Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1981–82. © Tehching Hsieh. Courtesy the artist, Gilbert & Lila Silverman, and Sean Kelly Gallery.
Taipei Fine Arts Museum is delighted to release further details of Taiwan’s contribution to the 57th Venice Biennale 2017 by the artist Tehching Hsieh: an exhibition entitled Doing Time.
Hsieh is now mounting the most comprehensive exposition of his work to date. Seen by many as an influential figure in the history of conceptual and performance art, Hsieh’s renown emanates from an astounding series of One Year Performances in the early 1980s: “rule-based” works conducted at the limits of human endurance. These performances explored self-discipline, physical alteration, notions of freedom, visibility and the nature of human relations. The exposure of his work, and the discourse accompanying it, has proliferated with the turn to performativity and “durational aesthetics” in contemporary art, and the increasing entry of works of performance into major museum collections.
Individual documentary exhibitions of Hsieh’s One Year Performances have previously been shown in China, Germany, Brazil, the UK and the USA. His work has also entered the collections of Tate Modern, London and Hong Kong’s M+. But Doing Time promises to be the first occasion that several of Hsieh’s year-long works will have been seen together in their fullest forms, as well as revealing previously un-exhibited early works performed in Taiwan, that shape the aesthetic concerns of his later epic endeavors.
Hsieh’s acclaimed Time Clock Piece will form one part of the exhibition: the artist punched in to a worker’s time clock on the hour every hour for an entire year. On each occasion he took a still image on a 16mm camera of his standing to attention beside the clock. Sleep deprivation was pitted against the demand to be upright and visible. His ordeal resulted in one of the most uncanny and compelling performance artifacts made by an artist: a six-minute film of Hsieh’s tremulous body floating beside a whirling clock, wracked by an immense wave of time.
Hsieh’s preoccupation with freedom and constraint is equally evident in his Outdoor Piece, also exhibited in Doing Time, where he spent a year on the streets of Manhattan without taking shelter of any kind. His ability to roam freely came at the cost of physical degradation, vulnerability and the violence of the law. Many of the materials from his year outside will be exhibited, including minutely detailed maps of his daily wanderings and stark photographs of the solitude of life on the street.
A person of profound actions and succinct words, Hsieh explains the philosophy behind his art making: “Life is a life sentence. Life is passing time. Life is freethinking.” The title Doing Time not only refers to Hsieh’s investment in long durations, but his personal philosophy and creative history: in an earlier performance he spent a year in silence locked in a cage.
Curator Adrian Heathfield argues that Doing Time is “far from being a straightforward historical exhibition.” “Hsieh’s works,” he says, “all question the relation between the lasting document, the archive and the event of performance: the ways the past can linger within the present.” Hsieh’s meticulous, often excessive documentary materials gathered over the duration of each year of work will be assembled into overwhelming installations. Heathfield also stresses what he calls the artist’s “forceful address to contemporary conditions.” Hsieh’s art, he argues, “was incredibly prescient in the understanding that the technologies of capitalism would capture and accelerate life itself, turning sentient experience into productive labor.”
Heathfield sees the significance of Hsieh’s oeuvre as arising from his art world outsider status and his years as an illegal immigrant in New York. His work constantly invokes the qualities of migrant experience: subjugation, precariousness and the struggle to survive. “The performances speak to and from the life of those who have nothing, in common,” Heathfield says. Of Hsieh’s tireless endurance of physical abjection the curator asserts, “each of these works is about forms of bare existence in which resilience is pitched against adversity, and the fugitive qualities of life are valued in their passing.”
© Photo: Hugo Glendinning
Writer and curator. He co-curated Live Culture (Tate Modern 2003) and the creative research project Performance Matters (2009-14). He was a curatorial attaché for the Sydney Biennale (2016) and, as part of the freethought collective, is a co-director of the Bergen Assembly (2016). He has published extensively on contemporary performance, art, theater and dance. He is the author of Out of Now a monograph on the artist Tehching Hsieh, co-editor of Perform, Repeat, Record and editor of Live: Art and Performance. He has worked with many artists and thinkers on critical and creative collaborations including film dialogues and performance lectures. Heathfield is Professor of Performance and Visual Culture at the University of Roehampton, London.