Appreciating Tseng Kwong Chi’s Radical Art, beyond His Photos of Keith Haring
Tseng Kwong Chi, Keith Haring and Tseng Kwong Chi, 1986. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.
One late night in the spring of 1979, a man wearing high-waisted white corduroy pants on the corner of First Avenue and East Fifth Street immediately caught Keith Haring’s attention. “He was so eccentric looking that I knew I had to meet this person,” Haring wrote in his journals. “I ended up sort of cruising him, but then we became friends.”
The man was photographer and performance artist Tseng Kwong Chi, who would go on to document much of Haring’s career. Totaling over 20,000 photographs, Tseng’s collection would become the largest archive of Haring’s work in the world. Shortly after exchanging numbers, Haring invited Tseng to a poetry reading at Club 57, where Tseng reluctantly joined Haring on stage to help the artist read a poem he had written. This marked the beginning of a rich friendship that would last until they both succumbed to AIDS-related complications, passing away within one month of each other.
Harvey Wang, Keith Haring and Tseng Kwong Chi, Club 57 , 1980. Courtesy of the artist.
In the span of a decade, the pair traveled the world together, from Paris to Tokyo. Haring introduced Tseng to Club 57, and Tseng introduced Haring to the Ritz Paris. Towards the end of his life, Haring would request that his bedroom be decorated like his suite at the Ritz. “They were quite inseparable,” Muna Tseng, Kwong Chi’s younger sister and trustee of his estate, told Artsy.
Their collaborations would permanently alter the canon of art history. Tseng Kwong Chi was one of the first people to see the significance of Haring’s subway drawings, volunteering to photograph and document them in 1981 before Haring could afford to compensate him. Haring would hop on a subway line, drawing on blank advertisement spaces along the way, and call Tseng once he reached the end of line. Grabbing his Nikon 35mm camera, Tseng would then ride the same line, racing to photograph Haring’s works before they were covered over or removed.
Due to the ephemeral nature of Haring’s project, Tseng’s 5,000-plus photographs of the series make up most of today’s art-historical record. Instead of tightly cropping the drawings, Tseng situated the works within their surrounding environment, showing a woman talking into a pay phone, children racing down the station steps, a passerby watching Haring, and a man turning around to look at Tseng.
“I had to work very fast, because I’d often be stopped,” Tseng once wrote. “Cops would say, ‘What are you doing? You need a permit!’ Of course I’d then go into my Japanese tourist routine and say, ‘New York subway very interesting!’” Although he spoke fluent English, in addition to Chinese and French, Tseng leaned into his foreign Otherness—this tactic was at the center of his artistic practice.
At night, Tseng and Haring famously socialized at Club 57 with Kenny Scharf, Klaus Nomi, and Fab Five Freddy. They also frequented Paradise Garage with Andy Warhol; the Pyramid Club, where Ann Magnuson performed; and Danceteria, where Madonna premiered “Everybody.” Tseng had his first solo exhibition in the gallery Haring curated at the Mudd Club, the Tribeca nightclub that Jean-Michel Basquiat often patroned.
Despite Tseng’s active role in New York’s 1980s art scene, popular culture has largely overlooked his contributions, both in terms of the authorship of his photographs and his own artistic practice. “I think it was very frustrating for him,” recalled Kenny Scharf in SlutForArt (1999), the performance created in Tseng’s honor by his sister Muna and her collaborator Ping Chong. “Everyone was focusing on, you know, Keith, Jean-Michel, and me. He really wasn’t getting the respect that he deserved.”
East meets West
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter formally recognized the People’s Republic of China. Meanwhile, fresh from studying photography at the Académie Julian in Paris, Tseng Kwong Chi walked into the World Trade Center’s restaurant Windows on the World to meet his sister and visiting parents. The restaurant had a strict suit-and-tie dress code, and Tseng arrived in the only suit he owned—a thrifted Mao suit. Originally introduced by Sun Yat-sen, China’s first president following the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese national uniform was only popularized in the West when Mao Zedong wore it while meeting President Richard Nixon in 1972, cementing it in the Western imagination as the “Mao suit.”
Tseng’s parents were appalled. When Mao Zedong came to power, they fled Shanghai for Hong Kong, where Kwong Chi and Muna would be born. During the Cultural Revolution, they relocated to the suburbs of Vancouver. “We escaped from China because of this,” said Muna, recalling their parents’ reaction. “How could you do this to us?” When the restaurant’s maître d’ approached, however, Kwong Chi was mistaken as an ambassador from China. The family’s subsequent VIP treatment inspired a performance that Tseng would continue until the end of his life.
In 1979, Tseng donned his Mao suit with mirrored sunglasses at Herring Cove Beach, a popular gay beach in Provincetown, Massachussetts. Lugging his tripod and a Rolleiflex that his father bought in China in the 1940s, Tseng meticulously composed each shot before stepping into frame. Shutter-release cable in hand, Tseng took the first of many self-portraits that would make up his “East Meets West” series.
Disappointed by the lack of cultural exchange between working-class American and Chinese people following Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China, Tseng appointed himself “ambiguous ambassador”—an Eastern counterpart to Nixon’s diplomacy. In this new role for “East Meets West,” Tseng ventured to iconic New York tourist destinations in his Chinese national uniform, framing shots to make himself appear as monumental and heroic as the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Drawing upon his experience at Windows on the World, Tseng capitalized on the ignorance of those who mistook him for a Chinese dignitary and ushered him into elite spaces. While visiting Cape Canaveral, Florida, for example, Tseng was able to photograph himself shaking hands with an astronaut beside a lunar ship.
Although this disguise granted Tseng access to “various worlds of white power,” as Muna described in SlutForArt, his authoritative stance and unreadable expression simultaneously allowed others to project their fear of yellow peril onto him. “It is not easy being a Chinese tourist,” Tseng told Inside magazine in 1989. “Should I tell them the truth, that I am actually a New York conceptual performance artist/photographer carrying on my lifetime art project of the East meeting the West?”
While Tseng exaggerated his role as an outsider, he also reversed its racial power dynamics. By visually referencing 19th- and 20th-century Orientalist photographs and postcards, Tseng’s images position him as an accomplished traveler in the exotic land of the United States. The project would eventually be taken across the country and around the world, where Tseng would adorn his suit with a visitor ID badge signed “slutforart.” By photographing himself alongside symbols of U.S. and Western exceptionalism, Tseng makes their absurdity clear.
Costumes at the Met
In 1980, Tseng infiltrated the party of the year, the Met Gala, by pitching an editorial spread to Soho Weekly News. Per tradition, attending guests were invited to dress in theme with the museum’s opening exhibition. That year, it was “The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Qing Dynasty, 1644–1912,” which featured lavishly embroidered imperial robes from China. Dressed in his Mao suit, Tseng asked attendees—from Henry and Nancy Kissinger to Yves Saint Laurent—who or what they were wearing. With guests expected to dress in Orientalizing chinoiserie, the standard red carpet question took on new meaning coming from Tseng, his mere presence laying bare questions of cultural appropriation. The most questionable ensemble was that of Paloma Picasso, who wore a Japanese kimono, conflating China and Japan into a single mystical mass.
Tseng Kwong Chi, Paloma Picasso and Tseng Kwong Chi, 1980. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.
Tseng Kwong Chi, Mannequin and Tseng Kwong Chi, 1980. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.
In his photos with gala attendees, Tseng appears genuinely thrilled to be there. He smiles brightly in his photograph with Saint Laurent, who was so impressed with Tseng’s fluency in French that he asked if Tseng was a Chinese diplomat. Like everyone else, Tseng’s attire conjured the impression of an inscrutable and exotic Orient. “He’s in Chinese drag,” described Tseng’s friend and dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones to Advocate in 2002.
Inside the Met, Tseng transformed once again—this time, posing stiffly with display mannequins and mocking the exhibition’s caricature of Chinese people through their garments. Tseng’s performance and subsequent photographs underscored how Diana Vreeland’s exhibition and accompanying gala reduced the historical regalia of a Chinese empire to a collection of Orientalizing and Othering costumes for New York’s elite.
“The Expeditionary Series”
In 1986, Tseng went back to Vancouver to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. While he was there, Tseng started photographing himself within the dramatic landscape of the Canadian Rockies, evoking the splendor of classical European landscape paintings. Now armed with a Hasselblad and the assistance of his partner Kristoffer Haynes, Tseng was no longer tethered by the shutter-release cable and was free to lose himself in his surrounding environment. As a result, he began experimenting with perspective, allowing his figure to recede further and further into the background—a sharp departure from his earlier “East Meets West” series, where his figure dominated the frame.
This marked the beginning of a new body of work, “The Expeditionary Series,” a title coined by art critic Richard Martin in his 1986 review for Arts Magazine. After carefully composing the frame, Tseng waved a white handkerchief when the clouds were just right as a signal for his assistant to take the shot. Whereas “East Meets West” parodied tourist photography and Orientalist postcards, “The Expeditionary Series” honed in on the sublime.
Tseng Kwong Chi, Lake Ninevah, Vermont, 1985. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.
Tseng’s Rückenfigur and looming clouds in Grand Canyon, Arizona (1987) visually quote Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (ca. 1818). While Friedrich’s figure stands tall like a conqueror before invasion, Tseng sits precariously on the ledge, contemplating the vastness before him.
The works in this series also reference Ansel Adams’s photographs and demonstrate Tseng’s astute knowledge of Chinese calligraphy and ink wash paintings. According to Muna, Tseng was a child prodigy, skilled enough to imitate old Chinese masters, as described in her 2008 essay “Tseng Kwong Chi: The Pearl in the Oyster.” In Lake Ninevah, Vermont (1985), we see Tseng paddling alone in a small rowboat atop glistening waters that mirror the artist’s reflection. The atmospheric coats of fog, and the distant trees and mountains appearing in soft gray gradients, resemble Chinese literati paintings.
The last act
Tseng Kwong Chi, Rome, Italy (Coliseum, Night), 1989. © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc. Courtesy of Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.
Tseng’s final photographs—and his last trip with Haring—took place in Italy. While photographing Haring’s projects in London, Paris, Bordeaux, and Berlin throughout the years, Tseng took the opportunity to expand his “East Meets West” series into Europe. In Rome, he photographed himself in the early morning and late at night, waiting for a moment when the crowds had dissipated. In his journal, Haring mentioned accompanying Tseng for Rome, Italy (Coliseum, Night) (1989).
In 1989, Tseng tested positive for HIV and was hospitalized with pneumonia for approximately 15 months before he died. “The biggest blow, I believe, was when Keith died on February 16th when Kwong Chi was staying in a Toronto hospital,” Muna shared with Artsy. “It was the moment I saw in his eyes he gave up the fight. I brought him back to New York, where he died at home three weeks later on March 10, 1990.”
Legacy and influence
Before his death, Tseng and Muna had lengthy conversations about the future of his oeuvre. “He knew he had a significant body of work that was entirely his own: the self-portraits, ‘East Meets West’ and ‘The Expeditionary Series’,” Muna told Artsy. “He knew that all the other work would have historical significance because he believed in his friends. He knew that their work would become part of the canon.”
For Muna, one key concern was establishing Tseng’s own distinct legacy among his peers, who received earlier recognition. In SlutForArt, Muna—who, by then, had been caring for her brother’s estate for nearly a decade—acknowledged that his artistic practice had been reduced to “a footnote to Keith Haring.” Tseng, however, accomplished much more than simply documenting the vivid social scene around him, and his influence is apparent in the works of many artists following him.
In the 1991 exhibition “Dismantling Invisibility: Asian and Pacific Islander Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis” at Art in General, visual artist Zhang Hongtu presented In Memory of Tseng Kwong Chi (1991). The work consists of Tseng’s self-portraits from “East Meets West” and “The Expeditionary Series” with the photographer’s silhouette cut out. Though the artists exhibited together at the Asian American Arts Centre in the 1980s, they were not well acquainted with each other personally.
Artists around the world were also impacted by Tseng’s meticulously crafted photographs and exaggerated performances of Otherness. When Muna brought Tseng’s work to the 2004 Shanghai Biennial, she met artists like Song Dong, who grew familiar with Tseng’s photographs through Western art magazines from the 1980s that were smuggled into China for art students in academies. Meanwhile, Zhang Huan was introduced to Tseng’s work in 1993 at the teachers’ library of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts. “I look on him as a senior in the respect of performance art,” Zhang told curator Alexandra Chang. “He focused on individual identity and social sculptures. Some of my works in Beijing were influenced by him.” Tseng’s impact can also be found in Ai Weiwei’s “Study of Perspective” series (1995–2003), which comprises photographs of the artist flipping off international monuments, and in Nikki S. Lee’s “The Tourists Project” (1997), wherein she performs the role of a typical New York City tourist.
Ultimately, Tseng helped lay the foundation for many of today’s artists to continue to question the symbolism behind national monuments and examine the idea of racial performance. After working for decades to secure Tseng’s legacy, Muna reflected to Artsy, “I feel so lucky to work on the archives, because it’s my way of being with my brother.” Although Windows on the World, Club 57, and Mudd Club are long gone, Tseng’s photographs and the conversations they’ve provoked are far from fleeting.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Tseng’s parents fled from Beijing; they fled from Shanghai.