Hong Kong

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York, 1979, gelatin silver print, 20 × 16". From the series “East Meets West,” 1979–89.

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York, 1979, gelatin silver print, 20 × 16". From the series “East Meets West,” 1979–89.

Tseng Kwong Chi

Ben Brown Fine Arts | Hong Kong

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York, 1979, gelatin silver print, 20 × 16". From the series “East Meets West,” 1979–89.

The image of Tseng Kwong Chi dressed in a Mao suit, wearing Ray-Bans, and posing for a self-portrait in front of the World Trade Center for his photograph New York, New York, 1979, is undeniably iconic. After all, selfies were not yet a thing back then—and the twin towers represented a kind of optimism. Rendered in black-and-white, the picture was shot from a low angle. As Tseng gazes upward, light glinting off his sunglasses, his face takes on the same kind of sun-kissed metallic sheen of the monolithic structures rising into the clear sky behind him. The image forms part of the artist’s “Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series,” 1979–89, in which Tseng photographed himself in front of landmarks around the world—from the Great Buddha of Kamakura in Japan to the Eiffel Tower—always wearing the same suit. In many of his self-portraits, he wears an identity tag with the words VISITOR/VISITEUR printed in bold above an image of his unsmiling self; he wears sunglasses with lenses that reflect white light, making him appear like a time-traveler or an alien. His poses are usually rigid; as Charles Hagen wrote in 1984, the artist has an impassive, statue-like, and almost architectural presence. Often, the hand with which Tseng grasps the shutter release is, as Hagen described it, “a fist clenched in determination.”

Tseng, who died in 1990, was a traveler in a changing world. In his self-portraits, he asserted himself as a witness of his time—an “ambiguous ambassador” negotiating the strangeness of cultural encounters, whether standing next to Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in California, or gazing up at the Great Emancipator at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Best encapsulating the thinking behind such an approach is the other title by which the “Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series” is known, “East Meets West,” which reflects the Hong Kong–born artist’s background as a teenage immigrant in Canada, an art student in Paris, and part of a circle of artists that included Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf in the 1980s heyday of New York’s East Village, where he documented the scene around the legendary Mudd Club.

Aptly titled “Citizen of the World,” this comprehensive show—which presented many images from Tseng’s “Expeditionary” series in large-scale format for the first time—was something of a homecoming for Tseng. Staged in Hong Kong, where East does indeed meet West, the exhibition included two large-scale color portraits from 1983, exhibited for the first time since that year, and both titled East Meets West Manifesto. Presented on either side of a red wall, the images show Tseng in his Mao suit poised between a Chinese and an American flag: In one, he faces the viewer, in the other, he is reading Mao’s Little Red Book. Over the latter image a quote is scrawled in white: THERE ARE TWO WINDS IN THE WORLD TODAY, THE EAST WIND AND THE WEST WIND. EITHER THE WEST WIND PREVAILS OVER THE EAST WIND, OR THE EAST WIND PREVAILS OVER THE WEST WIND. The implicit point is that both sides—East and West—prevail.

You might call Tseng’s a romantic stance: one in which the fluid forces of globalism are greater than those of the people caught in the tidal waves of geographical, cultural, and political flows and exchanges. This was a position the artist developed further as he turned his attentions to the subject of nature. In Grand Canyon, Arizona (Vista with Shadow), 1987, for instance, the artist is pictured standing on a rock, no longer in close-up, but merely one feature in a vast, monumental landscape. This theme continues in a series of rare sepia prints taken from the “American West Portfolio,” which depicts the Arizona landscape in 1987. In these tranquil images, Tseng’s figure becomes smaller and smaller until he is barely visible—truly one with the world.

Stephanie Bailey