Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Ambiguous Ambassador: Tseng Kwong Chi

We got an intriguing invitation from our friend, choreographer Muna Tseng, to attend her July 2nd narrated walk-through on of Grey Gallery's exhibition of photographs and videos by her late brother, artist Tseng Kwong Chi. We jumped at the chance to get a first-hand description of how they both came to New York from China in the 1970s to be artists, Muna as a dancer and Kwong Chi as a photographer. His work is also on display at the Metropolitan Museum as part of its China exhibition.

In his early work, Kwong Chi appeared in a Chinese worker's suit, also known as a Mao suit, wearing a cheesy clip-on ID badge of his own making that said "Visitor" in English and "Visiteur" in French. The suit combined with the badge gave him the appearance of a visiting dignitary and he was often mistaken for a Chinese ambassador or diplomat.  This was the genesis for the title of his book "Ambiguous Ambassador".  The man had a wicked sense of humor.  In his early black and white work, he took very formal photographs by himself with their dad's 35 mm camera mounted a tripod. You can see the remote clicker and cord in his hand in the photograph above in the show poster and in the one below. Kwong Chi traveled across the U.S. and Europe, taking photos in front of iconic tourist attractions like the Eiffel Tower and Mount Rushmore in this East Meets West series. The 1979 photograph below was taken in Hollywood Hills, CA. In the poster above, he posed in front of Niagara Falls. The photos have a naive, whimsical, almost Zelig-like quality.

Muna's walk-through was totally delightful. She shared stories and anecdotes and gave us a very loving and revealing behind-the-scenes look at her brother's work and the New York scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Kwong Chi died of AIDs on March 10, 1990, as did many of his contemporaries, including Keith Haring who died less than a month earlier on February 16, 1990. Muna choreographed a tribute to Kwong Chi's life in her dance-performance piece "SlutForArt a.k.a. Ambiguous Ambassador". The Grey Gallery show closes July 11th but is traveling to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA 8/18 - 12/13/15 an to Tufts University Art Gallery at the Shirley and Alex Aidekman Arts Center 1/21 - 5/22/16.  See it if you can.  You'll thank us.

While the iconic images of Bill T. Jones in full body-paint by Keith Haring are instantly recognizable, many of us never realized they were taken by her brother who was great friends with Keith and Bill and Kenny Scharf and all of the downtown art scene denizens.

This shot, which captures both artist and dancer, was photographed in London in 1983. Muna recalled how Keith would call Kwong Chi on a pay phone (long before cell phones) to tell him in what subway station he had just left his latest graffiti. Kwong Chi would grab his camera to photograph the work and eventually chronicled Keith's work in about 50,000 shots. He traveled to Brazil with Kenny Scharf and his Brazilian wife.

In a 1986 full color series of Portraits of the Artists, Kwong Chi featured staged photos of artists like Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and all the usual suspects.

In another tongue-in-cheek series on The Moral Majority, Kwong Chi photographed politicians like Alfonse D'Amato and William F. Buckley in 1981 and sent them the photographs to autograph and return to him to exhibit. They are a wonderful time capsule for a glimpse into the politics of the early 1980s.

After a wonderful evening, when we finally exited the gallery, we met this young woman wearing a very graphic black and white newsprint dress who asked to take a photograph with us. We gave our standard response ("we'll let you take a picture with your camera if you'll also take one with ours") and she enlisted her friend to take the photo just as a strong gust of wind blew her dress and almost took Valerie's hat.

As we walked across town so Valerie could take the First Avenue bus, we stopped at the historic Merchant's House on East 4th Street just west of the Bowery. The house is open year-round for tours on Thursdays through Mondays by wonderfully knowledgeable docents. Seasonal decorations add an interesting touch at Halloween and Christmas. During the summer, they are open late on Thursday evenings til 8 pm for visitors to sit and enjoy the secret garden behind the colonial era brownstone. Valerie posed for a quick shot.

Jean got into the act too, showing off her jumpsuit and thrift shop cross-covered crop top. All too soon, the evening drew to and end and we headed on our merry way. Until next time, adios, kiddies!

1 comment:

  1. Another artist I would have never heard of if it were not for you ladies. Looks like a very interesting exhibit and I remember seeing the photos of a Keith Haring-painted Bill T. Jones.