Last Saturday night I found myself at Coda Culture, in a tiny space packed with admirers of the performance artist Tehching Hsieh, for the opening of One Year Performance 1978 – 1979 (Cage Piece). The audience included artists, students, a smattering of collectors, and a few members of the media, all eager to get close to the performance artist and hear him speak. Having written my MA thesis on performance art, and as a researcher of the medium, I was thrilled to meet the cult figure, whose strenuous and long-durational performance practice pushes the limits of the human body and mind.
Hsieh’s one-year performances (of which there are five) began four years after his arrival to the United States from Taiwan. They followed his earliest performance in his home country in 1973, when he was captured on camera leaping out of a second-story window, unintentionally breaking both of his ankles. This nascent performative work presaged his continued use of his body as a vehicle in his artistic practice. The following year, working as a sailor, Hsieh, once again, leapt. This time he jumped from an oil tanker onto American soil where he lived and performed in New York City for many years as an illegal immigrant.
As their titles convey, each One Year Performance is 365 days in length; a grueling amount of time to perform under extreme conditions ranging from living on the streets in inclement weather, to living in a cage in his studio. Unlike much performance art, Hsieh’s work doesn’t actually require an audience and he is fierce in his conviction about that notion. Contrasting himself to Marina Abramović, he says, “Art is more public, and life is more private, but for me life is an important foundation, so for me to switch gears, if you really know my reality, you realise for me it doesn’t change from one to the other.” Sans a real-time audience, diligent documentation is crucial to enable the work to be presented to audiences in exhibitions and to open up space for contemplation.
Performance art tends to live on the fringes of society, remaining a challenging genre for most spectators to connect with. My experience has been that most people watch a performance, scratch their heads and say, “What did I just watch?” As with any form of art, meaning is, as it should be, often left to the viewer to contemplate. While an artist might be either obvious or opaque in communicating significance, it is ultimately the spectator who decides how to engage with the work and how to construe it, typically through the lens of their own experiences, preconceived notions, and value systems.
Some of the members of the audience whom I spoke to last Saturday night generally connected to the work with a level of understanding of its layered themes and also with a considerable amount of awe and respect. For example, artist Isabella Teng commented, “He’s used his entire life to make a declaration.” Another spectator, Ying Ji, commented that she saw, “… a man who pushes his physical boundaries and lives life fully.”
Including some of the artefacts from the Cage performance, the exhibition illustrates how Hsieh lived inside a 11.5ft x 9ft x 8 ft cage for 365 days. The wooden construct was monk-like, containing only belongings such as a wash basin, a pail for relieving himself, and a simple bed for sleeping. His roommate was tasked with bringing him his meals, emptying his refuse bin, and photographing him once each day to document the performance.
The solitary, and mostly private (he only allowed spectators for a few hours each month) Cage performance begs the question, “What is freedom?” The viewer might assume because he was in a cage, he felt like a prisoner. Hsieh told me that even outside of a physical cage, we are still prisoners of other paradigms and belief systems. The demands of our jobs, society’s expectations, our familial principles, and spiritual dogmas, for example, all hold us prisoners, slaves to the matrix, on a daily basis.
“When a prisoner gets out of prison, they have to deal with society. It’s just a different cage. For me, I get joy from what I do … being in a cage I have ‘freedom thinking’, which is most important to me. Living as an illegal alien in New York, for example, I was not free because I was scared.”
An audience member, Lucia Cordeschi, echoed that sentiment saying that she viewed the work as being about, “… freedom from societal restrictions.” She added, “The artist’s lived experience of extreme deprivation that he imposed on himself, as a prisoner in isolation, explores the human condition and the meanings of freedom and entrapment.”
Examples of that self-abnegation can be found in all of his one-year performances. For example, in One Year Performance 1980 to 1981 (Time Clock Piece), we see Hsieh sacrificing a year’s worth of sleep. Every hour on the hour, for 365 days, he rose to an alarm to punch a clock to mark a new hour, and to take a self-portrait of himself. This was the piece that had me intrigued in 2017 at the Venice Biennale when he presented the documentation as part of his Doing Time exhibition. Not getting enough sleep is the ninth circle of hell for me, wreaking havoc on my immune system, so this was not a performance I was likely to forget. My own personal vulnerabilities allowed me to connect to the work more deeply and I can empathise with the toll that a performance like this would have taken on Hsieh’s body and mind. This was not lost on artist Ezzam Rahman, whose practice also includes performance art and who mused, “… we can only imagine what scars have been recorded on his breathing body.”
For the one-year performances titled Outdoor Piece and Art/Life Hsieh executed even more mind-bending performances. Outdoor Piece consisted of the harsh deprivation of living on the streets of New York City without shelter while the less solitary Art/Life performance was in some ways the opposite. Imagine being tied to someone for a year by an eight foot long rope, with absolutely no privacy, even in your most intimate moments such as bathing, going to the toilet, and sleeping. Some people might call that a marriage, but the agreement was that Hsieh and fellow performance artist Linda Montano were not permitted to touch one another for the entire year. “In togetherness, they were also isolated from one another by the rule, unable to reach out for human contact and comfort,” commented another viewer whom I spoke to, Bernice.
The last of Hsieh’s 365-day performances was titled No Art Piece, or One Year Performance 1985 – 1986 and presented exactly what the title infers; no art. For one year, Hsieh didn’t create art, talk about it, read about it, or even look at art. When I asked Ezzam how he felt about the work, he related it to his own experiences. He replied, “I cannot detach myself from art as I’ve picked this career and in this day and age we are constantly bombarded with art all around us. But for Tehching to not make art and ‘live normally’ is art in itself.” The idea was not lost on another audience member, Isabella, who observed, “Ironically, he took the non-practice of art and made it art.”
Shortly after “living” the One Year pieces, Hsieh commenced his Thirteen Year Plan, in which he created art but did not show it publicly. Afterwards, he completely stopped making art and dedicated himself to archiving and showing the entire body of works from the One Year Performance series. Whether intentionally or otherwise, this strategy turned out to be quite genius as it fed into an image of elusiveness around the artist when he finally began showing the work in exhibitions in 2000. It also gave him his beloved freedom from the pressures of having to worry about what to create next.
Hsieh’s strength and determination is astounding. Now in his late 60’s, Hsieh is still tremendously fit, a fact he seemed keen to demonstrate to me during our interview when he stood up and began sparring like a boxer around the room. If he wanted me to be impressed, I was, actually.
Coda Culture’s exhibition of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978 – 1979 (Cage Piece) is on till 8 November 2019. The feature image for this article is provided courtesy of Coda Culture (photograph by Tecklimphotography).