Tehching Hsieh once locked himself in a cage for a year. Later, he tied himself to a woman for the same period. He talks about the rigours of making art where time is of the essence. By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.

Time piece: Tehching Hsieh exhibition

Film straps from Time Clock Piece (1980-81)
Credit: Zan Wemberley

On September 30, 1978, the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh, then an illegal immigrant in New York, locked himself in a cage. He stayed inside it for a year. Within the confines of his wooden cell – furnished only with a basin, a bed, and a pail – Hsieh swore that he would not talk, read, write, listen to music, or watch television. Food was to be delivered daily by a friend, who also purged the artist’s waste. 

Once a month, the performance was open to the public. One day an elderly lady stumbled into the studio. She looked around and walked close to the cage. Then, as Hsieh recalls in a monograph of his works, Out of Now, “She held the bars … and asked me ‘Where is the work?’ ”

Hsieh did not answer the lady. Nor did he make eye contact. To do so would have derailed his entire piece: an exploration into the recesses of solitude and an experiment of the power of mind over body. From self-imposed solitary confinement, he hoped to find liberation. Imagination, after all, was the only tool at his disposal for entertainment, mental sustenance and escape.

Cage Piece, made when Hsieh was almost 28 years old, was to be the first of five seminal one-year-long durational performance artworks. One by one, over half a decade, all in the name of art, Hsieh deprived himself of freedom, sleep, shelter, privacy and, finally, art itself.

Time Clock Piece (1980-81) saw Hsieh punching a time clock every hour in his studio. In Outdoor Piece (1981-82) he slept on the streets of New York, surviving a freezing winter and never allowing himself to step indoors. In Rope Piece (1983-84) he tied himself by an eight-foot rope to the performance artist Linda Montano, with whom his life was inextricably entangled but whom he was forbidden to touch. And in the most abstract of the five, No Art Piece (1985-86), he promised not to engage with art at all, whether making it, viewing it or discussing it.

Each was designed to peel away the superficial thrills, pleasures and distractions of living, and dive instead into the essence of the human condition. “All my work is talking about the meaning of life,” the diminutive artist says.

1 . Emigration from Taiwan

In 1974, four years before Cage Piece, Hsieh had docked in the Delaware River on a Taiwanese oil tanker. He never finished high school, working on the high seas instead. From there he crept, unnoticed, into America, where he paid a taxi driver $150 to take him to Manhattan, the heaving hub of the art world.

Whatever his dreams, the reality of life for a young, unknown and illegal Taiwanese immigrant was one of struggle and isolation. Hsieh washed dishes to survive. His performances, when he finally started them after years of pondering how to make his mark, existed outside the system of galleries, funding bodies and art-world institutions. His work went unseen by most, even when, as with the old lady, it was witnessed.

Almost four decades later, Hsieh’s time has come. Today the American citizen, who received asylum in 1988, enjoys a cult-like following in an art world that treats him with awe – ironically, a status that has been achieved only now that he has stopped making art altogether. At the turn of the millennium, after a stretch known as Thirteen Year Plan during which he promised to create artworks but never show them publicly, Hsieh released a statement that said: “I kept myself alive. I passed the Dec. 31, 1999.” Since then he has declared that his turn as an artist is over. Today, only the documentation and discourse surrounding these works remain.

Despite this, Hsieh has achieved mainstream success and acceptance. Both the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum have exhibited his work. Major collectors now court him and in 2013 the yet-to-be-opened M+ museum in Hong Kong announced it had bought six of his performance works, which will make it home to the most extensive collection of his work in the world.

2 . Time Clock Piece exhibition

Now, the first major solo work of Hsieh’s to be shown in Australia is being exhibited at Sydney’s Carriageworks until July 6.

In Cage Piece Hsieh was a prisoner of space. Time Clock Piece saw him become a slave to time. In the 1980 leap year, during the 366 days it took for the sun to circle the earth, Hsieh punched a time clock in his studio every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day. Pinned on the walls of a small claustrophobic room at Carriageworks are 366 timecards alongside 366 film strips. Together they display the 8621 times he punched the time clock, with a photograph taken for each hour he marked.

The entire punitive process is reduced into a six-minute 16mm film that flickers and burrs frenziedly, with Hsieh staring, zombie-like into the camera, his closely shaved head erupting into a mane of hair as the year progresses. The piece, he says, is about how in life “we do over and over the same thing but also it’s different because times change. Time passes, cannot come back.”

Philosophy underpins the work, but there is also method in his madness. In Out of Now Hsieh said: “Maybe I am pessimistic. I don’t think that art can change the world. But at least art can help us to unveil life.” Speaking at Carriageworks, he notes that art is just “a different tool, a different perspective to pass time. Art is one kind of way to live. To me, my work just consumes time until [I] am dying.”

A palpable tension exists between the precise, methodological presentation of the strips on the wall and the 16mm film, with its urgent, near schizophrenic, unhinged whirring of images. This juxtaposition of order and chaos “encapsulates the conceptual purity of the project and yet the messy reality of it at the same time – the toll it took on him physically,” says Nina Miall, a curator at Carriageworks.

Meeting Hsieh, 64, it is hard to imagine this slight man, whose tiny frame is dressed in a neat blue shirt tucked into jeans, once subjected himself to such savage physical deprivations. Today, he travels with his serene wife, Qinqin Li, an elementary school art teacher originally from Beijing who is 24 years his junior. It is his third marriage, and they live together in Brooklyn. Despite years in America his English remains poor and in person he is polite and quietly spoken, with a disarming softness at odds with the severity of his work.

Cage Piece proved the most challenging, nearly pushing him to the edge of insanity. Just two weeks after entering his cell, he thought it was a mistake. He kept going, he says, because “you don’t break trust. It means I had to finish.” The performance was witnessed by just a handful of people, yet he persevered.

“What often strikes me is what a kind of single-minded and focused artist he is, regardless of art world trends and currents, the expectations of his family, or of the society he is living in,” Miall says. “He has pursued these very uncompromising searching endeavours that have their own very particular logic.”

When the year was finally up, Hsieh decided to live in the cage for another month, sleeping inside the cell with the door open. “My body and my mental [state] was very weak,” he remembers, speaking in staccato English, and occasionally turning to his wife for help with translation. “Psychologically I feel there [in the cage] is more safe.” Outside, sounds, smells and sights were magnified. A little girl’s voice sounded “like a wolf to me, because I’m so weak”.

3 . Apolitical message

Failure is also carefully documented. At Carriageworks a glass cabinet displays a breakdown of the 133 times Hsieh missed punching the time clock – mainly due to oversleeping. In order to wake up every hour, the artist had 12 alarm clocks attached to amplifiers. He remembers his brain receiving “pain” at the slicing through of unfinished dreams. “Sometimes I dream that I say I don’t want to be an artist anymore,” he recalls.

Hsieh may have questioned his vocation, yet few artists have so completely submerged their lives in their work. Pleasures of the body were secondary to philosophical experiments. “I don’t have a personal life [at that time], and I don’t expect to have a personal life,” he concedes. “I only expect to have…” He pauses to think. Then he reframes his words, grabbing his head and laughing in a rare moment of lightness. “It is my voice to say what I can say, and that is a kind of freedom.”

It is easy to read political or religious messages in Hsieh’s performances. The punishingly repetitive trials he subjected himself to are similar in tone to the extreme lengths some Buddhist monks go to achieve enlightenment. In New York, Hsieh shared a studio with another young – then unknown – artist from mainland China. Ai Weiwei has since become one of the world’s most famous dissidents, and argues that art is inextricably entwined with politics.

But Hsieh, who counts Ai as a good friend, is quick to dismiss external messages. “I refute [politics],” he says. “I am not political about my work. I know even my art cannot change my reality but it gives me confidence in myself. It means I can change my psychological life. To create, to understand life, to transport life to be art.”

He regrets only the inevitable imperfection of his work. He wishes he had a toilet in the cage, rather than a pail, which made him “more like an 18th-century prisoner”. He wishes that he could have found a new way to describe his imprisonment. “Solitary confinement already has some messages about political,” he ponders, a solemn look on his face. This, he believes, is misleading. He wants to expose universal humanity, not specific issues tied to a particular era.

Yet to Miall the works nonetheless align themselves to society’s underclass: the prisoner, the homeless person, the illegal immigrant. In Time Clock Piece Hsieh’s grey, pressed, military-style uniform and shaved head, combined with the relentless punching of the clock, “reveal a veiled critique of this uniformity of industrialised labour,” says Miall.

4 . Family

Hsieh was one of 15 children; his father, an austere authoritarian figure, ran a trucking company and had five wives. The artist came of age in the 1960s when hippie culture had, to some extent, infiltrated Taiwan: he read existentialist books, grew his hair long and started to paint. Yet his country, where Hsieh had to complete three years of compulsory military service, remained “very conservative with not much new exciting contemporary art”. He vowed to make it to America.

Before leaving Taiwan he had already started to experiment with extreme performance art. He created in isolation: he had never heard the term “performance art”. Nor had he seen Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void, in which the French artist appeared to dive off a rooftop, though in 1973 Hsieh made Jump Piece, in which he leapt from a 15-foot-high (4.6-metre) window onto the concrete floor below. He broke both his ankles – he still feels pain today – and recorded the act on a Super 8 camera.

Other early works were equally brutal: in Half-Ton Hsieh crushed himself below plasterboard; in Throw Up he consumed fried rice until he vomited, then repeated the process with fruit salad. Paint Stick (1978) saw him slice a line with a mat knife on each of his cheeks, letting the blood course down his face.

These works upset his family. Nonetheless they remained supportive, sending him money when he moved to America. Today, money is equally elusive. “Only one month I make [money], then one month gone,” says Hsieh. “I don’t have money. My family is also my grant. I still put in my hand to ask money [from them].”

Hsieh insists that although his work is not religious his mother, a devout Christian, taught him the most valuable life lessons: through her he learnt “dedication and sacrifice”. Still, success as defined in a traditional Confucian family setting, where children are expected to look after their parents in old age, was never going to be his.

“I am not a good son,” he says, woefully.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Time piece".

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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore writes on current affairs and the arts for the BBC, Financial Times, and Wall Street Journal.