Tehching Hsieh is a pioneer of Performance Art. He has been called a “master” by Marina Abramovic and appears in almost every book written on the subject. He did six extraordinary one-year performances. In 1978 he did his first one-year performance; he built a cage in a loft in Tribeca that looked very much like a jail cell. He lived in there for one year, he never came out, he never read, he didn’t write, he didn’t watch TV, he didn’t talk. His meals were delivered to him daily and his excrement taken out in a bucket. His next one-year piece was to punch a card in a time clock, every hour on the hour 24 hours a day for one year. He made a 16-millimeter film of this by releasing one frame every time he punched the clock. The result is to see a year passing in six minutes. His next one-year piece was to spend a year outside in New York City without ever going into a building. His fourth one-year piece was to be tied by a length of rope to fellow artist Linda Montano for one year. His fifth performance was to not make art, or look at art for one year. His last performance was to make art privately for 13 years and then release the results to the public. When he released those results it was a statement saying, “I kept myself alive” and nothing else save the questions the audience asked.
We talked with him in our home in Chelsea.
Brainard Carey (Rail): Let’s talk about your first one-year performance when you built a cage that you lived in without reading writing or talking. Did you have many visitors, that is, an audience?
Tehching Hsieh: I only let people come in 18 times, not 365 days. It was scheduled. People found out through posters, talking to neighbors. My friend put posters in the street.
Delia Bajo (Rail): Why one year?
Hsieh: Because one year is the largest single unit of how we count time. It takes the earth a year to move around the sun. Three years, four years is something else. It is about being human, how we explain time, how we measure our existence. A century is another mark, which is how the last piece was created.
Rail: How did you afford to do the first piece?
Hsieh: I had 5000 square feet in Tribeca, I rented to several people and I made a total of 150 dollars a month profit and that was enough to sustain the project.
Rail: Was there any interaction between you and the people who came in, did they say anything to you?
Hsieh: They did not say anything, talking was not allowed.
Rail: How did you feel when you came out of the cage and went out to the street?
Hsieh: I had prepared my mind, but my body was weak. I felt as though there were wolves all around me. I could feel the sense of survival, an aggression in everyone. Sometimes I find I have no answers to questions about that experience.
Also, there was a lot of things being said about me at that time that were hurtful. In Taiwan, there was a lot of bad news and reports about me continuously. They said this is not about art, it is about my mental problem and that this work puts Chinese people down. Someone sent an anonymous letter that said my next piece should be to burn my face and they clipped out an article with my picture and burned my face. Someone wrote me a letter from the U.N. that was printed in the Wall Street Journal that said we don’t need your kind of work here, it is destructive, we don’t welcome you here. That was after the paper wrote an article on me. These kinds of things were upsetting.
During this first piece I thought a lot about how my work could be developed.
Rail: Was the first piece the most difficult?
Hsieh: Yes, I would say that. It took the most mental energy.
Rail: When you first arrived in New York you “jumped ship,” what exactly happened?
Hsieh: I was in the equivalent of the merchant marines and immigration wouldn’t let me in so I walked off the ship and stayed here.
Rail: That is similar to defecting, no?
Hsieh: Yes. I walked on to the pier and then escaped. I was coming from Taiwan, and at that time I couldn’t leave the country, it was the only way out, though a high price to pay.
I wanted to come to New York because it was the worlds art center, and I wanted to be a good artist!
Rail: What were your first impressions?
Hsieh: I jumped ship in Philadelphia, and paid a driver $150 to drive me to New York. As we approached New York, I saw the skyline which was incredible, the size of it. Then the speed the driver of the taxi drove was very scary. I was scared of the process of moving so fast, not being able to touch the ground.
Rail: Did you have a mentor or teacher in Taiwan?
Hsieh: I didn’t really have one teacher. If I asked a teacher about going to New York, they would say don’t go. When I didn’t want to paint anymore, they didn’t understand. I think there were many teachers and philosophers that I learned from. But before I left, I knew I wanted to be a serious artist. One of the last pieces, the first action I did there was to jump out of a very high two story window, and I documented it. That was 1973. It wasn’t very good work, but it was a start. I made a huge photographic print from it. In Taiwan we had no information at all about conceptual art and other forms.
Rail: So you never heard of Yves Klein?
Hsieh: No, even after the one-year performance, I hadn’t heard of Yves Klein.
Rail: In the second one-year piece, you punched a time clock every hour on the hour for a whole year. Was it difficult to re-enter the world after that piece?
Hsieh: Not really, I just began sleeping through the night.
Rail: Next came your performance with the artist Linda Montano where you were tied together with a length of rope for a year. Do you still speak with her?
Hsieh: Yes, but not so much, because we have had difficulty dividing that piece up.
Rail: What do you mean?
Hsieh: She took that piece and made it hers. Most people think that was her piece. The picture she always uses I don’t like either. She is in the foreground and I am in the background. Sometimes my name isn’t even included when documentation of the work is shown. So I am a little angry, because actually it was my idea and we decided to do it together and share the work 50/50, but now it is like she has eighty and I have twenty. She says it is the critics that make it that way. I tell her, “You know what is going on.” But she doesn’t agree and there it is.
Rail: Then you did the performance where you spent an entire year outdoors in New York City. After that you did your last one-year performance which was to spend a year not making or looking at any art.
Hsieh: Yes, to not make art, which is what I am doing now, being here with you. We say, what is art, what isn’t art, but for me this isn’t art. I don’t make art anymore. Also of course this is an action and life is made up of actions.
There’s a philosophical saying: I’m 50 years old now. I am experienced enough to know the past and probably to know the future. I don’t have much left, but I can still help or do something to make things better. It is just not through art.
Rail: But you say an action can be not doing art, so are you currently, “not doing” as an art action?
Hsieh: No, no. I am not—not doing anymore. I am doing actions, but it is not art. I have six pieces I did, those are about art.
Rail: Yet the fifth piece where you did not make art is similar to what you are doing now, isn’t it?
Hsieh: That was a piece of art. This is not. Action is not necessarily art. But I don’t really care about what is art and what is not. I want to know if something is interesting and that doesn’t have to be art. If there is an interesting message, let’s talk about it. Otherwise I am not interested.
I say I have done six pieces, not more. I continue to say this. But I am now not doing, and I am not an artist now. Some times people say, “Oh, the kind of work you are doing now is art,” but it is not. If you want to call it art, it has nothing to do with me. You try to do something that is not art, but has a good art quality. That is meaningful to me. Not making a form like art, but pursuing a quality. If I am painting a house, people say I am painting or I am doing a performance. But it is not. I am doing what I have to do in life.
I have a building in Williamsburg and I let artists live there for free from 1994 until now. There are different artists in there every year. They have a 1000 square feet to work in. I don’t call that art; it is just a visiting artists project.
Rail: You bought buildings there?
Hsieh: I bought a building, renovated it, and built another building that was entirely new.
Rail: You financed it yourself?
Hsieh: Yes. You see, before I came to the U.S. I was a painter and I did many paintings until 1973. In 1994, they were all sold at an auction and I made about $500,000.
I have four floors. One floor I rent to cover expenses. The rest I give to visiting artists. This year, one is a Mongolian filmmaker and another is a Ukrainian folk singer.
Rail: How do you find the artists?
Hsieh: I have a person who helps me select the artists. And that person gets one floor, and the other two floors are given to two artists a year. But again, that is not art to me, because to me any person can do that kind of “art.” Rich people for example can do it without any problem. So, that is the kind of action I do, the life I create.
Rail: When you first came to New York, was there some person or event that inspired you?
Hsieh: When I came to New York I didn’t know any performance artists before I began, or even about the term performance art. Someone came to me and said they wanted to write an article about be in High Performance magazine. I though to myself, “High Performance, what is that?” It sounded like something to do with cars to me, and I was wondering why a car magazine was interested to talk with me! After that I understood more.
I am still isolated in my way. Here and there performance artists or editors will come by and say hello, but I don’t know much about the outside and I am still the same.
Rail: You have family in Taiwan?
Hsieh: My mother and brother lived in Taiwan and they both supported me. When I asked for money they could sometimes send it. Even now I ask for money, but they are tired of me.
Rail: Many of the pieces are about being alone.
Hsieh: Yes, it is part of my nature, but I also enjoy talking, that is also part of my nature.
Rail: We both relate to your work. As you know, our work is sometimes not even seen as art. Because we work with people coming off the street, it is not important that we present ourselves as artists.
Hsieh: That’s why I like the work you do. It feels good to me more than other forms of work I have seen. It is something fresh. I am not saying how your work is formed and how the structure of art should be. You are doing something new and are experimenting, similar to drawing, you make possibilities, the technique, meaning the concept, is important, it works. The quality of what you do is no different than mine.
Your actual work however is very different, it is closer to life in some way. I like that it doesn’t involve a stage. I like that it is a less formal tradition.
Rail: We are interviewing an artist who no longer makes art.
Hsieh: I no longer call myself an artist, but I cannot change the way you see me. If you want to call me an artist, O.K. I can talk about art because I have done it. I may be more clear about things than I was before. I don’t make art and I am letting go of assumptions and definitions. You have to be creative, you can do anything. I am not becoming narrow, it is about opening up possibilities.
After I did the piece where I did not do art for one year, I cannot go back and do a piece again.
Rail: You mean the art of not doing art, or that project again or what came before?
Hsieh: OK, everything I do is in a progression, an evolution. If I do one year without making art, what is the next step in the progression? If I go back to do another one-year performance like the earlier pieces, it doesn’t make sense. Do you understand? The next logical step was to just survive into the next century, the new millennium.
Rail: So all the performances built up clearly.
Hsieh: Yes, to do another work of art I have to go somewhere else in the universe which is why I said after the 13-year piece I just survived, on earth, the next step is out of this world because I have done what I can do here. On another planet I could do something. Our time is very short here. When we speak of historical figures we say they were born this year, died that year. Or, we say, they are still alive. That’s all we talk about really. It’s just like the dinosaurs, all we can talk about is when they lived and died.
So for me, I use similar language. I can only say that I have kept myself alive. More details are unnecessary, survival is all. What I have done in those years remains in my mind.
So you understand now, if I want to do art again, I cannot. I can enjoy life and do what I like, but not art.
Rail: And collaborations?
Hsieh: I avoid that because I do not want to lose control of my situation. An interview like this is different, I feel comfortable with you two. But another example is if I let you wash my feet for your performance, I would only let you do it if you didn’t document it in any way, which includes writing about it.
Rail: What do you look at now, or read?
Hsieh: I only have time to take breaks here and there, enjoy tea. I daydream. But to be honest, I don’t read very much. I am working on my building still. I have been traveling because I lecture on this work and my D.V.D.
I am thinking about starting some kind of foundation in Taiwan.
Rail: Ironically, now that you no longer make art you are being asked to lecture. You have made limited editions of your posters for sale, and a D.V.D. of all your work.
Hsieh: Sometimes I say I am a salesman now, working on my retirement fund.
Rail: Just when you let go of everything, you are in demand around the world. It is extraordinary in a way. Your career is over and you can still enjoy the fruits of it.
Hsieh: Yes, but what I tell you of the demand is limited. I have sold very few editions. My phone rarely rings and soon this too will be over.
When I go to China I give away all the D.V.D.’s because no one can afford them. Actually I sold one when I was there.
Rail: After looking at all the pieces, I felt a sense of sadness or loneliness and the difficulty of survival.
Hsieh: I would say that is part of it. We don’t look at survival that closely. We pretend to smile. We are all taught to say everything is O.K., we are in control, even if we are not. There is a need to be positive in public. But art is not doing that. We try to tell the truth in someway, to touch a part of it, to not be so typical. This kind of work is not about suffering, it is about existence. It is about a technique, my concept is to show this technique.
I think technique is the most important thing.
Also, my work is different than say Marina Abramovic and Ulays work. They did work based on endurance, another version of how they see time, how long can their bodies stand something. Their work is still about their idea of time. My idea is that time becomes the main thing, how I pass the time is my main concern. It doesn’t matter what I do, I pass time.