Tehching Hsieh - The Insanity Artist

17/01/2023

Ben Jordan (he/him) explores the performance pieces of Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh

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Image by https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TehchingHsiehExhibitMOMA.jpg

By Ben Jordan

Last March, a video titled ‘The Insanity Artist’ was uploaded to YouTube. Sprawled across its sparse thumbnail are the words “No Sleep For a Year”, printed in a bold, yellow typeface. To their right, a bald man in a drab grey jumpsuit stares out at the viewer with tired, vapid eyes. His breast bears a patch with the word “Hsieh”printed on it, an understated insignia that appears to have been ironed on. This man is Taiwanese performance artist Tehching (or Sam) Hsieh, photographed during his notorious Time Clock Piece (1980-81), and this video changed the way I look at art.

Hsieh was born in Taiwan in 1950. He moved to New York in 1974, after jumping ship during his stint as a sailor. During his first four years in New York, he worked as a dishwasher and cleaner. Not the most prolific start for an artist whose work would leave an indelible mark on the landscape of performance art just four short years later. Prior to this point, Hsieh’s only work of note was his Jump Piece (1973), which he made in Taiwan shortly before emigrating to New York. In Jump Piece, Hsieh set up a camera to take a series of shots as he jumped out of a second-story window. He broke both of his ankles during the piece, and judging by the expression on his face after he hit the ground, it looks like it hurt. But even this is nothing compared to what Hsieh put himself through between 1978-84, when he undertook four year-long performance pieces: Cage Piece (1978-79), Time Clock Piece (1980-81), Outdoor Piece (1981-82), and Rope Piece (1983-84). The sparse amount of information about these pieces that is available on Wikipedia does not do justice to their ingenuity (or insanity), so in this article I will go through each in turn and give a brief account of Hsieh’s artistic exploits.

The critical literature that is available on Cage Piece tends to characterise it as a precursor to Time Clock Piece, but despite this, it still stands on its own merits as an integral piece of performance art that gave New York its first taste of Tehching Hsieh. The premise of Cage Piece is simple: Hsieh locked himself inside a cage for an entire year. He did not speak, read, or write. He was entirely alone with his own thoughts and the sole human contact he received was a housemate who came once a day to feed him, remove his waste, and take a photograph to document the process. Once or twice a month the public were permitted access to view Hsieh in his cage, and a lawyer made a record of the whole process to ensure that Hsieh did not leave the cage prior to 30 September 1979, exactly one year after he first entered it. Why would anyone in their right mind want to do this? For Hsieh, art is an extension of the self. The hardships that he endured across his performance pieces evince how for him, art invariably involves an element of sacrifice. In Cage Piece Hsieh sacrificed not only his time, but also his physical and mental health, and this element of sacrifice is ultimately a common thread that weaves throughout his performance pieces. However, the depravity of Cage Piece is ultimately nothing compared to the physical and mental extremes that Hsieh endured in his next and most notorious performance piece, Time Clock Piece, a truly iconic and indelible work that expands upon the precedent Hsieh set in his earlier work.

Time Clock Piece reads like a depraved exercise in masochism that even the most seasoned insomniac would dread. Like in Cage Piece, Hsieh locked himself in a room for an entire year. To keep him occupied he challenged himself to punch a time clock once an hour (on the hour) for every hour of that year. There are 8,760 hours in your average year, and for 8,627 of them, Hsieh punched the time clock. This is even more impressive a feat when you realise that Hsieh would not have slept for over an hour at a time all year, as he had to wake up once every hour to punch the time clock. In both Cage Piece and Time Clock Piece, Hsieh documented the entire process through a series of photographs. Each time that he punched the titular time clock, it would trigger a camera that had been rigged up to take his photograph. The 8,000+ photographs it took over the course of the year were edited into a short video in which each frame of the video corresponds to an hour of Hsieh’s time. This piece was exhibited at the Tate Modern in 2017. One of my biggest regrets in life is being 16 at the time and not interested enough to go and see it.

For his Outside Piece, Hsieh expanded his horizons and decided to try his hand at living outside for an entire year. He was, for all intents and purposes, homeless, but with the added constraint that he could not even enter a building. He kept this up for the entire year (with the exception of when he was arrested), living out of a backpack and sleeping bag. This was in New York, where temperatures regularly drop below 0°C in the winter and Hsieh was subject to the added surprise of a blizzard that hit the city in the spring of 1982, during which temperatures dropped below -6°C. For shelter, he slept under bridges and in garbage cans.

Rope Piece was Hsieh’s penultimate performance piece, and once again he decided to push himself to the extremes. For an entire year Hsieh tied himself (with a rope) to fellow performance artist Linda Montano. They could not touch each other during this period, and were never separated: they ate, slept, and bathed together, their only privacy being the eight feet of rope between them. They spent every hour of every day together during this year. Time Clock Piece is likely to fuel the nightmares of an insomniac, but Rope Piece is bound to do the same to an introvert. No matter how much I liked someone, I doubt I could spend an entire year in their presence, and as with all of these pieces I have a huge amount of respect for the physical and mental resilience that Hsieh demonstrated.

Since Rope Piece, Hsieh has created two more performance pieces of note. For his last one-year piece, No Art Piece (1985-86), Hsieh abstained from any activity that pertained to art. He did not create art, talk about art, read about art, or view art. Further to this, Hsieh then undertook a 13-year long ‘piece’ between 1986 and 1999 in which he made art, but did not exhibit it. The artistic status of these pieces is more tentative than that of his other performance pieces, and I would argue that these are his weakest works. In spite of this, I still have a huge amount of respect for the man. Even in both of these pieces his work still challenges the viewer to re-evaluate their definition of art, and his ingenious and insane ideas are transgressive in a way that is unrivalled since Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Fountain (1917). Hsieh is a pioneer of performance art, and his work encourages us to contemplate not only the constraints that dictate what art is, but also what art means to us as individuals. I hope that this article can introduce others to his work. If you’re ever in New York, drop by Clinton Hill, Brooklyn where, rumour has it, Hsieh currently runs a grocery store. Perhaps the pale, tepid Taiwanese pensioner behind the counter has a story or two he could tell you, if you’re willing to listen.