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Tucson Weekly Eternal Tourist

Center For Creative Photography Displays Tseng Kwong Chi's Amusing Travelogue

By Margaret Regan

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  EVERYDAY, RIGHT HERE in Arizona, tourists routinely take one glance at the Grand Canyon and then leap backward onto the nearest precipice, risking their very lives for the perfect dramatic shot. And at just about any famous tourist attraction you could name, that's the standard photographic procedure.

Here's what you do. Arrive at your destination, immediately turn your back on it and pose for a snapshot of yourself with the iconic monument rising up in the background. Don't bother to think too much about what's behind you. It doesn't matter whether it's the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower, as long as it's famous and you've seen it before in a zillion pictures. And don't bother to untangle all its cultural and political meanings, either. Learning about the place or even being there is not the main thing. Getting the snapshot that proves you were there is.

At first glance, the amusing photos in the big show Tseng Kwong Chi: Citizen of the World at the UA Center for Creative Photography merely provide a jokey variant on this standard tourist regimen. Enacting the part of an anonymous world traveler--he even wears a plastic badge labeled Visitor--the late Tseng planted himself in front of tourist meccas from Monument Valley in the American West to Westminster Abbey in London, from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to a giant Buddha statue in Japan.

He inserts himself into every traveler's cliché there is. He paddles a canoe in a Canadian lake surrounded by tall pines and snowy peaks (can the Mounties be far behind?). He takes his peripatetic self to the Eiffel Tower, the World Trade Center, the great statue of Jesus in Rio de Janeiro. He doesn't assign relative values to the wonders he visits: the Cape Canaveral Visitor's Center in Florida, where he shakes hands with a suited-up astronaut, is on equal footing with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, where he comically leans his own monumentally photographed body in counterpoint to the venerable tilting tower. Nor does he make a distinction between natural and human-constructed wonders: He holds an unruly bunch of balloons outside Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland and locks gazes with a rock outcropping in Monument Valley.

Sure, it's goofy, but there's a serious side to the loopy irony of this work. In each of his handsome 3-foot-square black and white photos, far finer than the standard tourist output, Tseng disguises himself as a stereotypical Chinese. He wears one of those anonymous Mao suits that Westerners have always considered emblematic of the obliteration of the individual under Communism. And he maintains a suitably Asian inscrutability in each of the 40 pictures, never cracking the least smile even in the embrace of the furry man-sized Chipmunk at Disneyland. He further obliterates his own identity behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses, whose glassy surface deflects even the most tenacious gaze. He's unknowable, a traveler without identity, unmoored in a world that's lost its sense of culture and place. He lives in the late 20th century, where Mickey Mouse and the Buddha are peers, where there's a cultural equivalence between everything from shrines to commercial towers.

Tseng died in 1990 of AIDS at the age of 40, after a decade on the downtown New York art scene. But his complicated international upbringing helps elucidate his photographic questioning of culture and identity. He was born in Hong Kong in 1950, the child of Shanghai exiles, moved with the family to Canada at age 16, and then took himself to Paris for art school. Visa problems ultimately landed him in the U.S., where he delighted in a kind of schmoozy performance art. He used to sneak into glittery society events and take pictures of himself with all the leading celebs.

In his 80-photo East Meets West project, half of which is on view (the Center owns the complete set), he takes this naughty performance art a serious step further. He explains himself in a film by Christine Lombard playing on a VCR at the show. The project, Tseng says, began in 1979 after President Nixon's visit to China. Rapprochement was supposed to deepen understanding between East and West, but Tseng believed the relationship remained shallow. In response, he made pictures of himself costumed as a Chinese man making a superficial pilgrimage to the meaningless clichés of the West.

"I am an inquisitive traveler, a witness of my time and an ambiguous ambassador," he says. "...My distant attitude suggests the mystery still surrounding China. Tourists go for what they have seen in films or in photographs. Monuments appeal to them because they represent past and present glories and power."

The results of Tseng's journey through these glories are so engaging--and so funny--that it might be easy to miss just how good a photographer he was. He maintains a remarkable visual variety in what's essentially a group of self-portraits with background. Sometimes he puts his camera on the ground to photograph himself monumentally: In his pictures of all those phallic-shaped monuments, especially--the Golden Gate Bridge, the New York skyscrapers--he idles like a casual giant side by side with the huge structures. Other times he's lost in nature: a tiny fellow below the giant heads of Mount Rushmore, an almost invisible human presence in the Canadian Rockies. And he endows some of his scenic landscapes with a distinctive Asian beauty, particularly in the dreamy "Lake Ninevah, Vermont," where he floats contemplatively in a rowboat on the misty waters.

On a few occasions he abandons his habitual passivity. In the lively pictures of the Roman Coliseum and the Jefferson Memorial, he strides purposefully past the rounded arches of the old buildings, intent on seizing, at last, his own history.

Tseng Kwong Chi: Citizen of the World continues through November 16 at the Center for Creative Photography. Curator Trudy Wilner Stack will give a free talk on "Celebrity and Anonymity in the Postmodern Eighties" at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, November 6. The show concludes with a dance performance in Tseng's memory by the artist's sister, Muna Tseng. She performs her work 98.6: A Convergence in 15 Minutes at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 16. Regular gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information call 621-7968.

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