Performing Life: The Work of Tehching Hsieh. Steven Shaviro

Performing Life: The Work of Tehching Hsieh
Steven Shaviro

This DVD-ROM documents the life work of Tehching Hsieh. Hsieh is an artist whose medium of expression is not words or sounds or paint, but his own life. His work consists of five "One Year Performances," done between the years of 1978 and 1986, and "Earth," a thirteen-year performance that stretched from the end of 1986 to the end of 1999. Each of these Performances involves a particular vow, a particular constraint, and a particular mode of being. Each of them is meticulously documented in a manner appropriate to its content. And, although Hsieh never explicitly states his rationales for his pieces, each of them implicitly raises profound, difficult questions about life and art and being, and about what it means to live in the world we live in.

For the first One Year Performance, known informally as the Cage Piece, Hsieh spent an entire year locked inside a cage that he had constructed in his loft. It was much like being in a prison cell. Hsieh had nobody to talk to, nothing to read or listen to, and nothing to do, except think and count the days. Each day, he documented the ordeal by making a mark on the wall, and taking a photograph of himself. An assistant, with whom he did not exchange words, brought him food, and disposed of his wastes.

This first Performance is about solitude and isolation. It questions the inner limits of identity and being. Hsieh stripped himself down to the bare minimum of subsistence: not so much in terms of food, shelter, and clothing, as in terms of social contact, material comfort, and opportunities for amusement. We are sustained by our communication with others, and by the nourishment and stimulation that the outside world offers us. How much of all this can one give up, and still remain oneself? What does it mean to reduce the self to its narrowest possible compass? What does it mean to think, without the opportunity to communicate or record what we are thinking? Hsieh's performance may have been inspired by his own experiences of alienation as an illegal (at the time) immigrant in New York City. And the piece certainly resonates with the plight of political prisoners in solitary confinement around the world. But Hsieh's willing embrace of such a state of deprivation remains mysterious and unsettling.

For the second One Year Performance, known informally as the Time Piece, Hsieh punched a time clock, every hour on the hour, twenty-four hours a day, for an entire year. An observer verified each day's time card. "To help illustrate the time process," Hsieh shaved his head before the piece began, and then let his hair grow freely for the duration. Every time he punched the clock, a movie camera shot a single frame. The resulting film compresses each day into a second, and the whole year into about six minutes.

This second Performance focuses on the nature of time. We are, fundamentally, temporal beings. Yet we rarely pay attention to the passage of time in and for itself. We tend to think of time only in terms of the activities that fill it up. Or else we think about time negatively, in terms of having to wait, when there is something that we want right now. In his Performance, Hsieh stripped all these contents and contexts away, in order to experience something like time's pure passage. He did this by pushing to an extreme the way our society equates time with work. Hsieh used a time clock, that device of the workplace that mechanically divides time into precisely equal segments, and that mercilessly judges human accomplishment by the measure of time spent. He took on the work of punching the time clock, instead of using the clock to measure a different sort of work. In this way, the passage of time itself, devoid of any particular content, became the sole object of his labors. By pushing our society's reification of time to its ultimate point, Hsieh was able to rediscover an inner experience of time, a sense of pure eventless Duration.

For the third One Year Performance, known informally as the Outdoor Piece, Hsieh stayed out of doors for a whole year. He did not enter any building or roofed structure. Mostly, he roamed around Lower Manhattan. He relied on pay phones and chance meetings to keep in touch with his friends. Each day, he recorded his wanderings on a map, noting in particular the places where he ate and slept.

This third Performance can be viewed as the inverse of the first. Instead of withdrawing into a confined inner space, Hsieh opened himself up, as fully as possible, to the outside. The self can perish from exposure, as well as from confinement. For this piece, Hsieh cast himself adrift, and became a nomad. He tested his powers of survival in circumstances that were more than usually beyond his own control. What is the nature of a dwelling, after all? Why is it so basic a human need, symbolically as well as materially? How does one's dwelling contribute to one's identity? What happens when one is compelled to do without it? Without a home, one becomes nearly invisible, anonymous. Is there a freedom to such homelessness, as well as a deprivation? There are many involuntarily homeless people, compelled to live on the streets of New York City; what did it mean for Hsieh to willfully share their plight?

Hsieh's fourth One Year Performance, subtitled Art/Life, was a collaboration with Linda Montano. The two of them spent a year tied together by an 8-foot rope. At the same time, they tried to avoid actually touching, so that they could each maintain some sense of personal space. Hsieh and Montano did not know each other before the piece began. But once it started, they were never separated for the entire year. Each day, they kept records of their time together by taking photos and recording audiotapes.

This fourth Performance asks us to consider how human relationships work. The first and third Performances displayed the self in isolation from the rest of the world, or in antagonism with it. This piece explores the dimension of intimacy. What makes two separate people into a couple? How do they stand, in relation to one another, as well as to the rest of the world? What does it mean for them to remain in such proximity, for so long a period of time? How do we negotiate our needs, for both contact (embodied here by their being tied together) and privacy (embodied here by their not actually touching)? Where does the self end, and the other person begin? How close can two people get, and to what extent must they always remain strangers to one another?

Hsieh's fifth and final One Year Performance was, in a sense, the negation of the previous four. Hsieh spent an entire year without art-a year without making art, talking or reading about it, viewing it or in any other way participating in it. Rather, Hsieh "just went in life" for that year. Unlike the other One Year Performances, the documentation for this one is minimal. Since he was doing nothing special, there was nothing to record.

This fifth Performance is nonetheless significant, because of the way it puts the previous ones into perspective. How is experience changed by being designated as art? And how does art differ from ordinary life? All of Hsieh's work circles around these questions. In one sense, the work is an endeavor to make art and life coincide. But does this mean that life is transfigured, given a special richness and significance, by being turned into a work of art? Or does it rather mean that art is demystified and brought down to earth, by being absorbed into the textures and rhythms of everyday life? There is also the question of the unforeseen contingencies that make perfection of the life or of the work alike impossible. Nothing ever works out entirely as planned. Thus, during the second Performance, Hsieh overslept and missed a small number of clock punches; during the third Performance, he was compelled to spend a few hours indoors, when he was arrested after getting into a fight; during the fourth Performance, he and Montano touched one another by accident a few times. By designating the rigorous absence of art as itself a work of art, by making an art of just going in life, Hsieh reflects back on these dilemmas.

"Earth" is Hsieh's last project, and the one that went on the longest. It lasted all the way from his thirty-sixth birthday to his forty-ninth. It was documented, unlike the fifth Performance; but unlike the first four, the documentation only took place in retrospect. When Hsieh announced the piece, he said that he would make art, but only in secret. He did not reveal the content or the purpose of the performance until the day after it was over. Only then did he give his report: "I kept myself alive," he said, and made it through to the new millennium.

"Earth" was not about fulfilling particular conditions, in the way the first four One Year Performances were. Nor was it about negating such conditions, in the manner of the fifth One Year Performance. Rather, simple existence-surviving, persisting, continuing-became the object of the artist's affirmation. The work did nothing but double, imperceptibly, whatever was already going on in Hsieh's day-to-day existence. In this way, Hsieh once more reconfigured the relationship between art and life. "Earth" suggests another way of looking back at all of Hsieh's previous work. However extraordinary the tasks Hsieh had to perform, in each of his pieces, the most important thing about them was this: that through their repetition, and their absorption into daily routine, these tasks became as ordinary as anything else. And that is perhaps the most important transformation of all.

Tehching Hsieh's work invites us to an infinite meditation. It asks difficult questions, without giving us any answers. Hsieh's performances do not illustrate any theories, and do not propose any determinate concepts. Rather, they exemplify and embody the problems they raise. Whether Hsieh was concerned with solitude and isolation, with the self's boundaries and its relationships to others, or with the way our lives are embedded in time and space, he always sought to grasp the issues as concretely as possible. He did not just think about these fundamental dilemmas. He also lived them, in their full existential density, joy, and terror. Doing this required an incredible force of discipline and dedication. But it also required an extraordinary willingness to let go: to give oneself over to time and chance and materiality. The stubborn excess of the real, its refusal to be contained within the ideas we have of it: this is the true substance of Hsieh's art.

Each of Hsieh's performances was a singular event: an action, or series of actions, that unfolded in a particular space, during a particular span of time. Now that they are done, they cannot be recaptured or revived. All that's left of them are the traces and remnants that they left behind. These traces come in several forms. There are all the ideas inspired by Hsieh's pieces, such as the ones expressed in the present essay. And then there is the meticulous documentation of the performances: the posters and photos and videos and artists' statements, all preserved on this DVD-ROM. This large body of evidence is important, because Hsieh's work is not complete without a witness. Of course, no one else can know the artist's inner experience, all that he went a receiving it. Artist and audience face one another over vast divide, but each is necessary to the other. through as he performed these six pieces. But for the performances to register in the world, they cannot remain entirely private. They have to face outward as well as inward. These pieces need to be witnessed, as well as enacted. It's like a tree falling in the forest: there must be someone to hear the sound of its crash. Hsieh has given the gift of his art to us, his witnesses. And we, as witnesses, have made that art possible, by receiving it. Artist and audience face one another over a vast divide, but each is necessary to the other.

Steven Shaviro is a writer and cultural critic.He lives in Seattle, and teaches at the University of Washington. He is the author, among other things, of Doom Patrols (1997), and of Stranded in Jungle (currently being published in serial form on the World Wide Web, at

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