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.

“I’M WHAT YOU MIGHT CALL A ‘SINCERE THIEF.’ LET’S SAY HUMAN BEINGS’ NATURAL IDENTITY IS THAT OF A ‘THIEF.’ MY CONCEPT OF AN ARTIST IS THAT THEY ARE AT A SLIGHTLY HIGHER LEVEL THAN A REGULAR THIEF. AN ARTIST IS A SINCERE THIEF… OF COURSE, MANY ARTISTS ARE JUST REGULAR THIEVES.”

Tehching Hsieh

Introduction

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.

ow

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

Conclusion

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.


2 responses to “Tehching Hsieh and the glorious burden of art”

  1. This is such a pleasant article to read. I really enjoyed each of the artist’s quotes that related to their pieces. Each piece is very fascinating, and this article did a great job of highlighting that. 🙂

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