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May 22, 2023

Acquisition: Tseng Kwong Chi

Tseng Kwong Chi, "Washington, DC (E25v1.36)"

Tseng Kwong Chi
Washington, DC (E25v1.36), 1981
gelatin silver print
image: 92.08 x 92.08 cm (36 1/4 x 36 1/4 in.)
framed: 96.52 x 96.52 x 4.45 cm (38 x 38 x 1 3/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund and Gift of Funds from Gregory and Aline Gooding
© Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc.. Courtesy Yancey Richardson, New York

The performance artist and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (1950–1990) described himself as an “inquisitive traveler, a witness of my time, and an ambiguous ambassador.” The National Gallery of Art has acquired four photographs from his series East Meets West (1979–1987), a group of innovative pictures that depicts the artist in front of different tourist locations around the country—the Brooklyn Bridge, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Disneyland—wearing mirrored sunglasses, an identity badge (which says “visitor” or “slutforart”), and what is now called a “Mao suit.”

The inspiration for East Meets West was in part President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, a highly orchestrated and carefully staged event designed to signal the inauguration of harmonious relations with China. Adopting the guise of a Chinese official or a tourist, Tseng subtly toyed with the conventions of tourist photography. Although he admitted that it could be awkward playing a Chinese tourist and subjecting himself to racial profiling and stereotyping by Westerners, he embraced postmodernism’s use of irony and parody to intentionally cast himself as a marginalized “other.” In these photographs, Tseng positions himself—as the title East Meets West suggests—as an “ambiguous ambassador” from another culture who not only witnessed the events of his time, but also searched for his own experiences in the West. While these pictures can be seen as “selfies,” they elicit questions of artifice and reality, masquerade and identity, belonging and estrangement, as well as the displacement and disjunction of the Asian diaspora.

New York, New York (1979) and Niagara Falls, New York (1984) are among his best-known works from this series. In New York, New York, he leaps into the air in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, as if expressing the joy of a tourist to visit a place that had long been on their bucket list. In Niagara Falls, New York, he poses himself with his back to the falls, projecting the air of a carefully composed visiting emissary, more eager to have his presence at the site recorded than in viewing the wonders of the American landscape. In Cape Canaveral, Florida (1985), Tseng positions a large sign with the words “United States” directly between him and an astronaut that prominently brands the lunar module as from the “United States,” as well as hinting at the power he wielded by playing on the assumptions and stereotypes of Westerners. Washington, DC (E25v1.36) (1981), made when Congressional members of the Moral Majority were espousing antigay rhetoric, is one of his most resonant and personal pictures in this series, as Tseng and many of his friends were openly gay. Made relatively early in his work on the series, Tseng positioned the camera slightly lower than he did in many other photographs in the series. By angling the camera lens up, he perfectly aligned his head with the dome of the U.S. Capitol—a symbol of freedom for many around the world—and his eye with Thomas Crawford’s statue, also titled Freedom, on the top of the dome.

Born in Hong Kong to a family with deep roots in mainland China, he emigrated to Vancouver at 16 and later studied art at the former Académie Julian in Paris before immersing himself in New York’s downtown art scene in the late 1970s. There he befriended Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others who would become key participants in the vibrant, experimental, and transgressive East Village Art Scene of the 1980s. Like many of his friends and colleagues, Tseng died of AIDS-related illness. He was 40 years old.

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