On Tehching Hsieh

Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

A cult figure, Tehching Hsieh is a Taiwanese-American artist known for his “lifeworks.” His durational performances often span years.

Born in 1950 in Nan-chou, in southern Taiwan, Hsieh dropped out of high school to pursue painting, but he became more interested in the process of painting as opposed to the final product itself. As an illegal immigrant in the United States in the late ’70s and ’80s, his performances left a lasting impression on the famed endurance performance artist Marina Abramovic, who regarded him as a “master.” While lesser known than she, his works were most recently presented at the Taiwan Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017 in an exhibition entitled Doing Time.

Working as a seaman in 1974, he jumped ship near Philadelphia and headed towards New York City, the center of the art world. In the following years, he managed a living by working at Chinese restaurants and construction jobs. From 1978 to 1979, he performed his “Cage Piece,” where he constructed a cell-like cage furnished with a cot, a sink, and a bucket. On a sheet of white paper, he typed: I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.”

Similarly, the following year Hsieh performed another yearlong piece: the punching of a time clock every hour. The hourly clocking in was a Sisyphean task that deprived him of continuous sleep. His performance was completed once he achieved 8,760 timecards. “Wasting time is my concept of life,” he states. “Living is nothing but consuming time until you die.”

Each performance piece is a commitment to time and endurance. In the following years, Hsieh went on to complete several other yearlong performances, including a collaboration with fellow performance artist Linda Montano. Between 1983 and 1984, the two artists were tied to each other with an 8-foot-long rope. They had to stay in the same room and were not allowed to touch each other until the end of the one-year period. Both of them shaved their hair in the beginning of the year to show the passage of time as their hair grew longer. 

At the end of his lengthiest performance, a 13- year piece, he emerged no longer an artist. From 1986 and 1999, he set the parameters: “Will make Art during this time. Will not show it publicly.” On January 1, 2000, he marked the conclusion of a report: “I kept myself alive. I passed the December 31st, 1999.” The report was written in cut-out letters pasted on a single sheet of white paper.

After years of near invisibility, in 2015 Hsieh released a book, Out of Now (MIT Press), together with the curator and scholar on performance art, Adrian Heathfield. The volume documents his projects and his influence on contemporary performance art. While some may struggle to understand how such a figure could decide that he is no longer an artist, Tehching Hsieh has always managed to make the act of living his art. Through durational and intentional acts, he has carried out his life in an enigmatic — and sometimes absurd and existential — manner. His life is his art, and even if he insists that he is no longer an artist, his legacy continues to pervade time-based art practices.

Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery

References:

Adrian Heathfield, Out of Now, MIT Press.

Kate Sutton, “Manchester United,” Art Forum. https://www.artforum.com/diary/kate-sutton-at-the-manchester-international-festival-23252

Deborah Sontag, “A Caged Man Breaks Out at Last,” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/01/arts/design/01sont.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 

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