Tehching Hsieh: doing time – One Year Performance(s)
"Although Tehching Hsieh may not embrace the label of a "spiritual guide," his work has prompted me to reflect upon my own relationship with time. I have become more conscious of its passage, yet without passing judgment on how I choose to spend it", writes arts journalist and curator Louise des Places about the seminal Tawainese-born performance artist whose work is currently the subject of a survey at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano, Art/Life: One Year Performance 1983 – 1984 (Rope Piece)
The 1970s witnessed a surge in artworks that pushed the boundaries of the human body and mind, sometimes placing artists at the risk of mortal danger. In 1971, Chris Burden deliberately got a bullet in the arm in the name of art, during his Shoot action. In 1973, Gina Pane subjected herself to bodily harm using rose thorns and razor blades, in a piece called Azione Sentimentale. The following year, Marina Abramović turned Studio Morra — and the art world — upside down with her famous performance Rhythm 0, inviting the public to use 72 objects on her (from a rose, a feather, honey, wine, to scissors, nails, a metal bar, and a gun loaded with one bullet) without risk of repercussion… allegedly giving her one streak of white hair from the stress.
Rhythm 0 – Marina Abramović (1974)
Among this spree of daring performances artists, no one has, in my opinion, deployed this form of art to more radical and uncompromising ends than Tehching Hsieh. “Life is a life sentence; life is passing time, life is free-thinking”, once said the Tawainese-born artist, who, strangely, remains excluded from major texts and essays on performance art; although being referred to as "the master" by none other than Marina Abramović herself.
From 1978 to 1986, Hsieh embarked on a series of extreme performances known as his One Year Performances. He locked himself in a caged room with no activities or contact with the outside world, punched a time clock every hour, lived on the streets of New York without seeking any form of shelter, and tied himself to fellow artist Linda Montano with a rope. Each of these performances lasted for an entire trip around the Sun.
Jump Piece (1973)
Had the performances lasted longer, they might have been about endurance, and if they were shorter, they would have felt incomplete. To Hsieh, life is a linear journey that moves in one direction, but it is also filled with repetition and cyclical elements.
Tehching Hsieh was born in 1950 in a small town in Southern Taiwan. Despite dropping out of high school and never formally studying art, he was an avid reader, and his exploration of the works of Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Nietzsche shaped his philosophy of life and work from an early age. After a brief period of experimentation with painting, which he quickly abandoned, he began performing what he called his "actions."
Tehching Hsieh, by Sebastian Kim (2017)
Hsieh's early actions in Taipei marked a starting point in his willingness to cross the physical and psychological boundaries of human existence. Inspired by Yves Klein's photomontage Leap Into the Void (1960), showing the French artist flinging himself off a suburban rooftop in Paris, Hsieh tried the experience for real. During his now-famous Jump Piece (1973), he jumped from a second-floor window, resulting in the breaking of both his ankles.
Calling it an “immature piece”, humbly downplaying its significance, the artist aligned himself with artists who throw themselves into their art with the possibility of injury or even death. Real, honest, and tragic — like the work of Bas Jan Ader who made his career out of jumping (falling from chairs, roofs, tree branches, from a bicycle into a canal, and eventually disappeared during his final work; the cross of the Atlantic in a small boat to reach Europe from America). Or this member of the Gutai group (Japanese avant-garde art movement, from the term “gu”, instrument, and “tai”, body; “concrete”, “incarnation”), whose name got lost in History, who jumped from a high roof into a canvas placed on the floor, in an attempt to make one last final piece.
This self-inflicted injury can be seen as a reflection of the lengths young men were willing to go to avoid forced military service. While Hsieh completed his service for the KMT government, enduring two years of limited freedom, many others resorted to harming themselves, compromising their health and productivity to evade the military. Hsieh's leap into the void seems to symbolize his first leap out of the militarized conservative society he sought to escape.
Shooting the performance with a Super 8 camera, Jump Piece is also the beginning of Hsieh's interest in documentation —a practice he continued throughout his subsequent actions, enabling us to trace his work today.
New York, “the centre of the art world”
“Mature” or not, this jump into the void turned into a jump into the future. The action as a direction led him to move to New York, — like many other artists whose conservative atmosphere of their homeland had them feeling restricted in their art practice.
In 1974, Hsieh embarked on a ship as a sailor, ending up in the United States. It was a leap from one identity to another, from his former self to becoming an undocumented immigrant in a foreign land. Caught between two worlds, he faced rejection and a lack of recognition from both his home country and his new surroundings.
Living as an illegal immigrant (until he was finally granted a green card in 1988), Hsieh encountered the harsh realities of life in New York. Unable to speak English and facing numerous challenges, he soon became disillusioned. After working menial cleaning jobs in restaurants for years, the artist experienced a breakthrough moment that would change his life and free him from his misery: rather than seeking external means to produce art, he would become the art itself.
Performing and living at the same time
“To me doing life and doing art is all the same—doing time. The difference is that in art, you have a form”. - Tehching Hsieh
With his five One Year Performance, followed by a, rather mysterious, Thirteen-Year Plan (1986–1999) which end also marked the end of his career; Hsieh’s blurred the line between what he calls “art time” and “life time”. For the artist, “doing art” and “doing life” can therefore be summed-up in one thing: doing time.
By fully immersing himself in these year-long durational performances, Hsieh pushed himself to physical and mental extremes while simultaneously transcending the conventional modes of artistic creation.
Tehching Hsieh during Cage Piece (1978-1979)
While the performer stressed that his extremely physically and mentally demanding actions were not about pain or suffering, nor that his goal was spiritual, to gain some sort of transcendental awakening, or to convey any political message; his performative way of “doing time” represents a radical departure from established practices and conveyed a powerful message about the transformative potential of artistic expression.
Tehching Hsieh's performances embody the essence of passing time, highlighting the ephemeral nature of human existence and the choices we make with the time we are given. Whether it is through the everyday routines of work, socializing, or engaging with technology, or through meticulously planned and documented performances validated by legal contracts and witnessed by others, each of us chooses our own way of passing time. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps it ultimately doesn't matter how we choose to spend our time.
“It’s not about how to pass the time, but about the acceptance of the time passing. I know people think of my work as spiritual, but really it’s just that I consume time”, he said in a rare interview.
By making a schedule of primitive activities (waiting in Cage Piece; repeating an action every hour in Time Clock Piece; walking around and surviving in Outdoor Piece), following it (passing the time), and moving on once a task is over; Tehching Hsieh shows a radical acceptance of life.
One Year Performance 1978 – 1979 (Cage Piece)
Tehching Hsieh's inaugural One Year Performance (1978 – 1979), commonly referred to as Cage Piece, unfolded within his studio located at 111 Hudson Street, in New York. In this remarkable endeavor, the artist constructed a wooden cage where he willingly confined himself for an entire year, devoid of contact with the outside world and any activities.
Throughout the entirety of this performance, Hsieh abstained from speaking, writing, reading, watching television, using a phone, or listening to the radio. He simply existed, biding his time. Although it has been misinterpreted as a religious monastic experience, a test of psychological endurance, or a critique of incarceration, the essence of the performance lies in the passage of time itself.
The performance was made possible with the assistance of a friend who provided essential supplies and sustenance; and documented the unfolding of the piece, capturing photographs revealing Hsieh's passive demeanor and his gaze fixated upon the wall, with his hair gradually growing longer and longer.
Every three weeks, a small audience was invited to witness the performance, but forbidden to interact with the artist.
Other artists have later tried the experience of total isolation; like the French performer Abraham Poincheval, who became famous for locking himself in different objects - from living two weeks inside a taxidermied bear, feeding himself with honey and berries; to a complete retreat from the world inside a rock. Or even, sitting on eggs until one of them hatched.
Time Clock Piece (1980-1981). Photo by Brian Slater
One Year Performance 1980 – 1981 (Time Clock Piece)
In Time Clock Piece (1980-1981), Tehching Hsieh gave himself a new arduous task: punching a factory timecard clock every hour and documenting it by taking a photograph each time. For an entire year again.
Prior to commencing the performance, Hsieh shaved his head, drawing parallels to his earlier work, "Cage Piece," where the growth of his hair symbolized the passage of time.
By repetitively engaging in this laborious routine, the artist deliberately denied himself any extended periods of activity or rest, akin to a modern-day Sisyphus compelled to eagerly await the next punch. While one might interpret this act as a critique of the monotonous nature of industrial labor, it is essential to note that Hsieh's intention lies beyond mere political commentary. Instead, he invites viewers to contemplate his unwavering acceptance of the inevitable passing of time.
The theme of repetition, intimately connected to the ephemeral nature of human existence, has long fascinated artists throughout history.
One artist who masterfully captured this universal principle is the Japanese conceptual artist, On Kawara, renowned for his series "I Got Up" (1968-1979). This continuous piece consists of a vast collection of postcards, stamped with the precise time the artist woke up each morning (or afternoon), and subsequently mailed to two acquaintances.
Beyond its contemplation of the passage of time and the essence of being, On Kawara's "I Got Up" prompts us to delve into subjects that resonate with Hsieh's artistic practice.
By engaging in this act of repetitive documentation, On Kawara challenges us to contemplate the significance of routine, to reevaluate our own relationship with time, and the intricate interplay between one's life and their art, examining how the two intertwine and influence each other.
One Year Performance 1981 – 1982 (Outdoor Piece)
“I was very close to this city, but at the same time, very alienated from the society.”
- Tehching Hsieh
In the pursuit of his art, Tehching Hsieh embarked on his third audacious challenge: Staying outside for a year, living the struggle of a homeless person, all in the name of art. Or rather than a challenge, a way of passing time. From 1981 to 1982, the performer lived outside in the streets of New York City, with the strict rule of not entering any building or interior shelter.
Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (1981-1982)
On September 26, 1981, after ceremoniously shaving his head as a customary prelude to his actions, Hsieh departed from his Tribeca studio, with no intention on coming back for the next 365 days. In a new contract, he declared his resolve to abstain from entering any form of enclosed space, be it a “building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, or even a tent”.
Sleeping in parks and parking lots (even during a very cold winter), ordering takeout through restaurant windows and food stands, bathing in the Hudson River… Hsieh managed to stay outside for the whole duration of the year — with only one lapse, when he spent 15 hours in jail after being arrested for vagrancy.
Equipped with minimal possessions—a sleeping bag, camera, map, torch, radio, and nunchaku—Hsieh traversed the city, documenting his experiences through photographs and mapping his routes and activities.
While Time Clock Piece required strict control in order to not let the performance fall apart, and Cage Piece was “just passing time”; Outdoor Piece was an action about survival. All questioning the same topics, Hsieh's performances are so different from each other in forms. I will argue here that rather than a piece constructed strictly on time, Outdoor Piece differs from Hsieh’s previous works as the performance is more based on space and orientation.
Outdoor Piece - Courtesy ParaSite Art-Space Hong-Kong
Outdoor Piece is Hsieh's third significant jump. It signifies a jump out of self-isolation and estrangement, venturing into the vastness of the outside world. For an entire year, he embraced a nomadic lifestyle, rejecting the trappings of modern sedentary existence and disengaging from societal institutions.
A notable paradox emerges within this performance. By imposing strict rules upon himself, such as abstaining from entering buildings or utilizing transportation, Hsieh regressed to a state resembling that of an uncivilized man. Yet, paradoxically, these limitations led to his ultimate liberation. Freed from the confines of social norms, with no need of differencing work time and leisure time, he focused solely on fundamental needs—eating, sleeping,
basic hygiene—while occasionally resorting to self-protection, as exemplified by the nunchaku.
Reflecting on his time as a wandering outsider, Hsieh fondly recalls a sense of belonging, as if the entire city of New York had become his home. “Chinatown was my kitchen; the Hudson river was my bedroom; those parking lots, empty swimming pools, and small parks were my bedroom. In winter, the Meat Market West of 14th Street was my fireplace”.
This performance represents an unprecedented convergence of art and life. Hsieh performed "art time" in real-time. While he was recognized by the public as a homeless person during his time on the streets, no one knew he was an artist engaged in a performance. The only divergence lay in the meticulous documentation of his whereabouts.
Art/Life: One Year Performance 1983 – 1984 (Rope Piece)
In 1983, Tehching Hsieh and fellow artist Linda Montano signed the following manifesto: “We will stay together for one year and never be alone. We will be in the same room at the same time, when we are inside. We will be tied together at waist with an eight-foot rope. We will never touch each other during the year.”
The two artists then spent a full year tied together by an eight feet (2,5m) long rope. Art/Life (1983-1984) is a piece of rare honesty, forcing both the artist to show radical vulnerability. Tied this way, it is impossible to hide any negative or weak side of oneself.
Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh during Art/Life
The biggest lines of common life were sorted: every day Hsieh would accompany Montano to her teaching job, they would sleep in separate beds a few feet apart, wait at the door when the other is showering or using the bathroom… But every in-the-moment need or impulse became impossible. If you want to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you need to wake up the other; going to grab water or just taking a look through the window would require the other person to stand up. Every daily activity, going to bed, buying groceries, bathing, would become a verbal and physical negotiation.
Apart from the physical constraints, the lack of privacy was overwhelming. The artists recall how they became acutely self-aware of every minor action that betrayed their own hypocrisy, such as adopting different voices while speaking to different friends on the telephone. Under constant scrutiny and judgment, they were compelled to confront their deepest weaknesses and insecurities. This performance offers a poignant reflection on how humans can become each other's cages, and how raw relationships can make us feel. "This piece is about being like an animal, naked", said Hsieh.
The term "animal" aptly captures the escalating aggression that emerged between them throughout the performance. Deprived of their freedom, every moment and conversation held the potential for conflict, which frequently erupted. Their commitment to not touch each other, except for accidental contact (with a brief exception for a hug), may have spared them from physical altercations. Montano confessed that if it weren't for this rule, she likely would have wanted to harm Hsieh countless times. However, even without physical contact, the fights often escalated to a highly charged level. They would tug at their respective ends of the rope and throw objects, behaving "like monkeys", according to Montano. Periods of silent treatment would follow. Their conversations devolved from hours-long deep discussions to little more than groans and animalistic noises.
Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh during Art/Life
Towards the end of the performance, the artists rediscovered their respect for each other. Both took immense pride in the bond they had formed, one that shattered every conventional notions of what constitutes a relationship. Montano expressed, “He’s my friend, confidant, lover, son, opponent, husband, brother, playmate, sparring partner, mother, father, etc. The list goes on and on. There isn’t one word or one archetype that fits. I feel very deeply for him…”.
“I think Linda is the most honest person I’ve known in my life. And I feel very comfortable to talk — to share my personality with her. That’s enough. I feel that’s pretty good. We had a lot of fights and I don’t feel that is negative. Anybody who is tied this way, even if they were a nice couple, I’m sure they would fight too.” Hsieh said, as a conclusion of this unprecedented experiment.
One Year Performance 1985 – 1986 (No Art Piece)
A year after completing "Rope Piece," Hsieh faced uncertainty regarding his next creation. He decided to engage in a new (non)activity—abstaining from all artistic engagement for a full year. Throughout this 365-day period, he refrained from creating art, discussing or contemplating art, and visiting museums or exhibitions.
This performance, or rather absence of performance, raises an intriguing question: Can everything be considered performance art? Hsieh's deliberate decision to abstain from artistic pursuits challenges conventional notions of what constitutes artistic expression.
At the end of the year, the artist found it hard to go back to doing art. He then started his last and ultimate piece, Thirteen Years Plan.
Hsieh isn’t the first artist to decide that nothingness could be art. In 1958, Yves Klein presented the groundbreaking exhibition “Le Vide” (The Void) in Galerie Iris Clert, in Paris.
This installation involved completely emptying the gallery and painting the floors and walls in white. Although there was nothing tangible to see, the exhibition attracted hundreds of visitors who came to "admire" and experience this absence of art. Some viewers described experiencing "the fantasy of a lost childhood" or "a sublime feeling in the tangible representation of infinite space," as articulated by the artist himself. Others felt irritation and incomprehension. Klein's genius in the 1958 exhibition lies in the fact that he persuaded the art world of the significance of such a piece, whether it resonated with individuals or not. — and as mentioned previously, he has even been an inspiration for Hsieh.
Thirteen Year Plan (1986 – 1999)
Over the course of 13 years, Tehching Hsieh committed to producing art that he would never exhibit to the public, making it challenging to precisely define his creative output during this period. However, one known piece emerged from this endeavor, titled "Disappearance," in which Hsieh deliberately vanished from New York City, leaving behind all those who were familiar with him. The objective was to embark on a new life as a complete stranger, exiling himself not only from the art world, as he did in "No Art Piece," but from life itself. However, Hsieh ultimately decided not to pursue this performance further, finding it excessively burdensome. Very secretive, the performer just admitted, when asked what the action was about, “I kept myself alive”.
A late recognition
In 2009, a decade after Tehching Hsieh's disappearance from the art scene, the Museum of Modern Art recognized the significance of his work and chose to exhibit the original cell from "Cage Piece," accompanied by photographs and documentation. Additionally, the documentation of "Time Clock Piece" was displayed at the Guggenheim as part of a group exhibition that same year and has since become part of the collection at Tate Modern. Furthermore, in 2017, he presented the pavilion "Doing Time" at the Venice Biennale, solidifying his impact in the art world.
Documentation of Time Clock Piece, photo by Brian Slader
Hsieh’s work is currently exhibited in the Neue Nationalgalerie, alongside with the work German painter Gerhard Richter, until the end of September 2023.
Although Tehching Hsieh may not embrace the label of a "spiritual guide," his work has prompted me to reflect upon my own relationship with time. I have become more conscious of its passage, yet without passing judgment on how I choose to spend it. The sense of absurdity evoked by Hsieh's work is strangely comforting, as it highlights the fact that the manner in which I spend my time is a personal choice. Whether it involves aimlessly scrolling on my phone or investing countless hours in researching performance art and writing this article, time will inevitably pass. It is our responsibility to decide how what we want to do with these precious seconds, minutes, and hours.
Louise des Places
Louise des Places is an art curator and arts journalist. Over the years, she has written for several art magazines, curated exhibitions and events as an independent art curator, and with her art collective ‘Lonely Arts’. She worked as a gallery- and an artist’s assistant in Paris and Brussels, and as an assistant curator at SomoS Arts Berlin and curatorial intern at Index - The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation in Stockholm.