Combining performance and photography, political satire and personal identity, Tseng Kwong Chi’s pioneering series East Meets West exemplifies the art of the eighties while anticipating the social, political and philosophical themes of the present day.

The eponymous exhibition which is now on show at Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, presents a selection of photographic self-portraits made between 1979 and 1987 – being sort of a visual diary of Tseng Kwong Chi’s life in the city where he befriended artists in the vibrant downtown arts scene of that time.

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver by exiled Chinese nationalists, Tseng Kwong Chi (1950 – 1990) studied photography and art in Paris. In 1978, Tseng moved to Manhattan, becoming a fixture of New York’s society and creative circles and a close friend of Keith Haring whose work and activities he documented.

Soon after arriving, Tseng began the series East Meets West, photographing himself at iconic tourist locales throughout America, wearing a “Mao suit”, dark sunglasses and an enigmatic expression. Pictured at the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, and other monumental sites.

Tseng’s persona suggests that of an austere, visiting dignitary, paying homage to sites signifying American greatness.

The series was partly inspired by Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, where the visit consisted largely of a series of carefully staged appearances meant to generate the greatest possible visual impact, including the infamous Nixon-Mao handshake.

In spite of the immutability of his Mao ensemble, Tseng responds distinctly to each locale, gazing contemplatively at the Grand Canyon, leaping raucously into the air at the Brooklyn Bridge or assuming a stiff, patriotic stance next to a rocket at Cape Canaveral.

Describing himself as both an “ambiguous ambassador” and an “inquisitive traveler”, Tseng mischievously and subtly investigated core issues of outsider and identity politics.

Deceased at age thirty-nine from aids-related illness, Tseng’s work has been widely exhibited and published. His work is in numerous public collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Metropolitan Museum, New York; the Tate Modern, London; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and many others.

In 2015, a retrospective Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing For the Camera was held at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, and the Grey Art Gallery at New York University.

The artist’s most iconic shots of the “East Meets West” series of self-portraits are New York, New York (Empire State), 1979; New York, New York (Brooklyn Bridge), 1979; and Rome, Italy (Coliseum, Day), 1989.

In 1987, Tseng began working with a Hasselblad camera, its long cable manned for the first time by an assistant which enabled the artist to depict himself in vast, natural landscapes.

These more contemplative yet characteristically sardonic self-portraits, such as Canadian Rockies (Forest), 1986; Grand Canyon, Arizona (Vista with Shadow), 1987; and Lightning Field, North Dakota (Left), 1987, recall the work of Caspar David Friedrich, Albert Bierstadt and the American Hudson River School painters with their earnest search for the sublime in nature.

Images: Tseng Kwong Chi, “New York, New York” (detail), 1979. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches // Tseng Kwong Chi, “New York, New York”, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches // Tseng Kwong Chi, “San Francisco, California”, 1979. Gelatin silver print, 16 x 16 inches // All images courtesy of Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

Through 04 April 2020
Yancey Richardson Gallery website