Tseng Kwong Chi

born Hong Kong, China 1950-died New York City 1990
Also known as
  • Tseng Kwong-Chi
  • Joseph Tseng
Hong Kong, China
New York, New York, United States

“I am an inquisitive traveler, a witness of my time, and an ambiguous ambassador.”

Tseng Kwong Chi was a conceptual performance artist and photographer. In addition to documenting New York City’s downtown art scene of the 1980s, he is known for creating irreverent quasi-self-portraits that depict him in a persona he called the "Ambiguous Ambassador."

Tseng was born in Hong Kong, where his Chinese Nationalist parents escaped following the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949. In 1966, Tseng and his family emigrated to Vancouver, Canada, where he completed high school. He later studied photography at the École Supérieure d'Arts Graphiques in Paris, France.

Upon moving to New York City in 1978, Tseng quickly found himself at the heart of its burgeoning avant-garde art and countercultural movement. At queer-friendly East Village venues such as Club 57 and the Mudd Club, Tseng befriended and photographed artists including Keith Haring, Ann Magnuson, and Kenny Scharf. During his long friendship with Haring, he documented the painter’s work, including his early guerilla-style subway drawings. In Tseng’s own practice, an interest in performance, identity, and portraiture emerged. For photo essays published in the alternative paper The Soho Weekly, Tseng satirically fashioned his artist friends as heteronormative suburban preppies (It's a Reagan World!, 1981) and traveled to DC to take the portraits of conservative politicians such as Jerry Falwell in front of a crumpled American flag (Moral Majority, 1981).

The mutable and socially constructed nature of identity is explored in Tseng’s most well-known body of work, a group of photographs originally titled East Meets West. These approximately 150 images constitute a continuous project yet move through several discernible phases. Between 1979 and 1982, Tseng traveled around the United States, posing in his “Mao suit” next to well-known monuments and landmarks. Starting in 1983, he went international, eventually creating images in Europe, Brazil, and Japan. In 1986, Tseng began photographing himself mostly in dramatic natural landscapes. Around this time, he started referring to his series by a new title, The Expeditionary Works.

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