Margeaux Rocco and Joely Simon on Ed Ruscha, Tseng Kwong Chi, and America through a Tourist’s Lens

How do artworks talk to us… and to one another? And how can we learn to talk back? Northwestern undergraduates in The Block Museum Student Docent Program considered these questions in a unique 2021 lunchtime Art Talks! series, pairing two works from the museum collection that have something to say to one another (and to us.) In the series, the team considered artworks in our current exhibition For One and All: Prints from The Block’s Collection, and the Fall 2021 exhibition, Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts.

In this online tour Margeaux Rocco (’23) & Joely Simon (’21), will be discussing Mocha Standard, 1969 by Edward Ruscha and Mt Rushmore, South Dakota from the Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series, 1986 by Tseng Kwong Chi two land-based works with complex views of American history.

Watch the tour

From the discussion

Our first image is by Tseng Kwong Chi an Asian Canadian artist. He grew up in Hong Kong, but moved to Canada in 1966. This photograph is actually part of a larger series entitled “Expeditionary Self-Portrait series or East meets West.” He stands at the site of Mount Rushmore which we acknowledge sits on the lands of Native Americans before we continue this discussion. Specifically it’s on the Black Hills, which is sacred and was home for many tribes before they were forcibly removed. This photography series delves into themes of tourism and makes us question how we interact with tourist sites and award them, and certain people and communities, value and power. This series was partially inspired by president Richard Nixon’s diplomatic trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. The visit consisted largely of a series of carefully staged appearances meant to generate the greatest possible visual impact including the infamous Nixon/Mao handshake.

In East Meets West Tseng calls himself an ambiguous ambassador and wears a Mao Suit inspired by outfits from communist China. Similar to the Nixon/Mao pictures, every part of Tseng’s photographs were carefully planned staged. Yet his goal is to stand out as a visitor and shed light on the harmful narratives surrounding tourism.

So in an article from 1986 Tseng’s noted his appreciation for the west and visual knowledge of Mount Rushmore and the Badlands came from scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita. This small detail really illuminated the role that memory and pop culture play in tourism and how we interact and understand places and people that are unfamiliar to us. Tseng felt victim to carefully crafted depictions of the west, specifically in American cinema, which glamorized and romanticize westward expansion.

But just as Tseng draws off of his streotypes of the west in America cinema. He also plays off of viewer’s preconceived notion of his Asian identity. In this Mao suit he is creating this image of Orientalism that matches up to American expectations of Asians. He’s not just mocking tourism, but also almost creates a mythology by invoking a pre-existing understanding of China and his own identity.

Now, moving on to our next work of art – Mocha Standard was made by the artist Ed Rushca, who always had a fascination with Los Angeles. He grew up in Oklahoma city and he moved to LA in 1956 where he began to study art. So we can associate him with the pop art movement in the fifties and sixties because of his interest in advertising and how he incorporates those references into his art.

This work started with a photo book. He published called 26 Gasoline Stations. It featured photographs of gas stations that he took while on road trips from LA to his parents’ house in Oklahoma. One particular photograph of a gas station in Texas became the basis for this silk screen series that we’re looking at today. As mundane and as dark as it is, you, for some reason are getting this sense of glamor in its depth. Like advertising, it takes something we rarely think about twice and dresses it up to appear new and unique.

It’s unclear what Rushca intentions were with this specific color palette, but for Joely and I it really reminds us of pollution and smog and even just oil itself. And while the colors make it feel fictional at times we are being transported into a very physical space. That is a relatable location from our own lives. It becomes more fascinating when we get into the historical context here about the creation of the highway system in Los Angeles. So there was a really strong streetcar system in LA until about the 1930s, when we begin seeing plans drawn up for highways. And by the 1960s, we had working class black and Latino communities displaced from their homes to make way for the freeways.

These works get us to look at America from a more critical lens. Many people probably do not think twice when driving past a gas station or seeing a tourist at a monument, yet these artists help us analyze the social implications of these places.

The Commissioner justified this displacement by claiming it was for modernity and technological progress. Disney even ended up building a mini highway in Tomorrowland confirming how this now symbolized the future. So even with protests against the freeway, multicultural communities were still forced to move out of the way. In the end this freeway only deepened tensions between racial groups since it created a mediated view of the city This separated cityscape created a sense of isolation that can really be felt in this works confusion of time and space.

And specifically the Standard Oil company pictured here was owned by John D Rockefeller. The stations lined, Route 66, going from Los Angeles to Rushca’s family home in Oklahoma city until 1984. So when we think about this time period it also marks the rise of capitalism and business moguls. As mundane as the gas station may be, as unglamorous as we think it…. with this history in mind we can realize all that a Standard Station might represent the rise of capitalism, progress and fiscal expansion that have shaped America.

These works get us to look at America from a more critical lens. Many people probably do not think twice when driving past a gas station or seeing a tourist at a monument, yet these artists have us analyze the social implications of these places and seemingly mundane actions.

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