Tommy Kha at the Airport: Iconophile, Iconoclast — or Both?
by David Christie
The Memphis International Airport unveiled its glistening new Concourse B to the public on February 15, 2022. It is a high-ceilinged, light-filled space proudly embellished with a collection of contemporary art by Memphis-based artists. Among the pieces adorning the walls was a large-format photographic work by Tommy Kha entitled Constellations VIII/Golden Fields (2017), depicting the artist awkwardly posed in an Elvis-styled white jumpsuit.
Within days of the opening of the concourse, an offended Elvis fan took to Facebook and soon the Airport Authority was flooded with enough complaints to result in the work’s deinstallation, around March 12. A backlash from the arts community in Memphis and abroad effected the work’s reinstallation on or about March 24.
The history of the controversy and the logistics of the airport’s maneuverings has been accounted for elsewhere, perhaps most thoroughly by Eileen Townsend in the Memphis Flyer (“Mile-High Art: The Icon, The Airport, and The Artist,” published March 31). The intended purpose of this essay is to equip the reader with enough art historical context to more fully appreciate the work itself, and not just as an object in the free speech-versus-censorship debate.
Self-imagery has its own story within the history of art, evolving along with notions of the self with which we are so familiar today that it’s now hard to imagine it otherwise. In the West, we have often looked to what we have historically referred to as the Renaissance as a kind of starting point for the conceptual emergence of the individual as distinct from the larger societal categories to which it previously belonged. Prior to this moment of conceiving the individual self, those whom we would today refer to as artists most often considered themselves as tradesmen and did not seek to distinguish themselves as uniquely creative individuals.
However, after glutting themselves on classical literature and technical treatises made newly more available by innovations in print technology, with their heads then full of the summation of world history and learning up to that point, many artists began to reinterpret, in their work, the stories and symbols they had received through a multi-faceted lens. They also began to appreciate their ability to do so in unique ways that showcased their erudition and innovation in both form and content.
A classic example is Albrecht Dürer’s famous self-portrait of 1500, where he not only depicted his features in a meticulously faithful rendering, but turned that image to fully face the viewer in a manner that had typically been reserved for depictions of Jesus Christ in the role of Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). A more conventional iteration of the subject, from about the same date and attributed (by some) to Leonardo da Vinci, provides an instructive comparison. Viewers of the day would have immediately recognized Dürer’s allusion to this well-established composition type. They would then have been surprised to notice the features went beyond the usual idealization used for the face of Christ to depict, undeniably, a specific individual — in this case, the artist himself.
Therefore, Dürer daringly invited a comparison between himself and God in the flesh. Depending on the viewer, this may have been interpreted as an unforgivable sacrilege or an intelligent update of a familiar image. Thus all at once, Dürer accomplished both an iconoclasm and an iconophilism comparable to the controversial modernizing of Jesus in the early 1970s musicals “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Of course, self-portraiture has come to be many things since Dürer, depending on who, when, where, what medium, and under what circumstances the works were created. In every age, educated artists have enjoyed making historical allusions in their self-portraits to enrich, enlarge, or play with their self-image. It has become an opportunity to try on a different identity, to identify with a well-known figure, to hide under a disguise, or to play dress-up. And perhaps no artistic medium has served this playful impulse more readily than photography, a fact no one who has ever taken a selfie can well deny.
It can be easily argued that, from the very beginning, photographic portraiture was pure theater. One wore special clothes and assumed unnatural poses, often with props, in a manufactured setting. The whole procedure was excessively self-conscious, and would have lent itself handily to further creative experiment — to anyone with a mind to do so.
Walt Whitman used photography to manipulate and construct his public image over the years, from loutish outsider to elderly sophisticate. Henri de Toulous-Lautrec was notably playful in photos of himself, wearing costumes and assuming airs of different characters. (In this vein, honorable mention must go to Rembrandt van Rijn, who of course predated photography, but depicted himself theatrically in paintings, and playfully in etchings. In the latter, he explored exaggerated expressions as though mugging for a photo booth camera.)
In the early twentieth-century, non-binary artist Claude Cahun turned out a series of bracing images of themselves that explored aesthetics, gender, and the psyche through surrealist costume, make-up, and sets with a highly graphic modern design. These were not intended to be portraits as records of one’s likeness; Cahun used the self as a tool of investigation and experiment in these statements of artistic, personal, and political expression. Their portraits (if they may be called so) were mirrors reflecting hidden selves. They serve as bold and curious manifestos of “me.”
Wittingly or not (surely the former), Tommy Kha received these historical approaches to depicting the self via photography: exploratory, manifesting, theatrical, playful, and often layered with meaning.
Closer to our own epoch, Cindy Sherman posed herself in a famed series of black-and-white Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), playing the roles of various types of women seemingly familiar to the viewer through movies and pop culture: the student, the secretary, the bad girl, the bored housewife. These were not traditional self-portraits, but, in acting her way through each image, they were a witting reversal of the trend exemplified by Dürer (from type to individual) and pointed the way back to types again. By exaggerating stereotypes in this and later work, Sherman proposed a critique of received social standards and gender norms. She seems to be trying them on and asking, “Is this who I am supposed to be? Is this what I want?” By presenting us with, say, a daydreaming (or worried?) schoolgirl in an isolated narrative excerpt with no context other than the picture itself, the viewer is intentionally left with questions: Where is she going? What happened to her? Who is she looking at? And so on. The viewer is not supplied with a full story. Rather, the viewer is prompted to ask questions and — mostly — to think about what is assumed and what is not.
Tommy Kha may not be assertively acting in Constellations VIII/Golden Fields to the extent Cindy Sherman does in her Untitled Film Stills, but even in a passive way, he actually is. He purposefully does not strike one of Elvis’ power-poses, but stands slump-shouldered and limp with a forlorn expression, emphasizing the contrast between who we expect to be in the bejeweled jumpsuit, and who actually is. The kitchen setting provides a hint of narrative, but, as in Sherman’s work, also of mystery. (How is that file cabinet used in a kitchen?) We are left with questions that challenge our assumptions.
It may be fair to assume that one work in particular, by David Wojnarowicz, a radically queer artist one generation previous to Tommy Kha’s, set an important precedent for the younger artist. In a series of photographs entitled Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-79), Wojnarowicz wore a life-size cut-out of the French Symoblist poet’s face like a Halloween mask, and posed all over New York City: in Times Square, on the subway, at Coney Island, and sometimes engaged in outsider activities like cruising for sex, shooting up, or casually brandishing a handgun.
Though separated by (exactly) a century, Wojnarowicz shared a punky, Bohemian spirit with Rimbaud — a rebellious prodigy, also queer, who ran off to Paris as a teenager to fulfill his literary calling with a radically fierce commitment that denied all conventional expectations. By masking himself as Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz was updating Rimbaud’s biography and repositioning it within his own environs. But why?
Arthur Rimbaud in New York was Wojnarowicz’s proclamation of a deeply heart-felt affinity with Rimbaud as a cultural icon, one who stood for extreme commitment to one’s own inspiration, and for freedom from societal and artistic convention. This was Wojnarowicz’s way of paying homage to Rimbaud, of actually carrying Rimbaud with him into his daily life out of adoration. It was a kind of ritual or prayer to a patron saint. It was a way for the younger artist to say to his elder, “I identify intensely with you, even though the details of my life look different from yours. I acknowledge you as a standard against which I live, for better or for worse.”
In Constellations VIII/Golden Fields, Tommy Kha uses a cut-out in a manner akin to Wojnarowicz’ Rimbaud-face mask. But in a clever meta-move, Kha supplants his body completely with the cut-out. And Kha’s cut-out is of himself-as-Elvis. It’s two for the price of one. If inference can be made, Kha is paying homage to Elvis as a major influence in his life, perhaps one with whom he identifies, however awkwardly. Kha’s cut-out stands in a cramped 1950s-style kitchen, but whose is it, Elvis’ or Kha’s? Perhaps it is both, another way to blend their respective experiences. Whatever the case may be, Kha’s work presents a visitation from one character’s world to that of the other, comparable to Wojnarowicz/Rimbaud in New York.
In regard to the self-deprecatory tone of much of Tommy Kha’s self-imagery, special mention must be made of Haley Morris-Cafiero, a professor of photography at the Memphis College of Art while Kha was student there. Morris-Cafiero routinely uses herself as the subject, but has ways of deflecting the viewer’s focus to a consideration of their own gaze. In her virally popular series Wait Watchers (2010-12), Morris-Cafiero, a heavy woman, poses alone and uncomfortably in public spaces. The photos capture disgust and mockery in the gestures and expressions of passersby. She presents herself as an object of judgment and even a potential joke, but when these happen, the real subject becomes the judges and the jesters. Morris-Cafiero’s self-effacing presentation becomes the tool by which this is accomplished.
Viewed from within the framework of these precedents, the strategy of Tommy Kha’s self-imagery comes into much clearer focus. As the world has become increasingly globalized and diversified in every way, issues of personal identity — race, ethnicity, religion, gender expression, sexual orientation and disability — have become more common themes in the work of contemporary artists seeking to find their place in a world where they may find themselves to be in a minority. Someone with a minority perspective is, in fact, constantly assessing the distance between their position and that of the dominant culture in order to negotiate their survival. Whether conscious or not, an outsider of any kind is constantly assessing how much they must assimilate to the dominant culture in order to get by without incurring undue — or even violent — attention, how much of their original identity they can afford to manifest, and to what extent they are truly a mixture of both.
Like Dürer in his Jesus-like self-portrait, Kha purposefully references an immediately and globally recognizable cultural icon in Constellations VIII/Golden Fields — namely, Elvis Presley. As Townsend pointed out in her Flyer article, Kha was born in Memphis and “grew up, almost literally, in the shadow of Graceland.” She furthermore articulated that Kha has frequently made art about his identity as “a queer Asian-American man from the South” in ways that seem self-deprecating. “He knows he doesn’t look like the American masculine ideal, and he uses that to play with viewers’ expectations.” Thus to present himself in Elvis’ trademark glamour is to deliberately jam the codes. Here is at once an ideal and an imperfection. Almost anyone might feel “less than” “the King,” but as an outsider in multiple ways, Kha’s work proposes that we acknowledge and consider how attaining the American (white, straight) masculine ideal is more of a stretch for some than others. The beauty of Kha’s self-depiction here is that, in its “failure’ to live up to that ideal, we can finally see a new ideal: Tommy Kha, a queer Asian-American from the South who is an accomplished, respected, and successful artist. And that is something that Memphis should be extremely proud of.