Art Zealous contributor Alexandra Fanning speaks with Tommy Kha about dissecting the self, the benefits of a good cry, and finding art inspiration in reaction channels on YouTube.

In our series, The Zealous Set, we talk to the artists catching our attention about what they’re creating, watching, reading, and what they’re being inspired by. This week we chat with Tommy Kha, a photographer and artist navigating his own identity while grappling with  the lack of representation for queer Southern Asian men, plus some Elvis Presly impersonating thrown in for good measure.

Tommy Kha is always doing something wondrous. From full-body cardboard cutouts placed precariously out in the world, to unsettling 3D-printed replicas of the artist’s face, and even puzzle piece portraits, you can always be guaranteed that this artist thinks outside-the-box. Beneath this fun exterior, however, Kha’s autobiographical work portrays his sense of being on the outside, of otherness and a search for identity.

A native of Memphis, Tennessee of Chinese descent, Kha explores his experience of being an outsider both at home in America’s South and within his own skin. In his series A Real Imitation, Kha utilizes performance, self-portraiture, and the iconic Memphis landscape to underscore his outsider-ness. These images oscillate between stark scenery and empty rooms to intimate portraits and detached looking couples.

He often reaches for the surreal and the bizarre. In Return to Sender, Kha allows strangers and acquaintances to kiss him, in any way they wish, but always on the lips. Without kissing them back he stands stoically, sometimes staring deadpan into the camera lense. This wonderful series delves into the historically asexual depictoin of Asian men in popular culture, poking fun at its one-dimenionality and falsehoods.

His cardboard cutouts featured in I’m Only Here to Leave, evolved from photographing cutouts of Elvis Presley, a subject very close to his heart after growing up within arms reach of Graceland. He routinely flies down to Memphis to catch Elvis impersonator contests and festivals. In some cases he’s been able to capture the youngest of impersonators, grow up and follow their experience.

We talked to Kha about representations of Asian Diaspora, photography practice as an inventory of mortality, and watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Alexandra Fanning: Tell us a bit about your practice and how you got into photography. 

Tommy Kha: My practice falls somewhere between performance and self-portraiture, at least, the template came from those intersections. Originally, I wasn’t interested in discerning an autobiography from my picture making—it was about the absence of being seen, the divide between self and the mirror self, how is otherness represented. 

Over time I’ve started to include and research twins, Elvis Tribute Artists, queer people who are cosplayers, my own impersonators, the Mississippi Delta Chinese, making photo backdrops from my archive of Southern Landscapes, queer history in the American South, documenting my friend’s cancer battle, and my family are becoming interconnected with the original template. Now it’s about a mapping of Asian Diaspora—the immigration and first generation experiences, reconciling the landscape that are a result of trauma and violence, and how we arrive at our representation. 

AF: Where do you start a series? How does a project begin to form for you?

TK: It almost always starts by looking, and sometimes from some sort of existential breakdown (I recommend crying). I don’t believe there’s a logic, meaning, a series of steps I have to take to form the basis of an idea. It’s a combination or false start, between improvising and preplanning. I try to have rules when I start, after Sophie Calle or the French way Oulipo, or try to find a loophole. In production, I either have a loose idea or create on the spot. And in editing and sequencing, I look for moments of reality intrudes when the scenario is constructed, or vice versa.

Experiments with cardboard hands in Tommy Kha’s studio

AF: Where are you finding inspiration at the moment? What are you into right now?

TK: I think I’m not trying to find inspiration, mostly having to do with not wanting to place pressure to create—I’m more interested in making work as a way to process, to cope with the everyday.

Currently, I’m watching reaction channels on YouTube—there is something about trying to find out if other people who look at the same thing as me, have the same emotional response. Also, reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m so familiar to its changing narratives, that I hope it elicits some sort of peripheral inspirations.

AF: What types of relationships do you form through your practice?

TK: I like to have a regular cast of sitters, for me, they are comprised of family, friends, models, actors, everyday people from street casting—I hope to glean some information about myself when it comes through sharing the frame, that subversion of the self-portrait were the protagonist is presented with a secondary character. Inadvertently, my work is a Sontag’s inventory of my mortality, in the long-run I’m interested on how my first picture won’t resemble the last frame.

Through my use of a supporting cast, they grow, their relationship to performance has changed, my work becomes more about communities and their inventory.

Self Portrait Tommy Kha

AF: How are you staying connected with other artists and the art world at the moment?

TK: I have a constant group of friends—a community comprised of Asian, Memphians, queers, schoolmates, and photographers from all over where we drink, watch a film, perform this surrogacy of interactions almost daily through video chats, messaging, and phone calls. Most times I’m looking at museum archives, looking at sculptures in their original colors on my computer.

AF: What are you listening to while you work?

TK: Noise! Sometimes silence works best, or for music, I like to hear something familiar, on repeat constantly, creating a make believe soundtrack for this movie I’m in. Lots of ‘90s music, friends’ bands, the Big Moon is a band I have as my soundtrack right now.

AF: What are you reading or binge watching at the moment?

TK: I’m rereading Barthes and Sontag, there’s enough distance from the last time I’ve interacted with their writings, I’m shocked at how much I have gleaned from them subconsciously—I like to have been more articulate. 

AF: What’s next, what are you excited to share with your audience? 

TK: Currently, I’m trying to create an exchange with my artists friends, trying to participate in their projects in exchange with my current idea of outsourcing performances to friends. I’ve managed to make a few pictures and the groundwork for some video pieces from creating character studies—a Mustache Version of Me Sometimes with a Cowboy Hat and Me as My Own Boyfriend for examples. I have a few shows, a residency, and commissions in the pipeline without a solid date that I’m looking forward to.

AF: Well we are excited to follow along…. and can’t wait to see your mustached Cowboy self!