Tehching Hsieh By Ash Dilks

Described by Marina Abramović as ‘a true master’, Tehching Hsieh is a performance artist who, perhaps more than any other, has taken art to the limits of what is feasible and possible.[1] Involving simple rules, with exacting constraints and limitations, Hsieh’s works are marked by his adherence to discipline, routine, and his subjection to extreme mental and physical risks. They confront their audiences – mostly ‘absent’ or ‘secondary’ rather than present for the live event – as testaments to dedication and, seemingly aimless, but awe-inspiring will.[2] Accessible through his meticulously realised documentation, these documents often speak, through their vastness, to the long durations to which his works were committed, duration that collapsed the boundaries separating life and art, rendering them simultaneous.

Starting out as a painter in Taiwan, Hsieh stopped painting when he realised he couldn’t express himself through the medium.[3]  From 1973, his practice took a ‘performative turn’ and he made two pieces before eventually travelling as an illegal immigrant to New York in 1974.[4] One of these – Jump Piece involved him jumping from a second story window to the concrete floor below, breaking both of his ankles in the process. The piece was documented on camera; the images display his leap, descent, and then his body in pain, writhing on the ground. Once in New York, he continued to make these ‘not mature’ – to use his words – performance pieces, doing a cleaning job to subsist, before embarking on his first One Year Performance (Cage Piece) in 1978.[5] Emerging within a context concerned with a de-privileging of the art object, it’s tempting to place Hsieh’s works in a genealogy with Happenings and Conceptual Art, but his performances arose out of his specific experiences. Cage Piece, rather than following particular trends, was a response to the isolation he felt as an ‘illegal alien’ in the United States. Feeling like a prisoner in his own studio, Hsieh gave this feeling physical form.[6] He built an eleven-and-a-half-by-nine-by-eight-foot cage in his apartment and locked himself inside. This sentence, a self-enforced solitary confinement, included no conversation, reading or writing materials, no television or radio. A friend brought him food and took care of his waste. An audience was invited on select occasions, but for most of the year he was very much alone, just him and his thoughts. For One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Piece), limitations on his movements remained but were on this occasion prescribed by his devotion to a particular task. Hsieh installed a worker’s time clock in his apartment and for the entire year attempted to ‘punch in’ on the hour every hour, twenty four hours a day. Of a possible 8,760 punches, he only missed 133. The performance was rigorously documented: each punch checked and verified, as well as being captured by a 16mm camera suspended from the ceiling. One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoor Piece) saw him escape the confines of his studio to turn the outside into his place of confinement. He endeavoured to spend the year outdoors, never taking shelter, never entering a ‘building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, tent.’[7] Aside from being briefly arrested for a fight, Hsieh kept to his task even through one of the coldest winters on record, once again producing documentation by mapping and charting his movements across the city. The solitude of his previous works disappeared for One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece), in this instance Hsieh was to never be alone, tied by a rope, only eight feet in length, to the artist Linda Montano. The two had to constantly share space, but without making physical contact. For a year they were bound together in close proximity and with no privacy. The last work in the series – One Year Performance 1985-1986 (No Art Piece’ – was one of abstinence: a commitment to not engage with any art whatsoever. No doing, talking, seeing, reading ‘ART.’ He would, his inaugural statement announced, ‘JUST GO IN LIFE.’[8] For his ‘final’ work, Hsieh embarked on a thirteen year ‘disappearance’ in which he endeavoured to make art but never display it publically, returning on New Year’s Day 2000 to display a poster that simply said ‘I kept myself alive.’

Now ‘semi-retired’, Hsieh, for much of his life a peripheral figure, is experiencing a resurgence of interest. Helped, in part, by praise from Abramović and the scholarship of Adrian Heathfield – who ascribes aspects of Hsieh’s marginality to ignorance and racism – it’s also aided by the documentation that remains.[9] Having barely experienced an audience during his performances, Hsieh’s documentation projected a virtual audience across time, acting as proof to those absent but eventually hoped to be found.[10] Time Piece – with its documentation now permanently exhibited in the Tate Modern – exemplified this process of accounting and proof. A six minute stop-motion film, made from each of the punches recorded on camera, is perhaps the most widely distributed remainder of his work. In the film, Hsieh stands next to the clock, its hand spinning, marking the passage of hours, his eyes are fixed on the lens, staring toward us, his body in constant jittery motion, his shaved head, over time, slowly growing long and unkempt. Through this document, an audience can bear witness to and are confronted by Hsieh’s commitment. It’s possible to see what he gave, all that time ticking away, dedicated to the work of art, but – aside from his records – immaterial and radically unproductive. As with his other documents, a partial glimpse is provided, one to activate the imagination, imagining the hours, but never fully knowing, trying to imagine those days, those very long years, and the will necessary to see them through.


[1] Marina Abramović, Walk Through Walls: A Memoir (London: Penguin Books, 2017).

[2] ‘Secondary audiences’ as imagined by Chris Burden, in Frazer Ward, No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press, 2012), p.12.

[3] Hereafter, unless otherwise stated, factual information and the artists history was found in Adrian Heathfield, Tehching Hsieh, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009).

[4] As defined by Erika Fischer-Lichte, in The Transformative Power of Performance, trans. by Saskya Iris Jain (London: Routledge, 2008), p.18.

[5] Heathfield, p.324.

[6] ‘[M]aking a form for how I felt’, Tehching Hsieh, in Jill Johnston, ‘Tehching Hsieh: Art’s Willing Captive’, Art in America, September 2001 Issue <http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/tehching-hsieh-arts-willing-captive/> [accessed 04/11/2017].

[7] Heathfield, p.160.

[8] Heathfield, p.296.

[9] Brigid Delaney, ‘Tehching Hsieh: 'I give you clues to the crime'’, Guardian, 24 October 2017

<https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/24/tehching-hsieh-extreme-performance-artist-i-give-you-clues-to-the?CMP=share_btn_fb> [accessed 4/11/2017].

[10] Ward, p.12.

Banner image credit:

Tehching Hsieh, Outside Again

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