Tseng Kwong Chi’s work looks more at home in the ’90s— a decade he barely lived to see— than it did in the ’80s East Village, a scene he both worked and played in to memorable effect. Tseng was best known for his ironic, iconic self-portraits, in which he posed himself before tourist attractions from the Statue of Liberty to the Hollywood sign, dressed in his trademark Mao suit, dark glasses, and apparently government-issue stone face. He was the East Village scene’s most enigmatic éminence grise. This week, though, his sister, the choreographer Muna Tseng, collaborates with experimental theater artist Ping Chong to present SlutForArt, a tribute to the photographer who died of AIDS on March 10, 1990.
For those who know only the persona— “the ambiguous ambassador,” “an eternal tourist”— the show will demystify Tseng. Along with Muna’s dances for her brother and interviews with friends like Ann Magnuson, Kenny Scharf, and Bill T. Jones, the piece will include photos from Kwong Chi’s “East Meets West” series described above, pictures from the other East he loved, centered around the legendary Club 57 on St. Mark’s Place, and documentation from a glamorous party at the Met museum he successfully crashed in his Mao suit. The rich and famous apparently assumed that Kwong Chi was a diplomat. (He was photographed that night with both Henry Kissinger and Yves St. Laurent.) Apparently no one bothered to read the photo ID clipped to his jacket which said SlutForArt.
In real life, Kwong Chi was something of a party animal and bon vivant. Muna recalls that during their first year in New York, when they were sharing a loft, she would often leave for her first dance class just as he was arriving home. He loved the trash-and-vaudeville ambience at Club 57, with its kitschy theme parties (an homage to Lawrence Welk, for example) and B-movie screenings. Muna also estimates that her brother shot over 25,000 slides of his friend Keith Haring, documenting the work in the subways that first brought Haring fame. As she describes her brother in SlutForArt, “He was a snob, an aesthete, an intellectual, a spoiled rotten number one Chinese son.”
Coming so close after the opening of the David Wojnarowicz retrospective at the New Museum, SlutForArt suggests that artists may now be ready to deal with The Age of AIDS as a moment in history. This is the memorial service that moves beyond the circle of friends. As Ping Chong says, “It’s about the cost of the ’80s.”
At the time of Tseng’s death, the art world was just beginning to incorporate multiculturalism into its ever-shifting discourse, and that particular ism would certainly have changed the way “East Meets West” was perceived. Not that Tseng would have appreciated a reading based on identity politics. “He did not want to be identified as an Asian American artist,” says Muna. “He hated that. He said, ‘I’m an artist.’ ”
At the same time, of course, he played up his otherness by wearing the classic Commie garb. The Tseng Kwong Chi persona had begun by accident one night in the late ’70s when he and Muna went to Windows on the World for dinner with their parents. The dress code specified suit and tie, and since Kwong Chi didn’t own a suit, he showed up in this gray Mao uniform. Muna describes her parents reaction as, “How could you do this to us?” Her father had fought Mao as a member of the Nationalist army, and when Communism triumphed, her parents had to flee Shanghai for Hong Kong. But that night, when the maître d’ treated Kwong Chi like a dignitary, he learned what power this costume could give him. Later, Muna discovered that the suit was actually a Nationalist uniform from the ’30s.
Whatever. It opened doors. It even got him onto the tarmac at Kennedy Airport once to photograph the landing of the first Concorde flight. Soon this mysterious Chinese official was broadening his horizons to take in London Bridge, Checkpoint Charlie, Brazilia. By the end of his life, he’d moved into nature as well, posing from the Grand Canyon to Lake Louise. Wherever he went, the uniform coupled with Tseng’s race declared, “Just visiting. I’m not from here.”
He seems to have posed just about everywhere but China. He was truly a world traveler. His family had moved from Hong Kong to Canada in 1966, and his favorite place in the world was probably Paris. He went to school there, graduating from the Academie Julien, and would have stayed had he gotten a visa. Instead, he found a spot in the global East Village, snapping away with the old Rolleiflex camera his father had bought in Manchuria in 1945.
Tseng Kwong Chi didn’t want to be stereotyped; he wanted to play with the stereotype. He also took back his Chinese name, doing it the Chinese way with family name first. Throughout his schooling, he’d been known as Joseph Tseng.
The East Village in the ’80s was perhaps the last bohemia that could be pinpointed on a map. AIDS and real-estate speculation killed the scene’s playfulness and commodified the sense of exile. These days the whole concept of a demimonde seems exhausted, at least as applied to white people, who’ve rebelled against their cultures
to the point of enervation. Face it: Ludlow Street is just a boho theme park.
Artists like Tseng Kwong Chi were part of a transitional moment, from the old white bohemia to a new, far more diverse culture of the margin. On the theory front, the torch passed from postmodernism to multiculturalism. True, the latter has become a dreary term, distorted by both racist attacks from the right and an overdose of political correctness from the left. Still, this ism embodies the new reality of bohemia. It hasn’t quite jelled, but the energy is there, from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to The Point in the South Bronx.
The work of Tseng Kwong Chi perfectly fits the description crafted by one of the framers of the new multicultural discourse, Guillermo Gomez-Peña. We are all, in Gomez-Peña’s words, “the weary travelers, the dislocated, those of us who left because we didn’t fit anymore, those of us who still haven’t arrived because we don’t know where to arrive at, or because we can’t go back anymore. Our deepest generational emotion is that of loss.”
Tseng’s sense of being alien took the form of wearing that infamous Mao suit. He literally played the traveler, but we’re all deterritorialized now. Just visiting this planet.
SlutForArt is part of the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Project at Playhouse 91. 212-415-5553.