I am an inquisitive traveler, a witness of my time, and an ambiguous ambassador.
Tseng Kwong Chi (born 1950, Hong Kong; died 1990, New York) was a photographer and performer internationally known for his photographic series East Meets West a.k.a. Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series. At age 10, he began Chinese painting classes in Hong Kong and was regarded as a child prodigy. In 1966, his family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada. He received his formal art training in Paris and graduated with honors in 1975.
In 1979 I went to Provincetown, and I ran into a funny beach house; I happened to have my Chinese costume with me and that is how I did my first self-portrait. Then, I took a trip around the USA, being interested in finding out what Americans worship in their country. I followed the trail of the typical places they love to visit. My mirrored glasses give the picture a neutral impact and a surrealistic quality I am looking for.
In the provocative images that comprise the East Meets West series, Tseng poses–always donning his stereotypical Mao suit–in front of iconic architecture and sublime nature as his invented artistic persona, a Chinese “Ambiguous Ambassador.” “A cross between Ansel Adams and Cindy Sherman,” his work explores tourist photography in a playful juxtaposition of truth, fiction, and identity, while also paying homage to landmarks and the grandeur and mystery of nature.
I heighten the irony of the icons and symbols of Western popular culture… all of which are worshipped, exploited and exported through the media of television, Hollywood movies and Madison Avenue magazines
During one of his early performative photographic expeditions for the Soho Weekly News in 1980, he crashed a high society party at Diane Vreeland’s “Manchu Dragon Robes” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tasked simply with photographing their lavish outfits, Tseng instead posed as a Chinese “Ambiguous Ambassador,” interviewed the guests and repeatedly photographed himself next to royalty and famous designers.
I find especially fascinating, but also alienating in many ways, the futuristic quality of [the American] environment, like these new cities — Miami, Dallas or Las Vegas — while holding on to very conventional and traditional social values.
Shortly after his arrival in New York City in 1978, he became friends with Keith Haring, John Sex, Kenny Scharf, Bill T. Jones, and other luminaries of the downtown scene. He was an important documentarian and denizen of the downtown 1980’s New York club and art scene. Invited to be Keith’s official photo-chronicler, Tseng captured Haring’s guerilla style underground subway drawings, political actions, and collaborations with peers. This decade long friendship created the world’s largest photo archive of Keith Haring.
My photographs are social studies and social comments on Western society and its relationship with the East. [I pose] as a Chinese tourist in front of monuments of Europe, America and elsewhere.
In 1990, Tseng died at age 39 from complications related to the AIDS virus, leaving an enduring body of work that engages major photographic traditions — the tourist snapshot, portraiture, the Sublime tradition of landscape photography, documentary and performance. Tseng’s photographs have been exhibited widely in international exhibitions and are in numerous prestigious major public museums and private collections all over the world.
All quotes by Tseng Kwong Chi were first published in the Houston Center for Photography’s monograph Tseng Kwong Chi: The Expeditionary Works.