The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Tseng Kwong Chi
Performing for the Camera
Ajia Hunter
Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi . Source:
Tseng Kwong Chi, "Hollywood Hills, California" 1979

Tseng Kwong Chi’s first major retrospective starts in NYU’s West Village Grey Gallery—a fitting space for a photographer/ performance artist who got his start in the New York Art scene. Tseng was a downtown darling who worked from the late 70’s into the 80’s and ran in the Warhol, Basquiat, Haring circle. An acute observer of his place and time and armed with his camera, he left behind a monumental document of New York in the 1980’s; but more importantly, he left us his unique perspective on personal identity.

Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi . Source:
Tseng Kwong Chi, "Art After Midnight, New York" 1985

It has been said that Tseng predicted the selfie. Nearly all of the work on display features the artist, photo release in hand, in constructed photomontages. Much of his work is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman's “Film Stills”. The shows center is “East Meets West”. The series, comprised of large format black and white photographs, is an effort to project his “foreign” body into the quintessential American landscape. For the backdrop of his imagined America, Tseng photographs himself in front of a marching Veterans Day parade, the Hollywood Hills, and the Twin Towers. He highlights his otherness and outsiderness with the use of a “Mao Suit”, a replica of Mao Zedong’s communist uniform. The subsequent images are highly formal and extremely political.

As the viewer we are confronted with a series of questions on belonging. Do any of us truly fit into our own notions of national identity? Or are we all just characters gaining our affiliations through prescribed monuments. In East Meets West Manifesto” the only color photograph displayed in the series, Tseng coolly poses in front of the Chinese flag while slyly pushing the American flag to the side.

Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi . Source:
Tseng Kwong Chi, "East Meets West Manifesto" 1983

He continues with his theme of the stranger in a series of photomontages, most notably his series titled, Costumes at the Met. Through the use of his disguise (as a Chinese dignitary) and his cunning skills as a performer, he crashed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s infamous 1980 Costume Institute opening reception. That year the theme was “The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dynasty”. With the help of an assistant he was photographed with the fashion heavy hitters of the time, Yves Saint Laurent and Diane Vreeland, to name a few. The attendees probably didn’t have the slightest clue of who he was but the theme, after all, was inspired by Chinese fashion and based on his brilliant costume it was assumed he was a notable Chinese politician. In that instance he moved past trope of the “other” and into to a state of supposed ‘authenticity’.

Photo by Tseng Kwong Chi . Source:
Tseng Kwong Chi, "Arnold Scassi, Louise Nevelson, and Tseng Swong Chi" 1980

Adjacent from Costumes at the Met hangs another series of satirical black and whites titled “Moral Majority”. In this, Tseng photographs conservative zealots against a crumpled American flag. He shed his military uniform and posed as a young Republican. When questioned about the use of an obviously wrinkled flag, he said he was going for a wind-blown aesthetic. The photographs of the politicians are subtle in their mockery but juxtaposed with the Met Gala photographs they are downright hilarious. Yet again, he is an imposter but this time it is the politicians who seem to be in disguise.

While the late Tseng never achieved the accolades of many of his dearest friends and contemporaries he has left behind a body of work that is more relevant than ever. Whether or not he predicted the “selfie” is neither here nor there. What is most crucial in understanding his work is the prediction of a global society: one in which socially and economically we are dependent on the so called ‘other’.

Tseng Kwong Chi
Performing for the Camera

Grey Art Gallery
100 Washington Square East
Lower Manhattan - West         Map

212 998 6780

Tuesday, April 21 to
Saturday, July 11, 2015

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat