When daguerreotype emerged in 1839 as the first publicly announced photographic process, it prompted fracture in art’s aspirations to represent reality. With the advent of the camera, images mimicked the natural world with unparalleled precision. Painters, who had painstakingly innovated oils, pigments and mediums in an attempt to capture what previously eyes could only view, were outraged, with essayist Charles Baudelaire denouncing photography as the “mortal enemy of art." But in the wake of photographic art, visual artists were at once liberated from this singular goal of approximating reality; a wave of abstract art was ushered in, allowing artists to experiment with representation in weird and subversive ways.
From its origins, photography has been a disruptive form. Its ubiquity in today’s technoscape of Instagram-able lifestyles and YouTube celebrities makes it easy to take for granted how captivating, shocking and exciting the act of capturing events in real time can be. The Block Museum’s main fall exhibit, Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera, is a testament to this capacity, showcasing the work of Tseng Kwong Chi in his first major solo retrospective.
Tseng was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Canada with his family at the age of 16. Following his study of photography at the Academie Julien in Paris, he moved to New York City, where he was prolific in the East Village arts scene alongside contemporaries such as Keith Haring and Cindy Sherman. Although he was known by his Western name Joseph, Tseng opted to use his anglicized Mandarin name after he began his professional career.
The exhibit’s Opening Celebration, which took place this Saturday, featured presentations and performances exploring Tseng Kwong Chi’s life, oeuvre and its political, historical and social significance. Presenters included: Janet Dees, a Block Museum curator, presenting an overview of the works featured; Anthropology chair and professor Jessica Winegar, detailing the colonial histories that Tseng’s works challenge; artist Leonard Suryajaya, whose photographic art similarly articulates themes of U.S. xenophobia and cultural displacement; Performance Studies professor Joshua Chambers-Letson, discussing the historical and performative nature of Tseng’s photos; and artist and SAIC faculty Rashayla Marie-Brown, performing a provocative piece about artistic legacy.
These five presentations provided a lens through which the exhibit could be contextualized, rendering photographs into sites of resistance, wit and cultural critique. The picture centered in the entryway of the gallery is Tseng’s infamous East Meets West Manifesto. The choice of this image as the focal point of the gallery, Dees says, was intentional. Tseng emerging from behind a “curtain” of the United States flag not only symbolizes his position between titular two spheres, but also emphasizes the performance aspect of his work.
And indeed, these themes transcend Tseng’s work from various periods of his own life. In both his “East Meets West” and “Expeditionary” series, Tseng dons a thrift-shop “Mao suit” – a formal attire associated with the dress of Chinese dignitaries and dark reflective sunglasses obscuring the wearer’s eyes – posing in front of national landmarks and nature landscapes. His figure, whether close to the camera or dwindled by behemoth landforms, is disruptive; the viewer is thus urged to ask whether it is his anachronistic dress, his Asian face, his human presence in idealized Americana settings or all of the above, which is prompting this feeling of incongruity.
Some of Tseng’s other projects have more overt, often humorously so, political and cultural meanings. In “Costumes at the Met,” Tseng attends the Costume Institute’s exhibition “The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of the Ch’ing Dynasty, 1644-1912” at the Met, again sporting the Mao suit. The irony of Tseng’s stereotypically Chinese appearance against the Met’s Orientalist celebration of aestheticized Chinese dress is perhaps best summed up by Tseng Kwong Chi Posing with Mannequin. In a self-aware twist, the Met Ball’s 2015 Through the Looking Glass theme, which was also China-inspired, featured Tseng’s photography in the exhibition.
Throughout his work, Tseng’s art straddled the border between photography and performance. Whether it was posing as a Chinese dignitary to infiltrate elite spaces or posturing as a photojournalist to take portraits of an ultraconservative group (featured in the “Moral Majority” series of the exhibit), Tseng exploits our visual associations and biases, using composition and contrast to disorient the viewer and provoke questions of class, nationhood and cultural belonging.
“[This exhibit] will teach you a lot about different aspects of what it means to be a human being who is navigating two very different social spaces and how people represent certain things in other peoples’ minds. It helps us break down stereotypes,” says Brown, artist and SAIC Director of Student Affairs for Diversity and Inclusion.
Tseng’s parodic performance of iconized Chineseness is both textual and political, given his relative obscurity in the mainstream realms of contemporary art. “The way you understand who gets to be heard and who gets to be validated as a cultural producer - it’s a question that [the viewer] has to ask,” says Chicago-based artist Suryajaya.
The Block Museum’s decision to feature Tseng is a conscious effort to resist mainstream invisibility of Asian American artists, and to insert Tseng’s distinctive wit and perspective into larger discourse of race and American-ness. His work asserts that photography, documentation and videography are part and parcel with the formation and rearticulation of cultural ideas. In our increasingly image-saturated social world, the power of representation is not only symbolic but inherently radical. Images are today’s equalizer, allowing those on the margins to reveal their too-often fatal realities rendered invisible to a purportedly colorblind society. But where there is presence, there is absence. In an era of unprecedented documentation and image-sharing, what is excluded, as in Tseng’s photographs, often speaks volumes.