Art The one-year performances by Tehching Hsieh

The one-year performances by Tehching Hsieh

Giorgia Massari
tehching hsieh |

Would you ever be tied by a rope to a person for an entire year? Or locked in a cage without any entertainment? Chinese artist Tehching Hsieh has done so. Hsieh has focused his art on performance with the intention of exploring time, documenting it with video and photographs. Beginning in the late 1970s, a time when performance art contrasted the art object, which was becoming increasingly commodified, Tehching Hsieh staged five year-long performances that defy human endurance.

tehching hsieh |

Hsieh’s one-year performances are all based on the concept of deprivation in an exploration of time. Today more than ever we are taught that time is sacred, something not to be wasted but rather, to be chased. We live with a constant social pressure that denigrates idleness and imposes on us the constant work or wise use of time. The Chinese artist perhaps somewhat extremes the exact opposite, but undoubtedly brings about a reflection that, years later, remains incredibly relevant.

With only the medium of time, converted into the duration of a year, Hsieh imposes on himself, in an act that results in a form of egocentrism, practices that we would call masochistic, succeeding in “feats” that, perhaps, none of us could endure even for a month.

tehching hsieh |

The First: One-year Cage (1978-79)

Tehching Hsieh builds a small cage inside his New York apartment, equipping it with only a cot and a bathroom, without any entertainment. He would be locked in here for a year without talking to anyone. In order to eat, he asked a friend to bring him food once a day, who was also instructed to take a picture of him, to document it. The only visits he could get were once or twice a month, from a few strangers curious to see the performance. Hsieh lived a year that many of us would consider “thrown away,” wasted, with only the intention of watching time go by.

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The second: Time Clock piece (1980-81)

In this second performance, Hsieh further explores the theme of time by forcing himself to punch a time clock every hour, for an entire year. In this way he becomes a slave to the passage of time, or rather, the time punctuated by us human beings. For one year the artist did not sleep for more than 59 consecutive minutes. But he did not entirely succeed in the feat; for 133 times he did not stamp.

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The third: Outdoor piece (1981-82)

Without giving himself a break, having finished the performance Time Clock Piece, Tehching Hsieh undertook perhaps one of the most difficult performances of his career: not to go inside, ever for a year, anywhere indoors. The artist lived outdoors for a year, including in one of the coldest winters for New York City. This work also failed; for 15 hours the artist was locked up in a cell following an arrest for fighting.

The Fourth: Rope Piece (1983-84)

All of Hsieh’s performances are solo except for this one. In fact, the artist involves Linda Montano (1942), another performance artist whom he had never met in person. The two artists tied to each other with an eight-foot-long rope and lived together for a year, sharing all moments, from the most intimate to the most painful, without ever being able to touch each other. The work explores human communication and connection, conveying in a way the human need for companionship and the impossibility of humans living alone.

I wanted to make a work about human beings and their struggle with each other. We cannot face life alone, without people. But we are together and so we become each other’s cage. This piece is about being like an animal, naked. We cannot hide our negative sides. We cannot be shy. It is more than just honesty: we show our weakness,” Hsieh declared.

tehching hsieh |

The Fifth: No Art Piece (1985-86)

The fifth and penultimate performance, challenges the very conception of art. In fact, the artist forces himself not to speak, enjoy or make art for a year. To avoid contradictions, the performance was not documented. Tehching Hsieh made art without being able to make art.

There is actually a sixth and final performance, which lasted 14 years, from 1986 to 2000. All these years Hsieh told no one what the work consisted of, and then, on Dec. 31, 1999, at the stroke of midnight he uttered a simple sentence that read, “I, Tehching Hsies, survived.
Hsieh sums up his study of time and, consequently, his performances with three dramatic but still true phrases: “Life is life sentence. Life is passing time. Life is free thinking.”

Written by Giorgia Massari
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