New York

Tehching Hsieh, Linda Montano

From 6 P.M. on July 4, 1983, until 6 P.M. on July 4, 1984, Tehching Hsieh and Linda Montano were tied together continuously with an 8-foot rope which passed loosely around their waists and was sealed at each end. Their intention was not to touch each other except accidentally—about 60 brush-bys and one brief hug by Montano occurred during the year. They slept in separate beds a few feet apart. When one showered, the other waited outside the door, but aside from this they were never in separate rooms. Both remained celibate for the duration.The piece, entitled Art/Life One Year Performance, was an extreme example of vow art or endurance art, and grew naturally out of the past work of each artist. Hsieh has specialized in year-long vow works—a year in a cell, a year punching a time clock every hour, a year out of doors in Manhattan. The present piece was conceived by Hsieh, but nevertheless was as intimately related to Montano’s earlier work as to his. In 1973, for example, Montano and Tom Marioni were handcuffed together for three days, and for ten minutes each day made a video document of the event; in Art/Life, similarly, Hsieh and Montano made one photograph of themselves or of their situation every day. They also recorded all their conversations.

In a sense the success of the piece is shown by the fact that one has to go outside the usual art-reviewing vocabulary to reveal its workings. Montano and Hsieh met several months before the beginning of the piece. The apparent similarities between their sensibilities as artists were deep. At one point, in fact, their relationship was physical, and in this connection the piece, with its rule against touching, might be seen as a direct act of aggression against the natural expressiveness of their Iives. A part of the nightmare that ensued (Montano estimates that they fought 80 percent of the time) lay in their discovery, after being tied together, that they had very different views of what the piece meant and why it was important—views in fact devastatingly polarized.

For Montano, to designate something as art is to give it a special quality of alert but nonaggressive appreciation not unlike the frame of mind developed, say, in a vipassana meditation retreat. A related piece she did in 1979 was called Learning to Pay Attention. For Hsieh the process is more abstract, a kind of impersonal embodiment of will as an absolute that overrides questions of individual attitude. While she thought of meditation retreats, he thought in terms of his three years in the Taiwanese army. (“One-year performance,” he said Confucianly, “not long compared to three years in army.”) To Montano again, the work was a matter of coping sanely with a relationship under unusually focused circumstances; for Hsieh the absolutist gesture was pure, and human incident was irrelevant to it. “This kind of work deny emotion,” he says.

As time passed the two found that they had very different ideas about how to approach the art/life proposition. The characteristic year-long duration of Hsieh’s work is a strategy to overcome the distinction between art and life. “To do piece for one week,” he says, “is to separate my art and my life, is to feel myself perform.” Montano, on the other hand, did a piece with Pauline Oliveros in 1975, called Living Art, in which the two “lived together for four days and called that time art.” Hsieh denounced her past work on the grounds that the art/life separation was too great in it. Yet this was a question to which Montano had devoted as much thought and action as he; she has published a book on her own work called Art in Everyday Life, and to her his Stoic imperturbability, his belief that “artist life is different than human life,” seemed a rejection of that everyday life.

The artists’ mutual loss of respect for each other’s work was a renunciation of the collaboration while it was going on. In effect, two different pieces were in process, and by the time they realized this they had made a trap and sprung it on themselves. The life aspect had taken over. At the moment of this realization, the piece became extraordinarily real and important. Demanding fulfillment on its own terms, it began to reveal its previously hidden will. It was no longer under the artists’ control, and that was its great reality. From being its creators they became its creatures.

In addition to deep and constant disagreement about what they were in fact doing, the strain on Montano and Hsieh of a complete lack of privacy was intense. They found, for example, that normal social hypocrisy, like being different to different friends on the telephone, was ruled out by the constant presence of each’s worst critic. Perhaps the worst stress was the constant dependence on each other’s approval to fulfill their moment-to-moment needs and impulses. For one person to go to the bathroom, to get a drink of water, to look out the window, both had to walk. The arrangement presupposed a certain good will on both sides. At times the artists fought physically, each yanking his or her end of the rope. “We were becoming more animal-like,” says Montano. The period of yanking was followed by a period of refusing to speak to each other. “Somewhat like monkeys,” says Montano, “we began pointing with sounds and groans and moans. We stopped talking almost completely.” Also, each could veto any action suggested by the other. Their rule, as that of the Roman constitution, was that a negative vote prevails over a positive. On some days the vetoes became retaliatory and accumulated till the two were immobilized for hours in sullen hatred of one another. Montano has remarked that if it hadn’t been the rule not to touch she would have killed Hsieh a thousand times. Twice he threw pieces of furniture to the floor very near her. Neither struck the other. They lived out a kind of geopolitical allegory of the superpower stalemate in the world today.

When the piece began, whatever the two artists’ expectations, they were waiting for it to reveal itself; what it turned out to be is in no sense a sign that it failed—quite the contrary. That it embodied the raw power of life in all its danger lends dignity and integrity to the art/life commitment. If Hsieh and Montano had spent an easy year it would have proved little. But to execute the piece with formalist rigor and self-restraint, though they were in its power and sometimes in a living hell, shows how serious is the idea that art—like science or philosophy—has the strength to frame anything in life, not just the pretty stuff.

Thomas McEvilley