In the 1980s, photographs of a Mao-suited Chinese gentleman posing before various world monuments began to emerge from New York's East Village. But what at first glance appeared to be well-framed holiday snaps of a Party functionary were, in reality, pieces of an intriguing project by artist Tseng Kwong Chi, which he called The Expeditionary Series.
The '80s art scene was a world of larger-than-life figures who demanded as much attention as their work. In the early days of his Expeditionary Series, Kwong Chi shot himself as the equal to the monuments under scrutiny. In the Everyman-wear of a mass society, Kwong Chi stands before the sites of distinction like every alienated modern tourist desperate to seem a part of the world. But in time, he moved himself further into the photographs and into nature. It was an approach akin to the great landscape paintings of the Sung Dynasty, where the infinite was suggested through mists and vistas.
Kwong Chi referred to himself (and the inscrutable persona he adopted for his photographs) as "a witness of my time." Over time, the phrase gained a new meaning.
Kwong Chi died of AIDS in 1990, when the world that he was an important component of--the East Village art scene--was crumbling in the face of the epidemic. But before that came a saturnalia of creativity, and Kwong Chi was the age's chronicler. He began his career by documenting the work of his un-Rentable friends: Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Ann Magnuson and Bill T. Jones. Soon, Kwong Chi's own project began to match their work, and it may outlive theirs.
Ambiguous Ambassador is a work by Kwong Chi's sister, dancer Muna Tseng (in collaboration with theatermaker Ping Chong); it's a ritual honoring her dead brother that is part prayer, part celebration.
Tseng and Chong first collaborated on a piece titled 98.6 A Convergence in 15 Minutes, in which the two artists explored the things they shared: Chinese ancestry, a need for art, the loss of a brother. To a text intoned by Chong, Tseng created a subtle text in movement. This piece serves as a prelude to Ambiguous Ambassador.
In Ambassador, Tseng moves in front of a scrim upon which are cast images of Kwong Chi's work--weaving movement with memories of her brother. Interspersed are recorded memories of Kwong Chi by his survivors--Scharf, Magnuson and Jones. At one point, Tseng enters dressed in her brother's trademark Mao drag, dancing to his favorite Nino Rota song. Tseng places herself in the foreground of her brother's achievements as he stood before the world's monuments in his later work: humbled.
Shrouding Kwong Chi's tripod and camera with his Mao suit, Tseng dances a last dance for her brother, ending with the photo of him sitting, back to camera, before the vastness of Banff National Park. Slowly, his image fades from the photo, leaving the land to speak for itself. Soon this, too, fades, replaced by Kwong Chi's name. Then, his name is framed within a vast list of his lost friends.
It leaves us with a tender, lingering image, but Muna Tseng's moving performance piece is not only a testament to her brother's life and work--it is also an elegy for the place in time that he inhabited.
PICA at PCC-Sylvania Performing Arts Center 12000 SW 49th Ave., 242-1419 8 pm Friday- Saturday, Feb. 9-10 $13-$16