Anyone who knows the what’s what in performance art acknowledges Tehching Hsieh as one of the great defining artists of the discipline. Having arrived here as an illegal immigrant from Taiwan in 1974, he made a series of five quite unbelievable year-long performances between 1978 and 1986, at least four of which were almost incomprehensibly difficult. In the first (currently commemorated as Museum of Modern Art’s “Performance 1” installation) he spent the entire year in solitary confinement in a cage that he constructed in his studio. In a statement that he signed at the outset of the year, he said, “I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television.”
In his second, even more taxing piece (documented as part of the Guggenheim’s “Third Mind” show which closed yesterday, Sunday, April 19) he devoted a whole year to punching a time clock that he had installed in his studio every hour, on the hour. In the third, he stayed out of doors for a year. In the fourth he spent the year tied by a length of rope to performance artist Linda Montano. They could not leave one another’s company, but were not allowed to touch. In the final one year piece, he abstained from art, neither making it, talking about it, seeing it, reading about it, or visiting galleries or museums. Then, between his 36th birthday and his 49th birthday – which fell on December 31, 1999 – he made a Thirteen Year Plan in which he made art, but did not show it publicly. And then he stopped making art altogether.
As well as the shows at MoMA and the Guggenheim, Mr Hsieh’s performances are the subject of Out of Now – The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, a beautiful and erudite new book that he has prepared with my compatriot Adrian Heathfield and which has just been published by my friends at the Live Art Development Agency in London in association with MIT. And this summer he will be present as “Guest of Honour,” and invitee of Marina Abramovic, at the Manchester International Festival in England. (Of course, when he talks about this below, he does so with typical self-deprecation. When I spoke to Ms Abramovic about it, her version of events was, “The whole bloody thing is in his honor!”)
I happily admit to being an enormous admirer of Mr Hsieh, and it pains me to think that when he was doing his first two one-year pieces I was working as a performance artist only blocks away from his studio, but knew nothing about him. I first met him in 2004 when we did an onstage interview together at the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow, Scotland. He is one of the most straightforward, least pretentious, and most generous-spirited artists I know, and after five years I suspect I now understand his still painfully fractured English as well as anyone. Last week – just as “The Third Mind” was about to close, appropriately enough – I visited him at his home in Brooklyn, and asked him about his time-based performances.
Tehching, you worked as an artist before you ever came to this country, didn’t you?
In Taiwan it was very conservative, and what we knew about new art from the rest of the world was very limited. I did painting. But I felt my painting became empty, and tall that was left was the movement of hand. So in 1973 I bought a Super-8 camera, and I did the Jump Piece. It’s simple. I jumped from a second floor window. About fifteen feet. At that time I didn’t know about Yves Klein, or about events and performance, and I didn’t think of having an audience either. I just knew I needed to document. I had heard the words “conceptual art” and “happenings,” but I didn’t know anything more than those words.
When did you become aware of other people’s performance?
In 1978, before I did the first one-year performance, I had heard of Josef Beuys, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden, but I knew only a little of the context of performance. After I finished my cage piece, artists came to communicate with me, and I learned from them. Even now I don’t know much about the history of performance art, as I’m not good at reading in English. I have to find my own way to deal with art and life.
So how do you feel about your own position in the history of performance art?
The art world has started recognizing my works now. The complete document of the cage piece is showing at MoMA for the first time of 30 years, and the whole document of the time clock piece was just in “The Third Mind” at the Guggenheim for the first time of 29 years. Maybe the exhibitions and the book will make a difference; if not, let time reveal the history.
So how would you prefer people to approach your art?
Once I’ve finished my work, I’m separated from it. art has its own life. The document of art is a trace through which you can approach my work, but it doesn’t equal the art itself. Audiences will use their own experience and imagination to approach my work.
When you first made these pieces, did you imagine that one day there would be a book like this, or that you’d be shown at MoMA or the Guggenheim?
If you’d said to people in 1978 or 1979, “Do these things and, although you won’t get paid and you won’t have much of a public, in 29 or 30 years’ time you’ll get the reward of showing at MoMA and the Guggenheim,” people still might want to do them. Don’t you think so? You get the benefit while you are doing the work; art itself is the reward.
Tell me about your decision to stop making art. Were you emulating Marcel Duchamp?
No. I wasn’t influenced by Duchamp. After 2000 I didn’t have any good ideas, so I stopped making art. That was my free choice. I’m not finished, but I don’t do art any more. What I have is free thinking, and I’m passing time.
So when you go to the festival in Manchester, what are they expecting of you?
Just to be there. Marina [Abramovic] is very generous and she wants me to be there as a guest. And she invited my wife Qinqin as well. So we’ll go there just to be in the audience.
And what else are you planning?
I’m planning a retrospective of all my work from 1978-1999, which is eighteen years in total. I will transform eighteen individual years of time, the “art time”, into eighteen equally sized one-year spaces. The first four spaces will be installed with the document of the first four one-year performances; the last fourteen spaces, representing the last two pieces, will remain empty except for statements and posters. The audience can walk through this linear installation to see the document of my lifeworks, and experience the space of time. It won’t be easy to find a site and a budget to do it, but I hope I will make it in my lifetime.