The art scene of New York’s East Village burned at fever pitch in the 1980s, as postmodernism gave way to multiculturalism in perhaps the last vestige of bohemia, and Tseng Kwong Chi was there in the middle with his camera. He ran with the likes of Keith Haring, Bill T. Jones, Andy Warhol, and Ann Magnuson, documenting their art, cannibalizing it into his own. Then the East Village was gutted by AIDS. Ask anyone who survived the first wave of the East Village AIDS epidemic, they will tell you that most, if not all, of their friends are dead.
Chi’s parents were capitalist merchants in China before the Communist Revolution. The family escaped to Hong Kong, and then moved to Canada in 1966. Chi found his way to the East Village and began snapping pictures with a camera his father bought in Manchuria in 1945. His sister Muna came to New York as well, continuing a career in dance that began in Hong Kong. One day in 1978, Kwong Chi had a breakthrough.
In the words of his sister, “When my parents came to New York, they took us to ‘Windows on the World’ in the World Trade Center. My brother didn’t have a suit and ‘Windows’ had a dress code, so he wore his Mao suit instead. When we arrived at ‘Windows’ the maitre d’ took one look at him and treated him like a VIP, a gentleman from the East, an emissary from Cathay.”
Although it pissed off his parents, who had left China because of the man their son was impersonating, for Tseng Kwong Chi the incident was a revelation. He began wearing his Mao suit everywhere, reaping a bounty of privileges along the way.
The timing was perfect. “East meets West” was all the rage in New York, and Chi had found a way to reconcile his distaste with the American fascination for China with the advantages it offered to Chinese Americans. His Mao suit was a door opener, allowing him access to some highly controlled places and events, such as the Tarmac at Kennedy Airport where he photographed the landing of the first trans-Atlantic flight of the Concorde Jet.
He was a hit at parties. On assignment from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to photograph the who’s who of New York at their “party of the year,” Chi wore his Mao suit and included himself in the portraits. Among the many pictures was a shot of Henry Kissenger and Chi as chairman Mao.
Soon Chi decided to take his show on the road. He composed a series of self portraits entitled “The Expeditionary Series,” in which Chi would pose in his Mao suit in front of famous monuments, tourist attractions, and scenes of particular natural beauty. He always wore his shades, because they added to his mysterious air of detachment, and because they made him look and feel cool. And he always wore a badge that said “SlutForArt.” The portraits include as backdrops the Grand Canyon, the EPCOT Center, the Hollywood sign, the Kennedy Space Center, Lake Louise, the Great Buddha, the Eiffel Tower, Disneyland. He was the quintessential exotic visitor, the ambiguous ambassador. In the age of the global melting pot, Chi’s work was at once a look back at when exotics truly did stick out, and a look at the universal truth beneath our multi-cultural, de-territorialized existence: We are all “just visiting” the planet. Kwong Chi’s visit to our planet ended on March 10, 1990, at the age of 40, when he died of AIDS.
Chi’s memory and his work live on in the multi-media dance piece, “The Ambiguous Ambassador,” performed by his sister Muna, and Ping Chong. While Kwong’s famous self portraits are projected on a backdrop, Ping Chong narrates and Muna Tseng dance a testament to Chi’s life and work, as well as Muna’s grief for her dead brother.
Chong’s narration recalls an Asian Dr. Seuss, a decadent cadence of shrimp paste and silken treasures and Eastern anecdotes. Key phases are projected onto the screen, as Muna spins and gestures like a Tai Chi ballet, using her body to augment the heady message of the performance. Chong’s narration is augmented by audio clips of Kwong on the phone with some of his artsy friends, lamenting the downsides of being stereotyped into the current vogue popularity of Asia. The music is chosen from Kwong’s favorite tunes, ranging from 1950s Chinese pop to Mahler.
Muna Tseng’s resume is long enough to be seen from space, and has studied with some of the centuries greatest dance teachers, including Gertrude Hanova, Jan Erdman, and Joseph Campbell. Muna Tseng Dance Projects, founded in 1988, has produced an array of award-garnished productions in the last decade plus. Her aim, in her own words, is a performance that “vibrates with the life force and reveals timeless archetypes and symbols ... an Asian concept of art to celebrate harmony rather than negativity.” The Ambiguous Ambassador is one of her most successful pieces.