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Tseng Kwong Chi.

Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York NY April 3 * May 3, 2008

As a Hong Kong-born, Paris-trained artist and the son of exiled Chinese nationalists, Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-90), who moved from Canada to New York in 1979, seemed fated to a life of unending tourism, symbolized by the shutter cord he can be seen clenching in his fist in many of these self-portraits from the last decade of his life. Characteristically garbed in an iconic Mao suit, dark shades, and ID card stamped "Slut for Life," it is only when this lone, self-appointed "Ambiguous Ambassador" found himself humbled before the Grand Canyon or in the wilds of British Columbia that this cord finally disappears, suggestive perhaps of moments of genuine rootedness.

"Tseng Kwong Chi: Self-Portraits 1979-1989" features over 90 large black-and-white photographs created in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Originally inspired by Nixon's visit to Communist China in 1972, which heralded a greater "openness" between China and the United States, Tseng eventually took hundreds of photographs at famous tourist sites across North America, Europe, and around the world, including the Eiffel Tower, Disneyworld, and the Seated Buddha in Kamakura, Japan. Most of the silver-gelatin prints show the artist standing rigidly before a particular destination, somewhat expressionless behind the reflecting shades, targeting both the typical souvenir snapshot and the failed freedom of movement promised by the initiation of U.S.-Chinese relations. Every now and again, however, a sudden change of mood occurs, such as when we see Tseng triumphantly leaping into the air near the Brooklyn Bridge or smilingly leading the St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City.


The grid-like arrangement of black-framed photographs at Paul Kasmin shows the methodological way Tseng approached his work, as well as his expert use of lighting, effortlessly highlighting alienation, permanent exile, and uprooted citizenship. There are also references to the documentary photography of Robert Frank and Ansel Adams, correlating the construction of self to identification with the surrounding landscape. So it is ironic that this accidental tourist of the U.S.'s failed open-door policy in China, who was once intimately involved in the 1980s New York art scene alongside Kenny Scharf, Cindy Sherman, and Keith Haring, should have proved so influential for such Chinese avant-garde artists as Song Dong and Zhang Huan, if only through Western art magazines smuggled into their country. Given that Tseng died of HIV/AIDS in 1990, looking today at the artist standing in front of the towering World Trade Center one is eerily confronted with the temporary nature of all icons--even or especially those erected in the name of national and international consolidation.
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Author:Ojo, Rose Oluronke
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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