The photographer reflects on the intimacy and absurdity of his ongoing series, as well as some of the more memorable make-out moments
Tommy Kha remembers all 140 kisses from the past nine years. One night, his friend Kati leaned in close on top of the Empire State Building. Another time, his best friend, Luke, kissed him deeply in the amber glow of a streetlamp – after the girl he was dating did the same. Then, there was the night in Memphis when Brandon wrapped his arms around Kha’s waist under the light of an outdoor ice machine. They went to a pub together where Brandon’s mum, Colleen, kissed him too.
But these aren’t the recollections of a compulsive kisser; they are staged moments that makeup Kha’s photography series Return to Sender (2010–ongoing), which just showed at LMAK Gallery in New York. “The rules are laid out very simply,” Kha says of his collaborators. “They can kiss me however they want to, but it has to be on the lips and it has to be at night.”
Though Kha is a photographer, Return to Sender is rooted in performance. It’s his participants who perform, though, not unlike the Museum of Modern Art attendees who sat face to face with Marina Abramović for “The Artist is Present” (2010), over the course of three months. Kha himself experienced Abramović’s performance when he moved from Memphis to New York, and it made a lasting impression on him.
The simple question that sparked Kha’s project produced infinite variations: How could he enact an immediate and romantic gesture with a complete stranger? As time went on, he began exacting kisses from acquaintances and friends, too. The shoots take about five minutes, and Kha generally uses his self-timer to capture each interaction. The resulting images can appear awkward, poignant, or surprisingly intimate. In another self-portrait series, I facsimile, and I facsimile, and I facsimile (2018–ongoing), Kha recreates his face as unfinished jigsaw puzzles, a stack of photocopied paper equal to his weight, and a 3D-printed bust. Here, he endlessly reproduces himself, too.
The character that has emerged from Return to Sender is “deadpan” and “stoic”, Kha says. He keeps his face still and uninterested like the neutral expressions of sitters in art historical paintings. When his early images began circulating online in 2013, some internet commenters accused him of perpetuating the stereotype in film and television that Asian men are sexless. As a gay Asian-American of Chinese descent, he was sensitive to the criticism. “I didn’t disagree with them,” he says. There weren’t (and still aren’t) enough varied representations of Asian men and women in the art world. Artists like his peer Pixy Liao and the late Ren Hang had only recently begun to enter the zeitgeist with their subversive takes on Asian sexuality.
But whether or not Kha’s kisses are sexual misses the point. He’s more interested in the nuances of each performance, and the layers of significance that we assign to the act. It can often make the experience feel absurd. “I feel nothing,” he says with a laugh about the encounters, which he deems transactional in nature. “It’s very like lucid dreaming,” he offers. In his new video SWAK (Sealed with a Kick) (2019), his “very straight” friend Dan softly kisses and licks Kha’s mouth for four-and-a-half minutes, sometimes resting his lips on his for long stretches without moving at all. “(It’s in this) awareness of how ridiculous the situation is,” Kha says. “(That) I found so much humour in this gesture that’s highly romanticised and sexualised.”
One of the most intimate-looking images was the one with his best friend, Luke. In the image, Luke gently but firmly pulls Kha toward him by his striped blue scarf, his other hand cradling the photographer’s head. Kha’s eyes are closed, and though he looks lost in the moment, no oxytocin was flooding his brain. “Honestly, it was not the most memorable one,” he says with a laugh. “What’s wrong with me?”
In another image, Prince, a tall black man, leans across a concrete barrier in a parking lot to reach Kha’s lips. Prince’s body nearly forms a 90-degree angle, and the space between their bodies is comically sweet. Kha says they took a few different takes to accentuate the height difference. Usually, he says, tall people love to pick him up.
His strangest encounter was with a crush, Chase. It was late at night and Chase asked Kha to pick up a pack of cigarettes on the way. When Kha walked into the house, Chase was shirtless, and his father was watching TV with the volume off. Kha laughs when describing the weird vibe. “I think a red flag is like, if I ever have to buy something for a guy it's not gonna end well,” he says.
Kha intends for the project to last for his entire life. “I’m really curious about how my body changes, and the people I cast and recast, and how I can still work with the original parameters,” he says. What keeps it fresh for him every time is the myriad ways that his subjects respond. “The idea of how people kiss me is so profound to me,” he says. He has been moved by how gentle people can be, where they place their hands, and how much space they choose to leave between them. “It was never intended to be this idea about representation and agency,” he continues. “But the more I think about it… how other people kiss me gives them agency. (It) gives them this way to be authentic and I think that shows.”