Integrative Studio 2
Artist’s Journal Entry
Tseng Kwong Chi. East Meets West: Disneyland, California. 1979.
I’m Tseng Kwong Chi, a photographer and performing artist. It’s been 28 years since I died. But I’m glad that my photography works are alive and shown to the public. The world has changed a lot, except that the places I recorded with my camera permanently stay in my memory as they were.
My father served for the Chinese Nationalist army during the war against the Communist revolutionaries. After he lost the war, my family fled to Hong Kong. I was born just one year after the new regime was established. We migrated to Vancouver when I was a teenager. I studied art in Paris and moved to New York in 1978.
In New York, I lived with my sister. I remember that once my parents visited us and we had dinner at a restaurant with a dress code. But I only had one suit, which was a Mao jacket, and no ties. The waiter mistakenly identified me as a dignitary from the Chinese government. That was when I started to create a series of self-portraits wearing the Mao suit.
The Mao suit was a khaki uniform I bought in a thrift shop. It became my signature. I wore it when standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and looking into the sky. I wore it when holding a bunch of balloons at Disneyland in California. I wore it when wandering in the fields of Provincetown.
Tseng Kwong Chi. East Meets West: Little Schoolhouse, Vermont. 1983.
My focus was never on my personal identity, nor was it on the landscape or buildings behind me. Myself and the background of the photos work together as a whole to convey the idea of humor and satire. The message is pretty straightforward. I was trying to reveal the Western world’s ignorance of China. I was often treated as a VIP guest when wearing that suit. For my works, it would be interesting to ask one to choose between a real Chinese official’s traveling photos or a fake one’s.
The reflective sunglasses I had on each photo were a deliberate design. The point was to avoid any eye contact so that the audience could pay attention to my gesture and the specific attitude expressed by my body. I found in my years of exploring performing arts that human body was a very subtle thing. One tiny little movement of joints could change the entire posture and the message that I wanted to deliver. For example, opening the shoulders made me feel more like mechanical. In most of my photos I look stiff, almost in an emotionless way, and stand straight, like an old soldier or a old-fashioned government official. To my delight, my audience was always able to discover the contradiction of humor and seriousness.
I cherish my Chinese origin, but I think I belong to everywhere. I’m a citizen of the world. This is another big theme of my career. In fact, I pay much respect to nature and the landmarks as components in my works. What I photographed was not me, but the concept of cultural identity. What I wanted to remember was the instant feeling of me wearing that Mao suit and interacting with the surroundings.
Tseng Kwong Chi. East Meets West: Hollywood Hills, California. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. 1979.
Tseng Kwong Chi. East Meets West: New York, New York. 1979.