I wouldn’t say my work is autobiographical. My illegal experiences in the States did make me consider those who live at the bottom of society. I intended to transform this consideration into a philosophical approach. A person living at the bottom might show his pains and his resentments politically. But as an artist, he should have the ability to transform basic living conditions into art works in which to ponder life, art and being. ––Tehching Hsieh *
In 1974, American-Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh (b.1950) left Taiwan and entered the U.S. as an illegal immigrant. This underground existence lasted fourteen years. It was also during this period that he carried out several of his now famous one-year performances in New York where he is still based today. Acclaimed by Marina Abramović as pioneering in the field of performance art, and by Hans-Ulrich Obrist as an artist that “revolutionized performance art” with “immense courage,” (1) Hsieh remains a radical and legendary figure for his illegal immigrant life in the U.S. on the one hand, and on the other hand, for the hardships and long durations that he imposed on himself for his performances which challenge the boundaries between life and art.
Hsieh’s “One Year Performance 1978-1979” consisted of staying inside a cell-like room and avoiding all contact or communication with the outside world (a reconstruction of the room was shown in MOMA, New York in 2009). For his “One Year Performance 1980-1981,” he had to punch a worker’s clock in his studio each hour. For his “One Year Performance 1981-1982,” the artist had to stay outdoors (this included not getting into a car, a train, etc.). For his “Art/Life. One Year Performance 1983-1984,” he was tied to Linda Montano (also an artist) with an 8-foot rope without touching her. These pieces earned him a cult following, yet despite his fans, he went on to realize two projects that represented a total retreat from the art world, including another one year project “One Year Performance 1985-1986” which involved not talking about, or reading about or seeing art, and a 13-year long project “Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999” where he never showed his work publicly.
Using time and experience as raw materials, Hsieh’s pieces are difficult to grasp and exhibit. However, a new monograph of Hsieh’s work, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Teching Hsieh (2) remedies this lack by offering thorough documentation of his projects in the forms of photos and documents and feature articles from contributors such as Adrian Heathfield (a curator and critic who interviewed the artist at length) and theorist Peggy Phelan, as well as artists like Marina Abramović. The Chinese version of the voluminous publication was launched in February, followed by a series of lectures by the artist and critics in Taiwan in early March. It was a rare occasion to see the artist present his lifeworks. It was also Hsieh’s first homecoming after a 37-year absence since he landed in the U.S.
In his lecture given in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Hsieh said “Life is a life sentence. Life is passing time. Life is free thinking,” which can be considered the conceit that underlies his upcoming projects, all of which imply a strong and everlasting feeling of imprisonment or prohibition. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and arresting demonstrations was the film composed of nearly 9,000 frames that Hsieh took of himself after each punch of the punch-clock during “One Year Performance 1980-1981.” Among the abundant identical frames of his face, it is the growth of his hair that indicates the time passage and, on a deeper level, implies the labor and endurance required of the practice. Heathfield termed the documentary film “a perfect failure” in that it exemplifies a tension residing in Hsieh’s work: despite the elaborate and systematic documentation, the work itself remains beyond the document or text itself.
Another issue was the artist’s choice of engaging in a long-term absence from the art world. According to Hsieh, it wasn’t an attempt at exploring the “end of art” or a kind of transcendence, as many would argue, but that not making art can be another way to explore life in a deeper sense. This notion is illustrated by the hypothetical floor plan that Hsieh designed for his retrospective: 22 cells of equal size used to present his artistic career between 1978 and 1999; each cell represents one year and contains documents from that year of the project. The last 13 cells will be entirely empty in order to signify the passage of time, like Hsieh’s announcement at the end of his 13-year project, “I kept myself alive.” As rigorous as any of Hsieh’s previous projects, albeit in a negative way, the 13-year project represents a gesture of self-effacement or of cancellation and re-confirms the artist’s philosophical and existentialist equation between art-making and the passage of time. Further, as Heathfield points out, the project also challenges the art world system, which requires visibility as the basis of its operation. From actions that can only be retrieved through colossal documentation to something beyond visibility and definition, Hsieh’s lifeworks incessantly interrogate the essences of art, of life and of time.
1. Quotes from Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, co-authored by Adrian Heathfield, Tehching Hsieh, etc. MIT Press, 2008.
3. Related page to the lecture and panel discussion in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum: LINK.
Tehching Hsieh’s website: