New York

Tseng Kwong Chi

Semaphore Gallery

Dressed in a severe Mao suit (complete with photo ID clipped to the flap of a breast pocket), with his hair closely cropped and dark glasses hiding his eyes, Tseng Kwong Chi transforms himself into the essential representative of the faceless hordes of Asia—or at least of the China of a decade or so ago. In this guise he photographs himself in situations where the presence of such an icon is either expected (at the United Nations, say) or absurd—he also poses with New York street people, and with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. In the poster-sized black and white photos here, all from 1983, he juxtaposes his monumental persona with a variety of architectural landmarks, mostly European—the House of Lords, Tower Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame. In two of the pictures he poses in front of structures in New England—a white-steepled church and a covered bridge; while neither is familiar in the way the European buildings are, both are just as much culturally enshrined generic types.

In one sense this work parodies tourist snapshots, and shows Tseng as a stranger in a land revealed to us, by his unexpected appearance in it, as itself strange. At the same time the pictures propose a tartly cynical conflation of the supposedly conflicting ideologies of East and West: where does the proletariat go when it takes a vacation? To the same places the bourgeoisie does. And aren’t tourists on holiday more than a little like faceless hordes themselves? But Tseng’s impassive, statuelike presence in these pictures (in several the hand in which he squeezes the bulb of his cable release becomes a fist clenched in determination) suggests another reading. The figure is itself architectural, and Tseng usually photographs himself from a low angle, so he appears huge, looming, a cartoon colossus to compete with the postcard palaces he stands in front of.

The character Tseng has chosen to enact evokes a curious blend of reactions. The steadfast, heroic puritanism it suggests is no longer the ideal in China that it was in the recent past, so the image has become historical, even nostalgic. Freed from even the pretense of referring to reality, it becomes fascinating and funny in itself. In its sexless, somewhat ominous character the media stereotype Tseng embodies in these images comes off a little like a mean Mr. Clean (or a Chinese Mr. T), while its streamlined, robotic precision is as eerily intriguing as the machinelike movements of electric-boogie dancers. As with electric boogie, too, it’s a little repulsive to see Tseng dehumanize himself as he does. For however astute their implicit commentary on media images may be, however amusing the juxtapositions of stereotypes set up in them, the photographs remain essentially self-portraits. Cindy Sherman is the best-known practitioner of this genre of media-image exploration; in her most successful work there’s a genuinely pathetic sense of a person rummaging through the scrap heap of cultural stereotypes, trying on bits and pieces of various personas in an attempt to construct a self. Tseng, on the other hand, has adopted whole one particular media image. It’s an image rich in connotations, and no doubt meaningful for the artist—although he’s never lived in mainland China, he was born in Hong Kong. But in the end the persona he’s assumed remains simply a mask, and his pictures never become more than canny variations on the same one-line joke.

Charles Hagen