In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh made a series of extraordinary performance art works. Between September 1978 and July 1986, Hsieh realized five separate one-year-long performance pieces in which he conformed to simple but highly restrictive rules throughout each entire year. Through the course of these lifeworks, Hsieh moved from a year of solitary confinement in a sealed cell to a year in which he punched a worker's time clock in his studio every hour on the hour to a year spent living without shelter in Manhattan to a year in which he was tied by an eight-foot rope to the artist Linda Montano and finally to a year of total abstention from all art activities and influences. These works were unparalleled in terms of their use of physical difficulty over extreme durations and in their absolute conception and enactment of art and life as simultaneous processes. In 1986 Hsieh announced that he would spend the next thirteen years making art but not showing it publicly. When this "final" lifework--an immense act of self-affirmation and self-erasure--came to a close at the turn of the Millennium, he tersely and enigmatically said that during this time he had simply kept himself alive. For many contemporary artists Hsieh is something of a cult figure. After years of near-invisibility, Hsieh has now collaborated with the British writer and curator Adrian Heathfield to create this meticulous and visually arresting documentary record of a contemporary artist's work- -- in this case, the complete body of Tehching Hsieh's performance projects from 1978 to 2000. Not only is this the first extensive critical account of these unusual works, it is also the first to discuss their significance for art history, visual and cultural studies, and the practice of performance.
review of Teching Hsieh's Out of Now by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - June 21, 2010
One of my main 1st thoughts on reading this bk was: Oh, No! The academics have gotten their hooks into Tehching! &, in fact, after reading the whole thing, I STILL feel that way. What's most missing from this bk is the voice of the INTENSE, the voice of the people who were Tehching's community - even if he wasn't necessarily aware of who these people were. Ok, Marina Abramovic is in here - but I'm not very convinced by her - intense or not, she's too Art World for me. Maybe I just don't know enuf about her.
When I 1st started trying to write reviews it was next to impossible for me. How cd I possibly express all that I wanted to? The 1st few bks that I intended to review, yrs &/or decades ago, still remain unreviewed by me. However, Goodreads has been good for me b/c it's gotten me to write more & more reviews w/o feeling TOO inhibited by taking the reviews TOO seriously. Alas, that's changing now b/c as I've written more reviews I DO feel compelled to try to write something substantial - esp regarding bks that I have a deep personal interest in. This is one of those bks.
I 1st met Tehching when he was still calling himself "Sam". It wd've been March 20, 1982 under the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC near South St. He was in the midst of his One Year Performance where he was living outside. I was in NYC for the 5th International Neoist Apartment Festival & spending time w/ Tehching at his Spring 'viewing' was part of the festival. Istvan Kantor / Monty Cantsin wd've been the one to make this part of our scheduled activities. Istvan has since brought Tehching to Toronto to have him present there.
I must've already known about Tehching. I'm sure I'd already heard &/or read about his previous One Year Performances - the Cage piece & the Time-Clock piece. I wd've been very, VERY interested in & supportive of what he was doing. When we met that day, we exchanged contact info & started mailing each other things. Around this time, I was heavily involved in correspondence & reached a peak of writing to around 1,400 people - wch I kept meticulous records about. & I was using multiple identities. Quite probably NO-ONE other than myself, even to this day, knows ALL of my names. I was always networking, always looking for people that I thought were REALLY DOING SOMETHING. & 'Sam' Hsieh fit the bill perfectly.
Why does it bother me that the academics have got their clutches on Tehching? B/c they're like vultures - waiting for something to be dead & then feeding off it. In the, to me, extremely annoying letters written by Peggy Phelan (a Stanford U prof) she admits that she "had so little understanding of anything" when she crossed paths w/ Hsieh during his Outside performance. Does she now have more understanding? She writes: "When I saw you in the park, I assumed you were a homeless person. One day, I asked if you would like a cup of coffee."
Ok, she admits that she "assumes" - that's an important 1st step. But truly wise & experienced people (when they're in good form) assume nothing. They AVOID stereotype-projecting so that they can actually perceive. There's a strong condescension to this type of assuming, it's so sickeningly Christian or just religious - & Phelan makes some religious references in her letters - quotes from the bible & such.
To this day, I have 'well-meaning' people offer me clothes or food when I'm out in public b/c they assume I must be homeless (or whatever) b/c my clothes are tattered - I don't look 'normal', like them, so I must be some person to be 'pitied' & taken c/o by them. AS IF I WD WANT TO BE LIKE THEM!! If people like this had any REAL brains they'd be able to see past their simple-mindedness. No such luck. Interestingly, out on the same streets, other people recognize that my clothes are actually skillfully made & compliment them - these are people who MAKE things, who can SEE when things are hand-done & appreciate them.
So back to the academics: so much of what's written in this bk just seems like over-intellectualizing about something whose value lies precisely NOT in that direction. The main author of the bk, Adrian Heathfield, has written some of the most irrelevant over-intellectualizing garbage I've ever read. Perhaps his colleagues are impressed, after all, he makes it seem as if Hsieh's some sort of hyper-intellectual (wch I'd say he's most emphatically NOT) &, therefore, makes what were very INTENSE actions safely couched in blah-blah land. It's safe now, Heathfield's explained that Hsieh's not a dangerous madman, all you cowardly academics can come out now & suck some of his life-blood out of him.
Take this sentence of Heathfield's: "Hsieh's work shares with many artists of his generation a strong interest in the interrogation and destabilization of subjectivity, an assault on the orders of the visible through a creative investment in the phenomenological dynamics of being and relation." Oh, really? I seriously doubt that Hsieh wd've had any idea what Heathfield's talking about here.
I talked w/ Hsieh via the phone in 2006 or 2007. We had a fairly long conversation. It was the 1st time we'd talked since 1985. It was a somewhat difficult conversation b/c I don't speak Chinese & Hsieh's English is still, as he put it, "broken" - even though he'd been living in the US for over 30 yrs by then. When we discussed this, I sd something like: "Well, at least yr Chinese is good, right?" & he told me that he doesn't speak Chinese very well EITHER. I found that very, VERY interesting.
THEN, in 2010, I was visiting Tehching & his wife Qinqin Li in Brooklyn & I asked Qinqin about Tehching's Chinese & she sd something like: Yes, his Chinese is like a cross between an 8 yr old & a philosopher. Tehching as a largely non-lingual person. Take footnote 51 on p 60:
"Hsieh's interview shortly after his emergence from the cage seems to confirm this tendency, in which he discusses his aphasia: "My thinking became more like feelings than thoughts. When I was inside, I didn't have to talk to other people. I didn't think about whether or not I was thinking in words. But when I came out I found it very difficult to communicate in words. Then I realized that my thinking had not been at all that verbal." Hsieh, quoted in Kathleen Ann Hughes, "Exile on Hudson Street," SoHo News, December 13, 1979."
INTENSITY. What attracted me to Hsieh in the 1st place wd've been the INTENSITY. When I mentioned "Tehching's community - even if he wasn't necessarily aware of who these people were" I meant the other INTENSE people - the people his illegal immigrant position, his "broken" English, his isolation may've kept him from knowing or understanding very much about - even after he met some of us.
People like Andre Stitt, Annie Sprinkle, Istvan Kantor, myself, Genesis P. Orridge, Valie Export. Tehching gave up painting & tried more action oriented things w/ pain & risk involved. Painting & other more traditional art forms were inadequate. When Hsieh came to the US he spent 4 yrs thinking about what was his appropriate 'art' form until he thought of the One Year Performance, the Cage piece. It seems obvious to me that he had a strong need to do whatever it was he was going to do JUST RIGHT.
Hsieh's early "Paint Stick" action involved drawing a line on his cheek w/ a red oil pastel & then cutting a parallel line under it w/ a matt knife. Kiki Bonbon, a neoist in Montréal, cut his cornea in performance w/ a razor blade. Gina Pane, in Europe, climbed a ladder w/ razor blades on it. Istvan Kantor had his blood drawn & painted red "X"s on museum walls. My friend HannaH AvivA & I cut patterns into each other's skin & made blood prints from the wounds. I interpret all these actions as being ways of showing seriousness & dedication to purpose. & in one of the early interviews I read w/ Hsieh he sd something to that effect, something along the lines of wanting to show that art can be as serious as any other profession.
Andre Stitt wd go into a McDonald's & pour milkshakes on himself. Annie Sprinkle made porn that explored relatively fresh social areas. Genesis P. Orridge explored crime as high art. Valie Export went into a porn theater w/ her crotch exposed & a loaded machine-gun & offered herself to the patrons. I made a film of myself w/ a girl pissing in my mouth & showed it widely - in open defiance of other people's repulsion. I refused to let THEM determine who I wd be.
At the beginning of Heathfield's "Exhange" [interview:] w/ Hsieh, Heathfield states: "One of the most radical dynamics of your performance pieces is the way that they make art and life simultaneous". & here's where I diverge most dramatically from both Hsieh & Heathfield. I think the very contextualizing of Hsieh's actions as 'art' is ultimately the only thing that introduces mediocrity into them. The idea of "art as life" or "life as art" was long since a cliché even in the 1970s. This constant bringing everything back to "art" is precisely what makes it domesticated.
I've always sd that I'd rather be thought a criminal than an artist - unfortunately, that too is a cliché - a stereotype that has its own dangers of extreme oversimplification. SO, ultimately, I'd rather be neither - or, I'd rather be UNDERSTOOD as a "Criminally Sane" "Psychopathfinder".
But defining one's self, contextualizing one's self is an extremely difficult thing to do. If a person makes a film chances are it'll be called "art" - but can't the film JUST BE A FILM?! If a person screens a film in a museum that reinforces that it's "art" - but can't the museum simply be the environment that has the projector & the screen & the sound system & the funding & the (v)audience?
In other words, IMO what wd've been the most "radical dynamic[..:] of [Hsieh's:] performance pieces" wd've been if he hadn't called them performances at all, if he hadn't called them art at all, if he had simply done what he did as what he was doing. But that's not the way Hsieh thinks. Hsieh was thinking of himself as an artist.
NONETHELESS, what Hsieh did was GREAT & this is an important bk - not b/c it, too, is great - but b/c it gives us residue from the original greatness. Hsieh's emphasis here is on his 6 "performances" - the 5 one yr ones & the final 13 yr one. BUT THERE IS SOMETHING MISSING. Hsieh's emphasis here is on his 'successes', the 'performances' that he considers to be 'good art'. But I think there's at least one very important thing that fell thru the cracks.
After the Rope performance w/ Linda Montano, Tehching decided to try an even more social One Year Performance. Nowhere is it mentioned in this bk & I reckon that's Tehching's choice. In a form letter postmarked "2 Apr 1985" I got 3 8&1/2X11" sheets w/ the explanation of the project on them & 2 'business' cards headed "ONE YEAR PERFORMANCE 1985-1986", "PERFORMED by OTHER PEOPLE ORGANIZED by TEHCHING HSIEH" & w/ an image of a torch & contact info.
The STATEMENT says:
"I, TEHCHING HSIEH, plan to do a one year performance.
I will find people to hold/carry a Torch for one year.
The fire will never go out.
Each person will set their own Time for how long they will hold and then carry
the Torch to the next person's space.
I will not hold/carry the Torch but I will Witness the piece for the whole year."
On the 2nd page, there were more technical details & on the 3rd, a picture of Linda Montano holding the torch. At the time, Tehching was writing to me addressing his mailings to "CASANDRA VON RINTELN E G HEAD". Casandra was my lover when Tehching met both of us under the Brooklyn Bridge. I doubt that Tehching ever understood that "E G Head" was a pun off of "egghead" & "for example head". I wd've also been mailing him under the names "Mike Film", "Tim Ore", "tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE", & "anonymous" at least. I think he knew that most of them were "E G HEAD" but I'm not totally sure.
At any rate, on May 27th, 1985, I was presenting a screening action at the St Mark's Poetry Project & Tehching attended. Members of the (v)audience tried to stop the show b/c I was screening my "Neoist Guide Dog" film in wch I was the seeing-eye dog for my legally blind girlfriend. Somehow the (v)audience got the notion that this was a sadistic act on my part exploiting my blind friend.
Tehching gave me a form letter, personalized for "E. G. HEAD" & dated May 31, 1985. In it he wrote:
"I have decided not to do this One Year Performance because: My idea was to find over 2000 people to hold the torch and only 133 people responded and said they could participate. Also I thought that I could organize the entire schedule for the piece myself once it began and make all of the phone arrangements etc. but I have found, after experimentation, that this is too much for me to do alone as I had planned. I feel that I have tested the idea as much as I can and because I have found too many limitations, I cannot continue with this piece. I appreciate the fact that you have responded and I want to thank all of you very much for your support."
This was signed & was followed by a list of people who said that they would hold the torch. & quite an interesting list of names it is too. The man who cd stay in a cage for a yr, the man who cd punch a time-clock (almost) every hr for a yr, the man who cd live outside for a yr, the man who cd be tied to Linda Montano by an 8 ft rope for a yr CD NOT ORGANIZE THIS PROJECT!!!!! He had found his limit & the limit was that of social complexity.
One of my favorite parts of "OUT OF NOW" are the fotos of him w/ Linda Montano where he's actually SMILING. Even though he & Montano fought w/ each other alot there were, at least, times when Tehching seems HAPPY in their interaction. In most of the fotos of most of the performances he looks very grim.
When my friend Sandra & I visited Tehching & Qinqin in April of 2010 in NYC they seemed healthy & reasonably prosperous. Tehching's had major exhibits, this substantial bk has come out, he has a gallery representing him. He owns a bldg (no small feat in NYC) & a car. He seemed to have money. I'm happy for him. I'm very glad he's not starving somewhere condemned to be misunderstood as a maniac. & this is the benefit of being welcomed into the art world. As such, most people wd consider him to be a 'success'. But, for me, what made him a 'success' was his extraordinary ability to imagine something, to ENVISION One Year Performances that put him in positions of such incredible distinction & to then ACTUALLY PULL IT OFF. His 'success' in the art world after this is just a pleasant & comfortable convenience.
Tehching gave me a signed copy of this bk during this visit. We all went out to a Spanish restaurant & ate a fabulous meal & drank some wine. But, most importantly to me, I SAW TEHCHING ENJOY HIMSELF, I SAW HIM LAUGH & SMILE. & to know that such a serious person can also be happy is of extreme importance to me - much more important than his 'success' in the art world.
I will always respect Tehching Hsieh & will always wish him the best. &, by all means, buy this bk! Read it, look at it, & think about it. But, PLEASE, don't think that the intellectualizations of Heathfield & others actually represents Hsieh. No matter how much they write it seems to me that they'll always miss the point. To my mind, Hsieh is a "psychopathfinder" of the highest distinction & his being an "artist" is trivial in contrast. But, then, I don't represent Hsieh either.
A complete documentation(statements,posters,photographs) of Mr Hsieh's performance. It's impressive to see all these photos and records and for once, the totally un-portable size of an art book does add value to the presentation of art work.
This statement should give an idea why his performance is still being talked about today.
The documentation is bookended by the opening articles and a section of letters written to Mr Hsieh and an interview with Mr Hsieh. The articles are on the themes of the performance (duration,freedom,time) . While the author at times can bring his art historian's insight and lesser-known details into the page, parts of his (academic art-speak) writing may appear to be tangentially related to Mr Hsieh. The interview is so much more engaging and the letters are worth a read.
The few previously-unknown facts included about Tehching Hsieh's work are fascinating, but most of the writing is just masturbatory art criticism. If you're the kind of person who enjoys reading art reviews, you'll enjoy this. If not, you'll probably speed-read it like I did. That said, it is cool to see the photos of Tehching Hsieh's work, which I've never seen before, and the interview with him (towards the back) is really revealing.
I heard of this artist many years ago and remember seeing a little documentation. I wasn't really all that interested at the time. In the last couple years he has come back up again, and I have to say that I'm extremely impressed by his commitment and sacrifice. This book does an incredibly job documenting the many durational pieces he has undertake, and the text is as good as the photos.