New York

Tehching Hsieh

Jack Tilton / Anna Kustera Gallery

From September 30, 1978, to September 29, 1979, Tehching Hsieh lived inside a locked cage, eleven-and-a-half by nine by eight feet. He wore a white laborer’s uniform and refrained from speaking, reading, writing, watching television, and listening to music or the radio. The room was a barren environment, furnished only with a cot, mattress, pillow, blanket, sink, and wastebasket. His only human contact came when an aide brought food and disposed of his body waste, and on several scheduled occasions when the public was invited for visits in the spirit of exhibition openings.

Hsieh was not languishing in jail but living in a cell built inside his Tribeca studio. Although we might want to think of the time he spent in the cage as, say, spiritual penitence, the performance’s blunt strength lies in the literal duration of time spent and life lived. Art and life converge to the extent that both are devoid of metaphor. The cage piece was the first of a series of yearlong performances that has constituted most of Hsieh’s artistic practice. In one such project, he lived on the streets of Manhattan without setting foot indoors from September 1981 to September 1982. In another, he tied himself to collaborator Linda Montano with an eight-foot rope, which stayed attached from July 1983 to July 1984. These “One Year Performances” were capped by his most recent project, which terminated at the end of the millennium. For this opus, Hsieh made art for thirteen years without showing it publicly, and then proclaimed that the art made during that period was that “I kept myself alive.”

“Tehching Hsieh: One Year Performance Lecture/Documents 1978–1999” offered a full record of these works. Presented as a series of documents, the exhibition was a spare but richly informative display of photographs and project descriptions. The show’s centerpiece, a 1980–81 work for which he punched a time clock on the hour, every hour, for a year, brought to the fore the sense of the passage of time intrinsic to all of Hsieh’s art. He took a photograph of himself each time he punched his time card, standing in the same place and with the same placid expression; the 8,760 frames were projected in rapid succession on the wall showing the artist’s changing appearance, marked most clearly by the growth of his hair, from shorn to shoulder length. Embellishing these excerpts was digitized documentation of all six projects, including records of such arcane data as Hsieh’s movements and expenses incurred while living outside and affidavits by witnesses vowing that the seals on the artist’s cage and rope were never broken.

While such documentation of these performances has been shown before, for this exhibition a photograph from each performance has been enlarged and silkscreened in an edition of 365. While creating relics from ephemeral performances is often necessary for Conceptual and body artists to make a living and, often, to secure their place in history, it is hard to reconcile this move with work that is itself partly predicated on the critique of the reification and commodification of the art object. Hsieh’s work, having been until now uncompromisingly unconventional, becomes undermined by the decision to transform documentation into reliquary artifacts. What’s more, the silk screens and DVDs lack the directness and eloquence of the performances themselves, serving only to encapsulate and prettify what Hsieh has spent so much time and energy drawing out.

Since December 31,1999, Hsieh has claimed that he probably will no longer make art. It appears that art and life have merged so seamlessly that art has disappeared from his life and his life has disappeared from art.

Kirby Gookin