Tseng Kwong Chi’s photographs are self-portraits depicting the artist in mirrored sunglasses and a formal Chinese uniform (reminiscent of the famous image of Chairman Mao) in front of well-known tourist sites such as Mount Rushmore or Disneyland. These photographs are part of the artist’s lifelong project entitled East Meets West, in which he took on a performative role as an “unofficial ambassador” to China. Standing at attention, with the shutter release cord visible in his hand (evoking the film stills of Cindy Sherman’s work), Tseng’s images combine a sense of here and there, then and now.
Born in Hong Kong, Tseng grew up in Vancouver, Canada, before studying art in Montréal and Paris. As a student, he excelled at Chinese calligraphy and painting, but found himself influenced by the work of French photographers such as Brassaï and Henri Cartier Bresson. Unable to obtain a visa to live in France, Tseng moved to New York in 1978. His sister recalls being invited to a dinner with their parents, who were visiting from Canada, at Windows on the World–a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. The restaurant’s dress code required a coat and tie, so Tseng, then a struggling artist, arrived wearing a gray 1930s Chinese Nationalist uniform. While his family was mortified, the maître d’ of the restaurant was fooled and treated Tseng as a visiting dignitary. From that moment, the artist incorporated the uniform into his photographic work, using it not only to create a persona, but to gain access to places or events he sought to photograph. His body of work soon grew to encompass images of himself at a range of world sites and tourist attractions. Wherever he went, the uniform, coupled with Tseng’s race, seemed to declare, “Just visiting. I’m not from here.”
Tseng’s work was first seen at the Walker Art Center in the exhibition Asia/America in 1995. An intriguing blend of performance and photography, his photographs are an important addition to the Walker’s collection because they recognize an early moment in the discourse of multiculturalism. These pictures join a growing body of photographic work in the collection and further the museum’s mission to support diverse and emerging art practices.