Presented here is a series of self-portraits by the Hong Kong-born photographer, Tseng Kwong Chi. The artist said that the images, taken in the Americas, Europe, and Asia, define him as an "inquisitive traveler, a witness of my time and an ambiguous ambassador." Each photograph depicts Tseng in what appears to be a traditional Mao suit, with mirrored sunglasses and a fake I.D. card clipped to his chest pocket, standing in front of or beside a wide range of cultural landmarks, architectural monuments, and natural landscapes of awesome beauty and proportions.
Beginning in 1979 and until his premature death at 40 in 1990, Tseng created and used the same persona, a visiting Chinese communist official, for this body of work that explores, pokes fun at, and exploits Western stereotypes. Tseng consistently appears anonymous, impassive, and mysterious. He sits stiffly or stands at attention, and often grips a visible cable release, which is the remote mechanism needed to trip his camera's shutter. While raising issues concerning ethnic stereotyping, Tseng also represents a tourist seeking a kind of celebrity status by being photographed with cultural and natural icons. Through the selective use of camera angle and body positioning, Tseng appears either somewhat sinister and surreal or as a tiny prop in the landscape, seeming to indicate scale and distance. Often he appears as an "Everyman, a traveler, seen in the world's most famous places."
The original works are large scale photographs — 36" by 36" — selected from the Center's collection of approximately eighty images, the only complete set of Tseng's Expeditionary Series, also known as East Meets West. The photographs were made posthumously by Tseng's printer under the supervision of his estate. These photographs were included inTseng Kwong Chi: Citizen of the World, exhibited at the Center from September 21 to November 16, 1997.
About the Artist
Tseng's father served in the Nationalist Army in the war against China's communist revolutionaries. Later he and his family fled China to escape the new regime. Born in 1950 in Hong Kong, Tseng Kwong Chi immigrated to Canada when he was a teenager. He completed his fine art education in Paris and moved to New York City in 1978, where he lived and worked until his death in 1990. Tseng used his personal knowledge of China's history and his particular sense of humor to create a series of photographs of himself masquerading in the guise of a visiting Chinese communist official. Tseng had discovered that dressing in a Mao-style suit inspired strangers to treat him as a VIP. Until his death in 1990, he used this persona to explore Westerners' naivete and ignorance of Asia, and specifically of China. From his sharply angled head-and-shoulders stance in front of famous landmarks to his Boy Scout stand-at-attention pose at the Kennedy Space Center, Tseng Kwong Chi's chosen photographic subjects are these sights from around the world as well as himself.
In Christine Lombard's video, "East Meets West," the filmmaker documents Tseng's inspiration and methods. Inspired by President Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972, Tseng says, "A real exchange was supposed to take place between the East and the West. However, the relations remained official and superficial." His series seems to explore his personal "ambassadorship" through the West and, as the video relates, Tseng's work introduced him to many places and people.
While Tseng was very gregarious and outgoing in life, in his photographs he often appears isolated, stiff, and expressionless. He states, "My distant attitude expresses the mystery still surrounding China" and "My mirrored glasses give the picture a neutral impact and the surrealistic quality I'm looking for." His sense of humor is also expressed through this mechanical persona. In one photograph he clutches an enormous bouquet of helium balloons while standing on tiptoe in front of Disney's Magic Kingdom, and it is his straight face that delivers the joke. Through the ever-changing locations of his self-portraits, the viewer is able to discover both the serious and the humorous nature of Tseng's travelogue.
Suggestions for Discussing and Interpreting the Self-Portraits of Tseng Kwong Chi
Photographs are the result of aesthetic, social, political, personal, and cultural influences on the artist. These affect and help direct the construction and content of the image. Through careful analysis of photographs, students will develop and improve observational skills, increase their vocabulary to express responses, and sharpen their interpretive skills.
- What do you see?
- What is it about?
- How do you know?
Ask them to talk about details in the photograph and encourage them to use specific words from their own experience, rather than general terms.
Consider the subject matter
Tseng Kwong Chi uses a unique approach to self-portraiture. His images include information about his created character or persona and his travels. Ask your students to consider the following questions:
- How does the viewer know that these are self-portraits?
- Where is the artist in the picture? Is there more importance placed on the location, on the figure of Tseng, or are these in balance?
- What is his relationship to the other elements in the photograph, such as landscape, people, framing, or selected objects?
- Describe the artist's clothing, facial expressions, and body language and discuss what these communicate to the viewer about the persona he has created.
- Is there an imaginary or "staged" quality about the scene photographed?
- From what angle did the photographer set up the picture? (Example: head-on, from a bird's-eye view, from a low perspective.) How does this affect the photograph?
- Look at the lighting of the scene. Can you tell the time of day? Has the artist used artificial or natural light? How does the light affect the photograph?
Conduct a thorough visual analysis
Spend at least fifteen minutes looking at and discussing one or more selected images using the Learning to Look at Photographs lesson.
Consider how the images work individually and contribute to the whole series
Notice how certain variables remain the same or change within each image. For instance, Tseng's persona appears in each photograph wearing the same costume. His stance is consistently stiff, yet his body position, size, and location change from image to image. Compare the similarities and differences between subject matter, size, composition, light and shadow, angle of view, titles, etc. Consider how each image stands alone as a work of art yet works in combination with the others to reveal Tseng's artistic vision.
Related Topics for Discussion
A close colleague of Keith Haring (the noted New York graffiti artist and painter), Tseng was at the center of the New York art scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Inspired by an intense interest in mass consumerism, performance art, and the multi-ethnic composition of this great city, Tseng wove a complicated photographic thesis together that both delights and puzzles the viewer. In his photographs, Tseng toys with definitions of national identity and basic human discomfort with "outsiders." His own unspecified multi-national status--Asian, Canadian, Parisian, American--and his unconventional role as an artist add to the mystery behind his imaginary persona.
In the Lombard video, Tseng speaks of his selected locations, "Tourists often go for what they have seen in films or in photographs. Monuments appeal especially to them because they represent past or present glories - and power." How do Tseng's pictures of famous places compare to our own experiences there, as well as our own photographs?
Tseng, the actor, suggests that the viewer consider both the "reality" and "story" portrayed in his photographs. What the artist selects to include tells the viewer about the imagined and real nature of the person photographed, as well as his purpose in being in the picture. The Chinese dignitary is our guide, and we move from image to image to see where he will show up next, looking for clues to Tseng Kwong Chi's identity.