributed by the Young Collectors Council, 1997, 97.4521

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990), ‘Hollywood Hills, California’, 1979, from the “East Meets West” series, Vintage gelatin silver print, printed 1983, 36 x 36 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Purchased with fund contributed by the Young Collectors Council, 1997, 97.4521.

His series “East Meets West” beginning in 1979 shows this convergence of art practice while simultaneously discussing his experiences in China and the formation of his political beliefs. He states that the project started as a response to President Richard Nixon’s visit to China. However, relations between China and the United States remained superficial, further shrouding China as a mysterious entity. The project works to satirise these relations.

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge), 1979, from the East Meets West series Gelatin silver print, printed 2014 36 x 36 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) ‘New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge)’, 1979, from the “East Meets West” series, Gelatin silver print, printed 2014, 36 x 36 in. Image courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York.

The landmark series of self-portrait photographs is also a commentary on travel and identity. Tseng dresses as a visiting Chinese official wearing mirrored glasses and taking photographs at popular tourist attractions. He wears a badge that reads “Slut for Art” and described himself in these photographs as an “ambiguous ambassador”. These photographs are simultaneously a critique and satire on travel, patriotism, nationalism and politics. The images document an ongoing performance on multiple stages starring Tseng and the documentary on the series “East meets West” by the artist himself sheds light on his art practice.

Click here to watch the Tseng Kwong Chi documentary on “East meets West” on YouTube

The exhibition also features works of art that are not as well known in comparison to his landmark series. His documentary of postmodern artists in New York’s downtown art and nightclub scenes of the 1980s shows the convergence of art and documentation. He captured various artists and friends including Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Although he was close to these artists, as an Asian gay immigrant, he remained an outsider within this inner circle. Due to this, he carried around his camera obsessively capturing moments in the East Village, Jacob Riis Park or posh exhibition openings.

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) Andy Warhol (New York), ca. 1986, from the Portraits of the Artists series Chromogenic color print, printed 2015 30 x 30 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, and Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990), ‘Andy Warhol (New York)’, ca. 1986, from the “Portraits of the Artists” series, Chromogenic colour print, printed 2015, 30 x 30 in. Image courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, and Eric Firestone Gallery, East Hampton, New York.

His close friend Keith Haring was the subject of many of his photographs. He captured Keith’s art practice in an intimate way archiving his early work in the subways and the works of art that subsequently followed. His photography portrays the performative aspects of art making through Keith Haring’s vision.

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) Keith Haring Drawing in a New York City Subway Station, 1983 14 x 11 in., including mat Vintage color photograph Collection Keith Haring Foundation Drawing © Keith Haring Foundation

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990), ‘Keith Haring Drawing in a New York City Subway Station’, 1983, 14 x 11 in, including mat Vintage colour photograph. Collection Keith Haring Foundation Drawing. © Keith Haring Foundation

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990) Bill T. Jones, body painted by Keith Haring, London, 1983 Gelatin silver print, printed 2014 15 x 15 in. Courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York Body painting © Keith Haring Foundation

Tseng Kwong Chi (Canadian, b. Hong Kong, 1950–1990), ‘Bill T. Jones, body painted by Keith Haring, London’, 1983, Gelatin silver print, printed 2014, 15 x 15 in. Image courtesy Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York. Body painting © Keith Haring Foundation

The travelling retrospective exhibition shows the breadth of work that Tseng produced during his life-long career as well as his ideologies on art making and performance as a political and personal platform. Brandt stated:

In combining photography with performance, personal identity with global politics, and satire with farce, Tseng created a compelling body of work in which its easy humor and grace give entrée to its conceptual complexity.

Christina Ayson

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Related Topics: Hong Kong artists, photography, political art, identity art, art and nationalism, museum exhibitions, events in the USA, artist profiles

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