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Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1978–1979, Life images Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1978–1979, Life images
photo Cheng Wei Kuong,
copyright 1979 Tehching Hsieh, New York
ON SEPTEMBER 30, 1978, TEHCHING HSIEH BEGAN HIS FIRST ONE-YEAR PERFORMANCE WORK, KNOWN AS CAGE PIECE. GOING BY THE NAME OF SAM HSIEH, HE ISSUED A STATEMENT DESCRIBING IN THE BALDEST TERMS ITS TEMPORAL AND SPATIAL CONSTRAINTS: THAT HE HAD BUILT A CELL-ROOM WITHIN HIS TRIBECA STUDIO AND WOULD SEAL HIMSELF INSIDE FOR EXACTLY ONE YEAR. HE ALSO HINTED AT THE WORK’S PSYCHOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS: “I SHALL NOT CONVERSE, READ, WRITE, LISTEN TO THE RADIO OR WATCH TELEVISION, UNTIL I UNSEAL MYSELF ON SEPTEMBER 29, 1979.” HE ADDED, “I SHALL HAVE FOOD EVERY DAY” AND, FURTHER, ASSISTING HIM IN THE CORPOREAL DUTIES OF STAYING ALIVE WOULD BE HIS FRIEND, CHENG WEI KUONG, WHO WOULD BRING HIM FOOD AND CLOTHING AND TAKE AWAY HIS REFUSE.

Though not stated, Cheng’s other task was to take a fixed-position, portrait photograph of Hsieh every day. Accompanying the statement was a poster with a photograph of the cell, prior to occupation, and a calendar covering the months of occupancy. Nineteen dates are circled, designating the days that the work would be open to the public.

On April 11, 1980 at 7pm Hsieh began his second one-year performance, Time Clock piece. Again, he set out the conditions of the lifework in advance: “I shall punch a Time Clock in my studio every hour on the hour for one year. I shall immediately leave my Time Clock room, each time after I punch the Time Clock.” Again, the actions were verified by several human and mechanical regimes: prescribed days in which the work would be open to the public; a 16mm movie camera positioned to register Hsieh immediately after the hour had been punched, one frame for each hour, this time operated by Hsieh himself using a shutter release; and at the end, a witness who signed the 366 time cards and checked the paper seals on the Time Clock.

By the time Hsieh was immersed in his third one year work, Outdoor piece, I had emerged from art school in Brisbane, begun work at the Institute of Modern Art and was becoming ever more drawn to the work of Australian and international conceptual artists (loosely categorised). Performers such as Ulrike Rosenbach, Mike Parr, Jill Orr, Jill Scott, Bonita Ely and Henri Chopin tore through town like Queensland’s famous cyclones. In 1982 the visiting US performer, Ellen Zweig, asked me to co-perform her Fear of Dining, a text work for two simultaneous voices. The script was published in the issue of High Performance that she’d brought with her. I eagerly took out a subscription. I think this is how I first came to know about Tehching Hsieh’s work—from a one-page report in the Fall issue of 1982. It included a single image of Hsieh, peering at his own weather-worn face in a mirror fragment on the streets of snowy New York during his year outdoors.

I didn’t know it at the time (it took me years to know it) but he created the paradigm for my own work. It gave me courage. His was a practice that was rigorous and uncompromising and exacting, so committed to its own logic that it took art to a place that felt like the reason for life itself. This was not the art life. This was art as life.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, April 11,<br /> 1980–April 11, 1981, collection of the artist Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, April 11,
1980–April 11, 1981, collection of the artist
photo Michael Shen,
copyright 1981 Tehching Hsieh
For 30 years the bare documents and an occasional photograph accompanying a review were the only ways to experience Hsieh’s work. Like much conceptual work in the 1960s and 70s Hsieh’s performances had to be built in the mind by each viewer. How else to experience them? At the institutional level Hsieh’s work was invisible perhaps for the simple reason that museums are still struggling with the implicit paradox of preserving time-based work. Presenting it, though, and allowing the artist to reshape the work so that it is made anew is a very good start.

This northern winter/spring, two of Hsieh’s one-year works can be experienced (I won’t say ‘seen’) in two major New York museums and a large, attentively-illustrated monograph published by Live Art Development Agency and MIT Press and authored by Adrian Heathfield in collaboration with the artist.

In the first of a series simply called Performance, The Museum of Modern Art is presenting One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece) in all its evidentiary simplicity and conceptual complexity. The 365 self-portraits are arrayed in a continuous line along three of the gallery walls; the posters, statements and 17 still images fill out the documentary narrative. Taking up much of the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery on the second floor is a room built to the original dimensions of Hsieh’s TriBeCa loft and within this, set in its original position is the primary artifact, the cage itself complete with original bed, basin, mirror and wastebucket, kept in storage all these years by the artist. My first surprise was to see the warm tones of the cage’s wooden construction (previously disguised by the cold black and white photographs).

Seeing it there, at human scale, but without its one-time and only inhabitant, it invites all of us looking through those thick bars of pine dowel to imagine ourselves in the artist’s place. It sucks us in and projects back anxious questions: the how questions: how did he wash, shit, sense time passing, think without stimulus or dialogue, survive without sunlight? The why: why did he do it? (perhaps, but not for me). The what: what was in his head, his body, his each and every moment? For some, the answers come back readily, as reasons: “about” imprisonment, immigrant status, isolation, disenfranchisement and these responses are indeed reasonable but insufficient. In the end I found it more productive to forego rationalisation and let the questions multiply.

Further uptown the Guggenheim museum is presenting Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time-clock piece) as part of a larger exhibition, The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, curated by Alexandra Munroe.

Unlike most of the works in The Third Mind, the Time Clock piece is privileged within a discrete gallery space off the top end of the spiral ramp that holds the larger exhibition in thematic and chronological progression.

For me the most compelling of the artifacts in the presentation of this work is the time punch clock itself, mounted on the wall near the entrance and, again (or perhaps, still), running in synch with lived time. It has no second hand—silent through absence. The minute hand, though, is disarmingly loud when it clunks forward. Its sound works in concert with the ‘silent’ 16mm film projecting on the wall directly above. Here the clock spinning around at comic speed shares the frame with Hsieh as co-performer but also as co-director. Projected at 24 frames per second, each day is condensed to one second; the whole year passes in a little over six minutes. Turning around, I see the source projector threaded up with the film loop running continuously, and above, mounted from the ceiling is the original 16mm camera. I am held there: time, its semiotics and effects playing over me.

Hsieh also gives us the option of travelling along these images at our own speed. Hung around the walls in a continuous line is each of the year’s time punch cards and, underneath, the set of portrait stills that corresponds to the hours punched on the card. I found it stifling to walk along them all, wondering at the blank frames in the film (mostly caused by technological failure), painful to see the handwritten explanation beside any “late”, “early” or missed (“sleeping”) punching of the hour, though only a small number of appointments ‘failed’ in these ways. And yet, for all these portraits—8760 pieces of lived evidence, I still wonder at the Hsieh who wasn’t there. Who was that Hsieh when he wasn’t punching the clock? Did he exist at all?

A much deeper contemplation of these works is now available to us in Out of Now, the monograph of all Hsieh’s lifeworks.

There is a lot of love in this publication, not in the hagiographic sense, but in the pastoral sense. It’s not often that an artist receives the kind of respectful, patient, uncompromising, searching attentiveness that Adrian Heathfield, the author (in this instance writer/editor), has brought to his subject. All the works are contextualised and analysed with an authority that doesn’t flatten. All the works are exhaustively illustrated: for the two performances described above, every self-portrait, every time punch card, every statement and every documentary image is there. Compiled in this way, and against expectation, they seem to create a kind of poetics of facticity. In the final third, other voices and responses are brought in. Heathfield and Hsieh engage in a thickening dialogue that comes as a welcome counterpoint to the silent artist of all those self-portraits. A series of letters both archival and recently commissioned from Peggy Phelan, Marina Abramovic, Tim Etchells and Santiago Serra follows. The conclusion, “Afterthoughts: Stilling the World”, is written by Carol Becker who does a brilliant job of reiterating the philosophical concerns that generated the work and are generated by it.

I was not there to see Hsieh in the cage or cheer when he punched his last time card. But I saw something very important in New York this January last and I cheered when I read Out of Now.


Tehching Hsieh, Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh; Museum of Modern Art; Jan 21–May 18; The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 Guggenheim Museum, New York; Jan 30–April 19

Hsieh’s other lifeworks include two further one-year pieces: being tied by an eight foot rope to the artist Linda Montano, but without contact (Rope piece); and not engaging with art, “just [going] in life”. These were followed by a 13-year work (1986-1999) during which Hsieh produced art but did not show it publicly.

Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, Live Art Development Agency and MIT Press, 2009

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 52

© Barbara Campbell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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