Remembering Tseng Kwong Chi

Perhaps someday someone will make a film of my book Art After Midnight and explore the New York social scene born in the shadow of CB’s by freshman art students from around the world, converging at a time when world’s collided and paradigm’s began shifting in downtown New York City.

I selected Tseng Kong Chi as a primary photographer for my 1985 book, although I included all the great photographers who documented the scene, especially Harvey Wang, who took this photo of Tseng performing with Keith Haring at Club 57. I’m pretty sure this was before Tseng assumed his Chairman Mao identity, and that Club 57 was the lab where Tseng honed some skills. Club 57 was an orgy of creativity in action.

When they finally make a great film about this scene, it won’t be about Basquiat, Haring or anyone else, but the entire community because everyone who attended these ceremonies made a contribution. Like most movements, 50 stars were involved, but there were 500 in the audience, and the audience is just as important as the stars when it comes to birthing new movements because they add the necessary psychic energy to lift the movement higher. And Tseng was certainly one of those 50, so its wonderful the Grey Art Gallery has recognized him with a long overdue major exhibition.

Without Tseng, where would Borat be? If only I had a video camera back then and the foresight to follow Tseng around like he followed Keith—only Keith was chalking subway panels while Tseng was crashing the biggest old-money events in town with a self-created VIP name-tag and a non-speaking Mao persona. He even got photos with Henry Kissinger and Henry thought he was some visiting dignitary from China and not a performance artist. But this was performance art on a whole new scale.

Maybe you know this movement took massive energy from the collision of hip hop and punk? I like to think of Tseng’s work as 3D graffiti because it was all about getting up. When a writer starts, the first mission is to formulate a word, tag, nickname, message to be promoted. The Mao character was Tseng’s tag in a way and I think he remained mute because Tseng was shy and it took a lot of confidence for him to launch into these epic social scenes and remain in character.

The Grey Art exhibit includes an enormous print of a photo Tseng shot for the back cover of the book, inspired by a continuing series Tseng was working on, in which he was photographing Keith, Kenny, Bruno, Carmel, Ann, John, Min and a few others. He had a series of group shots taken just before some big ceremony or night on the town. I asked him to do the same thing for the back cover, only I wanted to include some other major characters in the book, like Patti Astor, Steve Maas, Animal X, Joey Arias, David McDermott and Peter McGough. I probably talked it over and we decided it should be kept down to a dozen to be manageable. And at the last second, Kenny Scharf dropped out, and although Jean Michel was invited of course, I didn’t realize including Jean could only be guaranteed if we’d taken the photograph at his place on Great Jones. There may be people left out of this photo still harboring faint grudges today, and I wish we’d just invited all 50 stars and made it like Sergeant Pepper’s. Next time I’ll know better.

As the objective reporter, I didn’t want to insert myself into the photo, so I didn’t even attend the shoot. In hindsight, another mistake. But Tseng did call me as soon as John Sex walked in the door. “He doesn’t have his hair up,” said Tseng, massively disappointed. I think we’d both envisioned John in the center with his giant pompadour. “Don’t worry,” I said. Later when I saw the photo, I noted Joey had come prepared to upstage John’s hairstyle with something more epic than a giant blonde pomp—black devil horns.

Walk like an Egyptian


Q: How long will death prevail?
A: As long as women bear children.
Q: Is it wrong to bear children then?
A: Eat every plant, but avoid bitter ones.
Q: When will I know the mysteries?
A: After you have trampled on the garment of shame, when two become one, and the male and female become neither male nor female.

—Gospel of the Egyptians

 The father of King Tutankhamun, King Akhenaten, was the first monarch to install monotheism in his kingdom, but he was completely lost to history until 1907, when Edward Ayrton unearthed his tomb and discovered he was husband to Nefertiti, who was already well-known as the mother of the famous King Tut.

Akhenaten abolished the imperial religion based on a pantheon of gods and goddesses. His version of the Great Spirit was called Aten, and the sun was his eye and the world, and he was sometimes represented as a falcon head, although there were no idols to worship. For 17 years Akhenaten reigned, but he was overthrown by fundamentalists in his own court, who sought to restore the pagan pantheon. Sigmund Freud was the first to theorize Akhenaten and Moses were one-and-the-same, but that theory falls apart upon closer examination. Moses is a mythical avatar, and there never was an exodus of Jews out of Egypt.

Moses was created as a composite of Zoroaster, and Cyrus the Great,  the first Zoroastrian king of Persia, who freed the Jews from Babylonian slavery before they had a written history. In fact, it was Cyrus who told them to go back to Jerusalem and build their temple Jerusalem. He gave the funds necessary provided they pledged to write down the Torah.

Zoroaster had come to similar epiphanies as Akhenatenin, and got credit for inventing monotheism. The prophet Mani would later update Zoroaster’s monotheism by sprinkling in bits of Buddhism and Christianity, while also deploying the sun as eye of god, just as Akhenaten. Mani thought spirit moved through light, and the moon was the spirit of Jesus, just as the sun was the spirit of Jehovah. He lived a few centuries after the alleged birth of Jesus, and considered himself Jesus’ appointed agent on earth. He was the most famous Gnostic of his time, as well as the most famous portrait painter and philosoper.

The Scythians of the Caucasus Mountains had been responsible for introducing cannabis to the Zoroastrians, who soon built a trail of fire temples from Iran to India. The Scythians invented the holy grail myth and did not worship a pantheon of gods like most of the world at the time. But the Zoroastrians re-invented the grail in the form of a Eucharist-like ceremony, which later got adopted by the Christians.

We know Zoroaster had a huge influence on the development of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and it’s his Magi who attend Christianity’s birth in Bethlehem. But I have to wonder if Buddha and Pythagoras (who studied with the Magi and wrote the rulebook for secret societies) might not have been there too.

In 1945, a writer in Finland named Mika Waltari discovered the untold story of Akhenaten and wrote a book titled The Egyptian and the novel was adapted into a Hollywood movie of the same name in 1954, and inspired David McDermott to produce a tribute to the film as part of a spectacle called New Wave Vaudeville, directed by Susan Hannaford-Rose, and staged at Irving Plaza in 1978, a show that also launched Klaus Nomi, among many others.

The ancient Egyptians had an enormous influence on religion, and Alexandria became the center for Christian theology for centuries until Rome seized it. The myth of a virgin mother may have originated with Neith, the ancient Egyptian goddess of war, who carried an ankh, the symbol of life. She is thought to have been the first goddess created by the Egyptians, although she was greatly eclipsed by Isis.

Neith’s symbol was a bow, shield and two crossed arrows, while her consort became known as Set, god of the darkness. Even so, Neith had power to birth offspring without involvement of any male energy. Strange that Neith’s ankh resembles many early Christian crosses from Alexandria and the goddess of war has a reverse doppleganger in Gnostic Christianity named Sophia, the first thought of the One, who is also a virgin mother but referred to as “wisdom” and ‘love.”