Everyone is Kissing Tommy Kha

Published August 28, 2019

“Into” is a series dedicated to objects, artworks, garments, exhibitions, and all orders of things that we are into — and there really isn’t a lot more to it than that. Today: Greta Rainbow, a self-proclaimed kissing hobbyist, reflects on an upcoming exhibition by photographer Tommy Kha that captures the strange intimacy of a kiss—and blows it right back.

Kissing is my favorite extracurricular. I ask people about their first kiss stories out of context and too soon into our acquaintance. (Mine was a butterfly kiss first and then the real thing in front of a menorah in February, because you’re wondering.) I saw a woman on the subway once with a tattoo of a red lip stain on her neck and I’m still looking for her. You can kiss spliffs, the air, and your knuckles for good luck. “Kiss me, and you will see how important I am,” said Sylvia Plath. But all good after-school activities are made better by witty subversion and light perversion. Like when I missed my friend’s mother’s cheek and our lips met instead. What photographer Tommy Kha does with the kisses he collects: he returns them.

Even as a kissing hobbyist and advocate, I admit that the image of two people kissing each other in passionate embrace is overplayed in our culture. But Kha’s upcoming show Return to Sender, on view September 4 at the LMAKgallery on the Lower East Side, is about more than the simple act of one person kissing another. The ‘other’ in his photos is stoic, with eyes open and lips sealed; it’s the artist himself. This is what it looks like to return an embrace to where it came, unopened and unwanted.

It was 2010 when Tommy moved to New York and began the self-portrait series as a way of making friends outside of the six people he knew in a city of millions. Like, ‘Hey, I like your look, can you kiss me for my art project?’ I wish I had thought of this. 

There are parameters. The collaborators, as he calls them, can kiss Tommy any way they want to, but it must be on the lips. It must be after dark. There is no extra lighting other than what belongs to the space. Which, in dive bars and alleyways and parking lots across America, is always artificial green neon, white fluorescent, or a deep red burn. Sometimes there’s a flash, and the dead grass that Anonymous Blonde Man pushed Tommy into is illuminated.

“Nighttime is part of [the photograph] itself, an accomplice,” Kha told me over the phone, from his family home in Memphis. “The camera is on a tripod, on a timer, with long exposures for half a second to three seconds. It’s a weird tension to have to hold the pose, and sometimes it’s hard not to laugh. Like when they’re sloppy kissers.” If the body is always political, there is good-natured resistance embedded in Kha’s acting. Historically, the Asian men that we catch glimpses of in Hollywood films are asexual asides. Return to Sender steals the stereotype for itself, and laughs at the one-dimensionality of that false depiction.

“I feel like people see me as Asian first,” Kha said. “They’re not aware of my representation or identity as a queer man. And I think Asian men and gay men have been represented in a similar way… neutered, or not able be seen as desired or loved.”

With all his kissers, Kha doesn’t really have a type, which I agree is a good tactic for accruing the most kisses possible. There was only one person he turned down, due to health reasons. “This woman wanted to kiss me with saran wrap or something because she had the flu,” Kha says. “Like, is that sanitary? I don’t think so.”

Nine years later, Return to Sender is finally showing in an open art space. The collaborators now include strangers, actors, ex-lovers, friends, and barflies. In 2020, Kha plans to release the first zine of a lifelong project postmarked every 10 years, so he is guaranteed to be kissing people for the rest of his life. I feel lucky that we get a glimpse. And if Tommy Kha approaches you in a bar one night, know that “the general consensus” is that the artist has soft lips.