Art History Uncategorized

Tehching Hsieh and the glorious burden of art

Or: What does time even mean?

Warning: This piece is mostly going to be sporadic thoughts about an artist whose life, career, and influence I find to be deeply fascinating.


Tehching Hsieh


Performance art. We all know performance art, whether we engage with it or not. A lot of it simply think of it as that crazy thing that weird “artists” do in order to draw attention to themselves. You’re probably thinking about Chris Burden’s Shoot for example where he had himself shot with a rifle by one of his friends.

Don’t worry, he was fine. Small caliber weapon, Or perhaps you’re thinking about the beauty and majesty of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present which is one of my personal favorites.

What if I were to tell you that there was an artist who not only pushed the limits of performance but the very limits of what a human body could even do?

Well, I mean you would probably believe me considering you’re reading this article.

Tehching Hsieh (2014)

Meet Tehching Hsieh. Brooklyn resident. One of 15 children from a family in southern Taiwan. Jumped an oil tanker to get to America in 1974. A dishwasher paid $1.50 a hour for four years. On the fringes of the art world until 2008.

Master of his craft. We have six (seven technically) pieces to get through. Let’s get started!

Jump Piece

You can definitely tell that this was an early piece just because of its lack of sophistication and documentation. However, we can see it as a starting point to the “difficult” pieces that he would later become defined by.

The game was simple. Tehching jumped out of a two story building in Taiwan. He took some photographs and videos to show it.


Again, not exactly a piece with the complexity of his later works but still bold and deadly. Keep these concepts of pain in mind for the future.

Cage Piece

Life is a life sentence.

Tehching Hsieh

In its essence, Cage Piece is almost beautiful in its setup and execution. A cage built by himself out of pine dowels and two by fours. A bed, blanket, sink, and pail. He would enter on September 30, 1978 and emerge on September 30th, 1979. No books. No TV. No talking. Just himself and a friend who would come every day to take one picture every day for a year.

Roberta Smith of the New York Times describes the piece as “the almost palpable immensity and emptiness of time, nothing but time, of life as the filling of time.” I am inclined to agree. Imagine a year in a cage with nobody but yourself except for the one to two days a month visitors could stop by to gawk for a few hours. What would you think about? How would you keep yourself alive?

Everybody has their own cage. My art is different from painting or sculpture. My art is doing time, so it’s not different from doing life or doing art, or doing time. No matter whether I stay in “art-time” or “life-time,” I am passing time.

Tehching Hsieh

What does living really mean? How can a life be lived with seemingly nothing? The fascinating thing I find is his assertation that a year in the cage wasn’t a waste because he had already wasted four years doing menial work. To him, it was just changing the way he passed time. Because he made the conscious decision to be in the cage instead of being forced to wash dishes it really did not seem to bad to him. To Tehching the worst thing possible would have been to not complete the piece.

Time Clock Piece

You would figure after locking himself into a cage for a year our intrepid artist would give himself a break for a bit. Never mind! Time Clock piece is perhaps the most strenuous of all of Tehching’s pieces and I am not saying that lightly.

Once again the setup is deceptively simple. One year. A timeclock. Every single hour Teching would punch that time clock and take a picture of himself. Every hour for a year. 8,267 photos.

While Cage Piece examines the problem of seemingly having too much time, Time Piece shows the lack of time. I let this quote from Tehching stand by itself.

But wasting time is my concept. When I punched the time clock, people said, “You don’t work,” but I was doing work. Being homeless is work. Homeless people are hungry and they have to eat, right? We all have to survive. If you’re alive, you work. So freethinking is work, you know what I mean? Your life, your heartbeat—that is all work to me.

It is often difficult to conceive what the mind of an artist is experiencing when they choose to do a project like this. I think it relates back to what Tehching noted about all of his pieces that they exist to show “a fundamental ‘precondition’ of all life is the passing of time, or that ‘life is a life sentence.” It is a rather difficult concept to grasp admittedly but I really like Amelia Groom’s analysis of this piece. Tehching missed 133 punch clocks and Groom sees this as a deconstruction of what “clock time” and “work time” mean. Groom argues the piece “anticipates the pervasiveness of ‘work time’ today, spilling over into ‘non-work time’ with the spread of flexible working hours and mobile communications technology.” The arbitrariness and unproductivity of this artificially constructed time question conventional understandings of what time really is.

Outside Piece

First of all, if this piece in particular interests you I would highly recommend checking out Simon Wu’s article about it in Artforum. Really a lovely work. If you’re interested in Outside Piece’s relation to Asian American identity and migration in America then please read it.

Again, the concept was simple. A year outside. Completely forbidden from going inside in any capacity. The piece would take place in the streets of New York City. Just a backpack and a sleeping bag.

I think this piece is so strikingly brilliant to me because of the sheer burden that it is. It was a record-breaking cold winter and still Tehching spent 8,760 hours outside. I think this piece is fascinating because of the lack of constant documentation that exists for it. One has to imagine Tehching trying to keep warm, searching for a place to sleep, feeling the distant drift of snowflakes on his face, and so on.

A part of this piece that strikes me to the core is the very personal stakes of this work. When Tehching attempted to defend himself against a man who threw an iron rod at his head, he was arrested for 15 hours and brought inside a police station. It’s the only time in Tehching’s art career this his piece has collapsed, that he failed, that wholeness isn’t totally found. It’s not only the wholeness of the art piece that collapsed but the personal fear he felt as an illegal immigrant with a real possibility of being deported as a result.

Of course one can say that this piece is an aestheticization or a “pretend” version of poverty. Tehching had the money to buy food every day, financial stability to return to, and the knowledge that it was only a year before he could return to his SoHo apartment. In his diaries it seems like he was mostly quite relaxed throughout the entire experience as well. However you may think I refer you to a quote from Simon Wu that I think perfectly captures what this piece means.

Perhaps, if he had decided to stay in his apartment for the year, Hsieh would have avoided the dangers he encountered with Outdoor Piece. Or perhaps the dangers would have found him anyway as an illegal immigrant in America. Within a legal system that codified his difference and exclusion, he made a new one, through which the question of whether he belonged could be answered only by himself. 

Simon Wu

Art / Life: One Year Performance 1983–1984 (Rope Piece)

This is what I consider to be the last of Tehching’s traditional pieces, the next two are a little bit stranger and I’ll explain once I get to them.

I like this one. It’s a little silly but it’s pretty charming. Hsieh and Linda Montano spent one year between 4 July 1983 and 4 July 1984 tied to each other with an 8-foot-long (2.4 m) rope

We will stay together for one year and never be alone. We will be in the same room at the same time, when we are inside. We will be tied together at waist with an eight-foot rope. We will never touch each other during the year.

What does being connected mean to you? Maybe you’ve been in a long term relationship where you’ve existed in the same space as your partner for large stretches of time. In those spaces I’ve found the emotions that emerge are far more raw, viceral and devastating that anything solo.

Hsieh wanted to do a piece that forced him to confront all the problems that relationships could have and the contradictory nature of relationships being both freeing and cage-like. By tying themselves together they had an opprotunity to go through life literally tied at the waist and to feel as two people combined into one.

The images from this project are so geniunely beautiful, here’s some more

I love Linda’s words regarding the bond that she felt with Tehching during this time.

“He’s my friend, confidant, lover, son, opponent, husband, [and] brother,” she said, “playmate, sparring partner, mother, father, etc. The list goes on and on. There isn’t one word or one archetype that fits. I feel very deeply for him…”

I feel like it’s a piece that’s impossible to describe unless you have felt that level of connectivity to somebody. The action of going through life while so deeply attached to somebody is a powerful one and the two still have a transcedental bond today. Through the arguing, fighting, silence, annoyance and so on the two reached a sort of beautiful equilibrium that is so rarely seen in the world. And I just think that’s lovely.

One Year Performance 1985–1986 (No Art Piece) and Tehching Hsieh 1986–1999 (Thirteen Year Plan)

Ah, these two.

One year of no art. No reading about art. No galleries. No making art. No talking about art. No art.

Thirteen years of making art. Making art constantly. However.

There was still to be no talking about art.

And at the end of the 13 years


Tehching Hsieh retired from art shortly after the conclusion of the Thirteen Year Piece. He said he no longer had any more creative goals to accomplish. I don’t blame him. It’s perfectly well suited that an artist with that kind of presence would simply wake up one day and stop doing art.

Hsieh remained in obscurity until 2008, with the publication of Out of Now, The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh. He claimed that because of the book “he could die tomorrow” shortly after.

Hsieh continues to give interviews, promote art, be an influence on comtemporary art and of course show his works in galleries around the world.

I really am quite happy for him. He accomplished what he needed to do and finally gets to be rewarded for it. His work has been shown at the MoMa, the Guggenheim, and essentially every reputable art museum of note that one can think of.

And so the story of the “master of performance art” comes to a close. Yet his influence still continues to be felt and seen throughout the art world. Check out Lisa Hsiao Chen’s 2022 novel, Activities of Daily Living, or Benjamin Bennet’s performance pieces if you want to see some direct influence.

Until next time. Stay well.

Art History Uncategorized

Reposting my Analysis of The Night Watch

l wrote this a while ago for my daily art stuff. Figured I might as well post it here.

The Night Watch is undoubtedly one of my favorite paintings of all time. There are so many little details to analyze and fully break down in their whole. For instance, did you know that the Night Watch actually takes place during the daytime? It only appears as if it is in the dark because of all the layers of dark which have obscured it over time. However, today I would like to discuss something which I feel has gone somewhat unnoticed. In the Night Watch, I feel something that makes the painting as great as it is would be the use of position.

 First of all, look at the hand of the man dressed in black. The way that it is pointed gives it an almost three dimensional quality. It looks like it is popping out of the painting directly towards the viewer, almost inviting them to join the officers. This applies similarly to the spear which the lieutenant clutches right beside him. The spear is angled in a way where it juts out of his side, appearing to enter the space of the onlooker. That’s what gives this painting a sort of spontaneous theme. We don’t feel like this is somebody painting a scene from ages ago, we feel as if this scene is happening right now in front of us. That is not all though. Behind the two central figures, we see action directly taking place. On the left, a man in red is beginning to load gunpowder into his musket. In the middle we can see the smoke from a gunshot which just happened. On the right we can see an old man dressed in red who is blowing out the powder from his weapon. What this does is add this sense of urgency to the painting. It’s almost like a still frame from a film because so many things are going on at once. There’s no static nature to it because clearly there’s some sort of conflict happening and shots have been and will be fired.

 I also really appreciate the contrast between the captain and the drummer. 

On the left, to the northwest of the man in black we see a captain triumphantly raising a standard. The heroic pose he strikes, with his arm confidently sticking out and his head tilted up suggests utmost confidence in victory. His other arm is tucked in, displaying this gentlemanly quality in the chaos of a fight. The drummer boy on the other side seems to be a different story.  He is almost bent out of the frame, clearly awkward and clumsy as a lone dog barks at his music. The way he stands implies an inexperience, in sharp contrast to the well organized well experienced captain. This could imply that not all members of the militia feel the same patriotic sense of duty as it would seem.

 I turn your head towards the man in the black hat talking to another person. The way which the man in the black hat points suggests a sort of leadership quality present in the two men in front. The one on the very right turns his head towards the crowd of people, perhaps confused about what is happening or who the leader is. His companion points to the two officers in the front as if to explain “Hey, these two are in charge here. Ask them if you have any questions.”, and his casual pose with a musket slung across his shoulder belts a blunt indifference to the happenings. These two figures may have just burst through the crowd to lead the march, contextualizing the obviously uncertain pose which the militia member on the very right conveys. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the Night Watch is the golden girl in the middle of the painting. Her presence brings up several interesting questions. Who is she? What is she doing in the middle of such a scene? What are the strange objects on her waist? Let us try to dissect this bit by bit. 

Shown below is the chain of the Amsterdam Company of Arquebusiers (musketeers). Some of the links are decorated with claws—the musketeer emblem. Thus, the chicken around her waist makes sense. 

Look at the plucked chicken. It is clear now that the girl is some sort of mascot for the militia as odd as it seems. She carries not only the emblem of the musketeers but also the ceremonial drinking horn. The fact though that this is simply a plucked chicken and not an elaborate chain raises several ideas. What is clearly implied is that this militia was assembled in a rush. They couldn’t find the chain so they were forced to snatch a neighbor’s chicken and kill it to somewhat use as a mascot. At the same time, I sense that Remberant is making a bit of a mockery of the milia. At this time they had lost much power, so it would make sense that instead of a beautiful chain they would be resorting to random chickens killed out of necessity. Remberant is maybe telling us that despite the glowing appearances, this milia is more rugged than one would think. 

I’m almost done here, I promise. Here’s something lse cool. In between the captain and the mustached man next to him, you can see a beret wearing person’s eye. That’s Rembrandt himself! Talk about a careful cameo from yours truly.

Let’s wrap this up. One thing that saddens me is the fact that this painting is too big. Many years after this painting was created, it was moved to the town hall of Amsterdam. Unfortunately the painting was so big that it wouldn’t fit on the wall. What did they do when they found this out? Well, they cut off four pieces of the painting. Those pieces have never been found. Luckily an early copy gives us some impression of what those four pieces looked like. It just sucks that the early copy A. isn’t too great of a painting and B. almost certainly is quite different from the actual four pieces.

Here’s a look at the early copy. Thank you and goodbye. 

Art History

The Proto Surrealist : Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Felix University: Episode 1

Look at this painting. When do you think it was created?

It seems grotesque. Ugly. Almost painful to the eyes. So when do you think it was created? Perhaps it was the 1800s? The early 1900s? Maybe even a 1700s work, shockingly?

Try 1563.

In an era when artists began looking more and more towards the past to find balance and clarity, Giuseppe Arcimboldo embraced the exact opposite. He leaned into the weird, the odd and some might even say the surreal

Is it fair to call Arcimboldo a proto-surrealist? I say so. But first, to understand his art more we have to take a deeper dive into the person himself. Who was he? How did he get the chance to make this sort of art? And how did others see him at the time? Let’s take a look

Part 1: Beginnings

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born the son of a painter. From all accounts, not a particularly prominent or important painter, but one who had steady work and a steady life regardless. His grand uncle meanwhile held the prestigious position of the Archbishop of Milan, and as such it’s likely that Giuseppe met with quite a few prominent figures in his youth. This, along with painting training by his father would clearly influence the path he would take in life.

Like his father, Giuseppe started out doing stained glass works In fact, some records of the Milan Cathedral tell us that his father and him worked together on several works. Some of them still exist today! Here’s an example of a stained glass window which Giuseppe executed.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Giuseppe Meda, The Jesse Tree, fresco, 1556, Monza, Cathedral

As one can see, the work is admirable and we see some of the characteristics that make his later portraits so fascinating. Giuseppe began doing stained glass works at 21 and it was only until he turned 35 that he decided he needed a change. One can imagine that after so long doing stained glass work with consistently similar themes, he needed something else. A new place.

That place was…..

Part 2: A Royal Court?

“This is a painter with a rare talent, who is also extremely knowledgeable in other disciplines; and having proved his worth both as an artist and as a bizarre painter, not only in his own country but also abroad, he has been given the highest praise, in that word of his fame has reached the Emperor’s court in Germany.”

-Paolo Morigia

Now, what kind of art could a guy who looks like this possibly want?

Maximillian II, Holy Roman Emperor

You might imagine that the Holy Roman Emperor would want something serious. Some propaganda, scenes of triumph, the usual. This is going to be another one of those “court painter vs monarch stories”, isn’t it? Well, let’s see the first project that Giuseppe gave him*

*One does has to note that technically Giuseppe began as a court painter to Ferdinand II, albeit for two years. However Maximillian II from what I have researched is absolutely the dominant influence

The Hapsburgs didn’t like the portraits. They loved them. Maximillian II had a second set of the portraits created (which is how we actually have most of these). But most of all, and this is actually real: Arcimboldo directed a festival where the members of the court dressed up as the season elements. Maximillian himself chose to dress as Winter. Imagine that. Your patron loves your work so much that he gets into a ridiculous costume just as a sign of appreciation.

It’s easy to see why though. The level of detail on these works is simply astounding. They’re so full of visual puns and imperial references. For instance, look how Winter has a cloak with an M placed on it (for Maximillian) or how Autumn is made up of the fruits of the harvest.

Plus you know, the implication that your royal family rules over the literal seasons probably gives you some points.

“This noble and inspired man fashioned a great number of rare and delicate works of art which caused considerable amazement among all the illustrious noblemen who used to congregate there, and his lord and master was very pleased with him.”

-Paolo Morigia

Arcimboldo excelled at the court. In fact, he worked at the court for 26 years until he retired. The Hapsburgs reveled in imaginative, avant garde works and Arcimboldo was only too eager to indulge them.

The Librarian (Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1566)

I do get the sense that some of his works had double meanings. Take this one for example. To a casual onlooker or the royal family, it seems just like a silly painting. Just a librarian made of books, ha! But examining int on a different level, it seems clear to me how cutting this is. It’s a mockery of those who own books simply to brag about owning them, instead of actually reading them evidently. Being around so many high class people, Arcimboldo must have gained a huge awareness of these people.

From all accounts, Arcimboldo had a huge influence in all matters of the court, not just in painting. He was a decorator, costume designer, planner, water engineer, architect and more. In a sense, Arcimboldo served as an important advisor to Maximillian II, which is incredible. He did things like expand Ferdinand I’s cabinent of curiousities which later turned into the Kunstkammer Vienna Museum. Arcimboldo planned out the wedding and coronation of Maximillian’s successor, Rudolf II, Maximillian obviously rewarded him with a comfortable salary and lavish titles.

The Final Period: Arcimboldo the Biologist

The late period is defined by fish, flowers and some of the greatest portraits which I have ever seen.

Luckily for Arcimboldo, Rudolph II was also into paintings and fine arts. But he let his other interests creep in.

See, Rudolph the II absolutely loved exotic things. Precious stones, mummies, stuffed birds, gigantic fish and more. He would use and weild his power to discover and bring back the odd. Arcimboldo, ever the opportunist catered to the person paying him his salary.

Vertumnus (Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1591)

I adore this work. Rudolph wanted to be an Emperor at the intersection of nature, art and science so Arcimboldo painted him as all three. Each flower, each fruit, or leaf is from an identifiable species in Rudolph’s collection. A lot of these specific species are from the New World too, so Arcimboldo is saying “Hey, Rudolph isn’t just a master of the Old World, but of the New World too!” The corn is a clear indication of that. There’s also the title, Verumnus. The God of Seasons. So hey, Arcimboldo is declaring Rudolph to be the master of seasons and change as well! Good for him.

The End and Legacy

There’s so much more I could get into but I need to wrap this up eventually. In 1592, Arcimboldo left the Hapsburg service at last to return to Milan. After so long, his time at the court was over. He had already been granted permission to return to Milan in 1587 but occasionally returned back to court to make stuff like Vertumnus. Basically, he was a freelancer from 1587 to 1592 if that makes any sense. In any case, Rudolph treasured his beloved court artist so much that he awarded him the prestigious title of Count Palatine and given 1500 Rhenish guilders for being such an influential painter in the court.

Finally, at the age of 67 on July 11, 1593 Giuseppe Arcimboldo died in Milan.

Unfortunately for him, Rudolph II loved art but was terrible at ruling. Sweden shortly after invaded Prague. Many of Arcimboldo’s works were taken from Rudolph’s collections and most likely destroyed or lost to eh mists of time. We only have 26 confirmed paintings by him now.

And though he was adored and praised by the contemporaries of his time, he became an obscure figure in the centuries to come….

Until the 20th Century. You have Arcimboldo to thank for serving as an inspiration for such surrealists like Dali.

So in the end, Arcimboldo’s genius has been recognized once again as it should. He was one of the greatest Mannerists of his time, a brilliant portraitist and a forward thinker who saw the future of surrealism. His imagination and vision deserve to celebrated now and for all time. I leave you with a final painting and allow you to draw your own conclusions on what it means.

The Lawyer, Arcimboldo (1566)