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We're all doing time

We're all doing time

Tehching Hsieh at the University of Nevada, Reno

 Starting in 1980, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour for a year and photographed himself after each punch. The entire year's worth of photos fills the Sheppard Gallery at UNR.

Starting in 1980, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour for a year and photographed himself after each punch. The entire year's worth of photos fills the Sheppard Gallery at UNR.

In 1978, Tehching Hsieh, a 28-year-old performance artist, made a prison-like cell out of wooden dowels in his lower Manhattan studio. He went by the name "Sam" to camouflage his immigration status. He'd come from Taiwan as a sailor and jumped ship a few years earlier.

He typed this statement of intention:


He had the statement certified by his attorney. Then, he actually did it. He spent a year in the cell with nothing but a cot, a sink, and a bucket, talking to no one and reading nothing, as a piece of performance art. 

Over the next few years, he performed similar works. He spent a year punching a time clock every hour. He spent a year outdoors and effectively homeless in NYC. He spent a year tied to performance artist Linda Montano with an 8-foot rope.

I learned about all this in an art history class in the early 90s, when I was about 20. I heard about it in the context of other artists from the 70s and 80s who'd laid the groundwork with performance pieces that questioned the distinction between art and life. They sometimes performed extreme feats of bodily endurance: In 1974 Marina Abromović offered her audience 72 objects of pleasure and pain (including a loaded gun) and instructions to use them on her body as they wished, and Chris Burden had himself crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle with real nails through his hands.

I actually remember losing a couple nights sleep over all this. I had a lot of questions. Here were the ones I had about the prison-cell piece:

  • What did he think about during that year? 
  • What did he experience — Boredom? Peace? The nirvana associated with long meditations? The anxiety, psychosis, paranoia, and depression typical of prisoners in solitary confinement? 
  • Was he protesting something?

It took me quite a while to even begin to make sense of this work, to figure out that those weren't even really the right questions. 

Looking at it through a few different lenses has been helpful. 

At first, when I saw Hsieh's performances in the context of the other artists of his time, they struck me as shocking, masochistic, and possibly even a deliberate assault on his audience's comfort or sense of compassion. 

Second, much later, last week in fact, I came across an entirely different context for this work, compliments of the Guggenheim. In 2009, artifacts from Hsieh's time-clock piece were shown in an exhibit there called, "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989." The idea behind the exhibit was that by 1970, Asian traditions and values had become entrenched in American culture. (Pro tip: If you want to think about this topic some more — I sure do! — the Kindle version of the exhibition catalog is only $1.99!) That took me right to the thought that Hsieh might have been performing acts redolent of years-long Buddhist meditation (or in the time clock piece, something more like Catholic self-flagellation). I haven't heard him specifically claim that he was translating religious practice into the realm of studio art, but I'm thinking that was at least part of his deal.

Third, hearing about it straight from Hsieh last Thursday at the University of Nevada, Reno, helped me put a few more pieces together.

  Portrait of Tehching Hsieh, Photography: © Marco Anelli 2009, Courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York

Portrait of Tehching Hsieh, Photography: © Marco Anelli 2009, Courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York

In an hour-long lecture to a packed auditorium, he showed photos of himself performing each year-long piece. You could see his hair grow from Marine-cadet length to glam-rock length, marking the passage of time. 

As he spoke, he focused on the rational, practical matters of what he did and how he did it. Other than mentioning that he sometimes drank tea and went for short walks in the cell, he didn't reveal much about what it was like to experience that piece. 

A few audience members attempted to fish for more info during the Q+A. 

"I'm not a philosopher," he answered. "I don't write."

One thing he did say was: "Life is a life sentence. Life is passing time. Life is free thinking." He's repeated this a lot over the years. It gets over 32,000 hits on Google. It's effectively his catchphrase.

While you can find a few more clues out there about what he was thinking (for example, in this 2013 interview with Australian art magazine Das Platforms), the catchphrase really appears to sum up his whole raison d'être, thus confirming quite how misguided I was, asking at 20, "Was he protesting something?"

He was doing the very much opposite. These performances were radical acts of acceptance, not of protest. I mean the kind of acceptance that goes along with years-long meditation, death-and-taxes acceptance, acknowledging the inevitable, deciding not to assign greater import to one way of passing time over another.

Think about it: Probably the only thing the whole world agrees on is the passage of time. Take New Year's Eve. A lot of holidays around the world are based on religious stories. These stories help us all contend with the very same things — creation, existence, death — yet they contradict each other wildly. We disagree bigtime about what's important to celebrate, and when. But when it comes to making some noise to acknowledge that another year is passing, we're all on board. Sure, some of us celebrate the new year on different dates, but have you ever, EVER heard someone say, "I don’t believe in New Year's?"

Yet, even though passing time is maybe the one thing we all agree on, the ways we go about it — playing, working, texting, or pretty much anything else anyone ever does — make it look like we're fighting it. 

Hsieh made it his work to be fully engaged in passing the time.

Toward the end of the his talk, one audience member asked, "Do you embrace the confinement?" 

Hsieh, who was granted amnesty in 1988 and still speaks with a thick accent, cited a language barrier and said he didn't quite understand the question. He segued into talking about something else for a couple minutes, and, by way of some other topic, eventually did say something that sounded like an answer: "Like a Pandora's box, you don’t open it."

"Tehching Hsieh: One Year Performance 1980-1981" is on exhibit at the University of Nevada, Reno's Sheppard Gallery until June 21.

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