JUNE 23, 2016
FOR ME, IT IS FREEDOM
SIX HOURS WITH TEHCHING HSIEH
Unravelling the process and philosophy of durational work and his iconic one-year performances
Recall Snoopy, the iconic black floppy eared, white dog from American cartoons Peanuts, sleeping on the roof of his red-wooden paneled looking into the sky, waiting for the day to pass. In 1958, this side exterior view of the dog first appeared in newspapers and since then has become part of the identity of Snoopy. He waits for a life changing moment and when his doghouse horizontally flipped, he exclaims, “My life has changed.” It seems nothing had really changed. The shift is almost a trick of the mind, a complex and profound effect from a simple and otherwise meaningless gesture.
Tehching Hsieh, an artist who did five one-year performances and one thirteen-year plan, in which he committed himself to living in a cage for a year, to punching a time clock every hour on the hour for a year, to living outdoors without a roof over his head for a year, to living tied to Linda Montano, a female performance artist he barely knew for a year, doing no art for one year, and for thirteen years doing art without public it, most closely associates with Snoopy. For him, everything in life is about passing time.
In 2014, we visited Hsieh at his Brooklyn studio, where he lives, works, and cares for the archives of his work.
When did you realize that you wanted to make art? How did you start and why?
TEHCHING HSIEH: When I was a child, I was good at painting. At that time, I didn’t call it art — it was just that I could create good paintings in school. Later, in junior high or high school, I became more interested in science. In Taiwan, schools are very strict. There was immense academically pressure put on me, so I could not continue with art. At that time, I was reading literature, and that was important to me. Eventually, though, I quit school for doing art. I didn’t finish high school.
How did your parents react to this?
TH: They were very disappointed. They said I had a bad influence on my younger brothers, but my mother continued supporting me. I would say that was when I started creating art. As a child I could paint well so, at that point, I became serious about it. I wasn’t a good writer, even though I read literature, but I knew I could start painting again. Up until I dropped out of high school at 16 or 17, I felt clear as to what I could do. That was the beginning.
Did you learn to paint by yourself or did you have a teacher?
TH: I did have a teacher. He was good at giving me freedom. In another way, he didn’t give me enough responsibility. But that freedom was very important for me, as I had the chance to learn naturally. Did you see the painting hanging in the kitchen? That painting is from 1969. I expressed myself well in painting. But I could only express myself little by little, because in Taiwan, it was very conservative. Then I quit. I didn’t want to do painting anymore. I bought a super-8 camera in 1973, and then I did my first action, jumping from the window. If you see my work, you’ll see that in my process of learning art, I didn’t move quickly. I had to learn what I could control, to understand how to use materials and equipment. I had many things to learn and to do in order to be able to make the “Jump Piece” (1973). You can read about that in my monograph, Out of Now.
Yes. This book is incredible.
TH: Oh, thanks. You see this? This is 30 pages, all this size [draws a large square in the air]. In reality, this is not actually laid out the way you see here, because in the book, you can’t lay it out the way it really is…. And this, here, is a painting I did during three-year compulsory military service. It is about 5 feet long by 10 feet wide. Green is the color of the army uniform and this is my identity number. The way I grew as a painter became more and more conceptual until I quit, stopped painting, and then did my first action.
How did this transformation in your work happen? How did you realize you wanted to do a performance that involved experimenting with an action? When I saw the “Jump Piece” for the first time, I thought, “This is so amazing.” You were super young and you really took a risk. You broke your ankles, a physical damage to your body. I want to understand where the piece came from.
TH: Well, you see, doing the kinds of painting that I showed you, I became empty. I felt the emptiness and I didn’t know where to go. So, I said goodbye to my painting, and I jumped. That kind of action, to me, is a gesture of cutting from the past. Of course, after that jump, I knew I had damaged my ankles. I would say, generally, that life experience — doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad — is all experience. I consider it all to be good experience because you can learn from mistakes. To me, I don’t consider that kind of work to be mature — I think it is immature — but at least that experience came into my life. It was like when I jumped ship to New York. I didn’t know beforehand that New York would be such a tough reality for me to live in. I just wanted to come here. Sometimes, when you are young, you have that kind of courage.
Yes. The “Jump Piece” has a completely different approach than your other works.
TH: Yeah, the jump has this immediate quality, compared to my one-year performances. In a way, the one-year performances are like a compressed life, but I feel that quality is more universal.[Laughs.] They are more spread out to life. The concept of the work is universal, but to do it is extreme. The work is about time and the time has a live quality, it spreads. Let’s say there is a surface. If you put pressure on one point only, that’s a very extreme point of pressure. I feel it is more of my character to apply pressure across the surface so it is more evenly spread out. I execute a more subtle pressure, even the difficulty level is high, still I stay in that level, the pressure is applied in a spread out way. I lived in each performance, and then I came out and moved on.
Everything is in your work seems so simple but, at the same time, very intense. You must have an extreme physical and mental presence at all times to survive in that cage for one year or to punch the card every hour. How did you maintain this presence over such a long period of time?
TH: Like I said, I hadn’t done a one-year performance before that first one. The more I show my work, the more people ask me, “Do you see something that you would change in the work?” I used a can but if I had used a flush toilet it will make the piece more clean. I don’t think I would change the concept of these works in any way. Like I said before, when I did the jump, it was not a one-time shift into a very challenging level. I had already been through many things in life that prepared me for it. Life experiences had been transformed into the foundation of my work.
I’m not good at explaining this part, but a lot of the life foundation is an iceberg under the water. That’s how I developed that part of myself — under the surface. When I felt that the concept of a work was clear then I moved into it. Even if I didn’t know what was going to happen, I knew I could, day by day, adjust for it. From the first day to the last day, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I could control only70% and then30% was risk. But I already had the confidence that I could do it. Before a piece, I had one week to experiment, to see if there was anything missing. Then I would really live into a one-year period of time, to get deep into that life.
I would say that a strong foundation comes from how you develop in your life. During that time period, I tried to make art and life not so different. Of course, in art, I had form, and I had to make that form clear. That kind of technique, I could develop. But my life was already not so different from the art. That’s why I could get into it. It was normal, like breathing. It was a special situation but I knew that if something little changed, I could quickly adjust to it. I didn’t worry about that. Of course, I didn’t really answer you, but that’s the way I think about it.
Did you conceive of the second piece when you were doing the first piece in the cage?
TH: Yes. I knew it would be difficult to make a second piece, but I already had the idea for it. I already had the concept but I still had to sort out until it was very clear, for example, how often to punch the clock. It could have been every fifteen minutes or every half hour. I worked out that one hour was a good distance. You can survive that for one year. At that time, I didn’t know that my next piece would be also a one-year performance, but all of my work came from the “Cage Piece.” After that piece, I could have gone in many directions.
Do you think that this first piece gave you the strength that allowed you to realize that you could manage these subsequent works? Maybe when you first have an idea, you’re not sure, but when you turn this idea into a reality — when you bring it to life, as you did for the first performance — I would imagine this gave you a lot of strength. Is that true?
TH: Sure, yes. I feel that the artistic part of my work had to exist — I had to have that part, naturally. But my work also depended on my life foundation. If my life foundation is good, then I could create something called “art.” That’s why I could not just jump into it. I had to develop that life foundation. You see, I only did six pieces, right? In the end, I knew I didn’t have many ideas, but at least I made those happen.
Why must an artist have many ideas? If you have a few amazing ideas and you realize them, this is great.
TH: Yes. As an artist, you have to create many questions. You don’t want them to be logical. You want to distill something, a different angle of life. For me, it’s just about passing time — back then I felt I didn’t even know how to pass time. Of course, now I’m also just passing time, but without any art form. [Laughs.] That means I went back to life. When I made art, it was always just about passing time. I thought a lot about the action I had to do to pass that time. Now, I gave up my career called “art.” but I am still able to find things that I can do.
You talked a little bit about the mental preparation for these works. Did you physically prepare as well?
TH: I can tell you that I used my young energy. Between the “Cage Piece” and the “Time Clock Piece”, did I take a long enough break? Maybe not. Really, that would have taken quite a few years. After you get into your body like that, your life changes. You are not the same person as before. Of course, I’m not crazy — I knew I could control it. But I did use my young age to do the work.
You don’t have to be physically strong to create a strong work. For example, Franz Kafka writes novels. His body is not very strong but he can write very powerful books, right? For me, though, to make the one-year performances, I knew that I also had to be physically strong. I could handle, doing the work because I was young and had strong will.
I was doing construction before and then after the work, but only for a very short time after. One month after the “Cage Piece,” I had to find a job. My body didn’t get sunshine while staying in the cage, so it was weak. But I had to work because I had to survive. I worked as a dishwasher also. I was an illegal immigrant, so it was not just doing construction and being physically strong that was important — it was about how serious I had to be to do the work. Endurance is not the focus of my work, although what I did was for a long duration. I could have done my works for longer than one year but the concept would have become…not right. In one year, the earth makes one circle around the sun, and that was what was important to me. If I had done two years or three years, I would have just been trying to prove I could do something for a long time. That’s not my concept. It had to be the circle the earth goes around the sun. Then maybe I could talk about the life unit. One year is a human calculation within a life cycle, so I could say something about life in a circle, repetition in a circle, over and over.
What was your involvement with young artists like yourself in New York at the time when you moved?
TH: I’ll tell you, I only knew Washington Square and I found SoHo by accident. After I found it, I tried to remember the number of one of the buildings but I could not find that area again. I only knew New York is the art center of the world. That was all I knew. When I came here, I lived around 180th Street Manhattan. Even though I knew it was simple to ride the train, I was afraid of policemen because I was illegal. So it took me from 1974 until 1976 to find SoHo again. That meant something terrible — it meant I was primitive, in a certain way. It meant I was a caveman.[Laughs.] So how did I find it? I saw one guy looked familiar, so I asked, “Are you a Taiwanese artist?” He said yes, and then I came to know him. After that, I found a Taiwanese arts community. But, I tell you, they were all about photorealism at that time. How could I fit into that? It didn’t work for me.
And why did you choose to move to New York in the first place?
TH: Oh, New York, because it was an art center. When I was in Taiwan, I knew that the art center was not Paris, it was New York without knowing about Soho. I tell you truly, I knew the word “performance” without really know “performance art”. I understood “performance” as “action”. When I got interviewed for an art magazine called “high performance,” I only ever had seen cars that said “high performance” so I thought they were going to put the interview into an automobile magazine. Now you know my position.
It took 30 years, until 2009, for my work to be known. I am not from a “learned” arts background, and I’m not from the art world system. When I came here, I didn’t really read English well. I still don’t read English so well. Okay, Out of Now, I had to read because I had to know what was written, but often, I had to ask my wife Qinqin to translate. Even now, if somebody gives me a book in English, I really cannot read it well.
There was one photographer from Pompidou Museum came to take pictures of me after I finished "Cage Piece." He was from Paris and he asked me about Yves Klein. I didn’t know about Yves Klein and he was a little bit disappointed. I’m trying to make you understand my situation. I did the works, I documented, and I called them “One-Year Performances.” After I became a little bit known, I became a “performance artist” and people came to me. But I found that I could not continue the connection with them because of my survival. I could not visit them because I had to make a living. I could not have a grant because I was illegal. So I lost these relationships because my mode of survival was very isolating — you know, being a dishwasher or cleaner at a restaurant or doing construction.
In the beginning, do you know why they interviewed me, for the “Cage Piece”? Because my boss at my construction job, his girlfriend worked for the Wall Street Journal. That’s how I got my first interview. By the second piece, she was working there. I was in the Wall Street Journal three times, not much exposed in the art scene. So when you ask me about my connections to the art world, this was my situation until the rope piece got a lot of attention. The “Rope Piece” was about two persons and Linda [Montano] knew many art world people.
Did you feel alone during this time before the “Rope Piece”?
TH: No. I felt that to be in isolation was good. I didn’t think it was bad. I needed my life to be that way. Even normally, I don't see isolation as a bad thing. I have a fear now because I have a little bit problems of “ being known.” More people come to me and I have to respond.
If you remember, we sat next to each other at the performance festival Access all Areas organized by the Live Art Development Agency at the Abron’s Art Center a few weeks ago. It made me wonder about your involvement now in the arts communities in New York City. Do you like to see what artists are doing now?
TH: Actually, just Marina [Abramovic]. [Laughs.] Only when people tell me, “You have to come,” then I go. It's like homework to me, because I still have to take care of my survival. Of course, it is good for me to see these things, but I feel uncomfortable about my education. I’m missing what I call “the adaptor.” I'm like a caveman. I need an “adaptor” to make a connection with the civilization. I am getting better on the connection part but when I go see artwork, I am still not very confident. This is because if I want to know about the artwork, I have to do a lot of homework, and I don't have that kind of time. That is why I become polite to deal with people. I cannot really do it — I escape.
Of course, I don't want you to think I’m not interested in other art works. It's not like that. When I came here 40 years ago, I didn't see much. In New York, you’re supposed to have many opportunities to see interesting works but I didn’t really go to see much. I missed something because I just could not go and take part in this kind of thing. I don't want people to think I have an ego, just saying, “Come to me,” and I don’t go to them. But I have problems not only with English, but also because these kinds of places are difficult for me.
Can you describe the difference between time in the 70s, 80s, 90s and now, as you see it? Do you feel that time that time has changed, in terms of speed of life?
TH: Well, I know I’m getting old. I don’t know much about the 70s, 80s, and 90s but I can speak about myself. Of course, I can see a little bit how New York has changed. You are probably be a bit surprised about how I don't know much about the outside world. I like to know young people because they can give me new information.
We can be your spies. [Laughs.]
TH: Yeah! That is good enough for me. I don’t need to know more. You know, Adrian Heathfield, who wrote this book? He became a good friend of mine. He tells me what is going on. Sometimes, people from Taiwan know more about New York than I do. In some way, that must mean I don't feel I need that connection. I say to you, to be polite, “I missed out on a lot.” But in another way, I just do what I can do. Of course, I still need to grow and if I don't spend much time outside, how can I grow? That's part of my problem. But I had to try to find some way to understand life. Maybe my reason for only doing six pieces is because I don't deal with many people. I'm not trying to make excuses or say that I don't need to learn more, I'm just saying that I learn in different way. I don't learn much from art. I don't think I can answer you about the 70s, 80s, 90s. Although my work in reality didn’t receive much support from outside in the 70s and 80s, my work and my character fitted in that time well. People are simpler at that time, not too much desire, more focused. This is not to say my work belongs to that time, but doing my work in the early 80s helped make the work focused.
A question about your relationship with the audience: In “Cage Piece,” we know you allowed an audience into your studio every three weeks. Was it different on the days where people were observing you versus when you were alone?
TH: When I say to you, “life-time,” “art-time,” to me, it is the same. In my work, the audience is secondary. I needed isolation. How do you keep that quality of isolation and still have an audience come? We didn’t make eye contact. I didn’t want to have a friend come and to make eye-contact. I tried to be a stranger. Everyone became a stranger. It meant that my private life was in public.
For that piece, the audience came to see me every three weeks, I was in the cage with no reading, no talking, no writing. It’s necessary to have audience, they are the witness of the work, but they don’t need to be there all the time, whether they saw it or not, the whole year was the same. Trust is important here. Also even when they are here, there are still things invisible: thinking is a very important part of the work but the audience didn't know what I was thinking. I was able to keep my privacy in public.
So your experience wasn’t very different on those days when the audience was there?
TH: No. I had to keep that isolated quality and not change it. But, of course, on the inside, the energy was different. I knew people were there. On the last day, I didn’t drink water because I didn’t want to pee in public. That means my mind wasn’t crazy — I still knew what was going on. I knew people were there. They supported me and gave me the energy to continue. I did the performance in my loft with not many people as audiences but I knew it didn’t matter. I still had to finish.
Earlier today, you were talking about how you had to create a structure during the “Cage Piece” so that your days weren’t formless. Can you talk a little more about the structure you created? What was it like, internally, for you?
TH: Inside of the cage, I didn’t have anything to do. If I couldn’t think, I would have lost control. Of course, in the first three months, I could only think about my past. The reason why this kind of experience can make people crazy is because you don’t have new things to think about. You look at the floor and you get into a very small part of the floor and you try to find an image in there. You try to find any kind of new outside stimulus. What I had to do was to think in several ways over the course of a day. It was like battery charge that lasts only for one day. The second day, you have to do the same thing again. I had to think of a full cycle about rebellion, betrayal , crime, punishment, suffering, and freedom. That cycle became daily homework for me. I went day by day.
But of course, I could think freely. Like I say, with the “Cage Piece,” life-time and art-time was the same. It took me from 1974 to 1978 to come up with the “Cage Piece” because I was just thinking that life-time was life-time. Suddenly, I found what I was looking for. I realized what kind of art I could do. I thought, “I don’t need to search anywhere. My life’s journey is there. I just have to create a form.” I had the concept of passing time and just had to make a piece of art about it. At that point, I started to become mega-focused. I felt so happy I didn’t have to create any objects after that first performance. Of course, I had to create structures in order for the works to become artworks.
Photo by Balarama Heller
After seeing your presentation, my opinion is that you were so precise in how you documented these pieces. How did you think about how to document this process? For example, with the “Time Clock Piece,” did you think about that format of the installation before you performed the work?
TH: That came much later. A clear concept of the work came first, then I would think about how to document the work. 25 years later when showing the complete documentation of the work, I started thinking about how to present the documents.
It is so interesting to think about why you chose to shoot one frame at a time and why you didn't set up a camera outside that was filming. From my perspective, you seemed to have an amazing sense of the documentation you could produce. We know that maybe you don’t think this way, but do you know what we mean?
TH: There are two kinds of documents in my work: conceptual documents, and life documents, for example, the daily-portraits in Cage Piece, the time cards and hourly-portraits in Time Clock Piece, the 366 daily maps in Outdoor Piece, and the daily conversation tapes in Rope Piece, are conceptual documents; and there are life images/documents that recorded the performances. If I had the money to record my performance for a whole year, that will provide more details to the unseen part of the work, but I don’t think a full year recording will make my work more powerful; it is only life documents, will not change the concept of the work. If the work is powerful enough, even if somebody takes a bad picture, that evidence becomes important. Chen, who photographed the Cage Piece was not professional and was not an artist. The documents are very basic. It was risky because my knowledge was not good. Even when I wanted to photograph, I could only use an automatic camera. I still don't know much about cameras. I like working on mechanical things — that part, I’m good at it. But if you want to talk about the camera exposure, I know very little.
For example, on the first day of the Cage Piece, we used a half-inch, reel-to-reel video tape to document the work. Do you know what happened? We recorded on the wrong side. All the tape came out with nothing on it. Nothing. The first day’s opening, we missed videotaping the process that the lawyer sealing the bars of the cage and I entering the cage. So, you can see my position. It was very risky. I used my low budget and a friend helped me. For the Time Clock Piece, I also had a special watch alarm, but I lost it when I did the “Outdoor Piece”. I lost my camera too in the Outdoor Piece, but I got another one, a smaller one. I don’t want to say it was because I was poor, but I really didn’t have people to document me. I took most of the photos by myself. A filmmaker, Robert Attanasio, did the film for the Outdoor Piece. I would call him letting him know where I was so he could come to shoot the film.
During the Time Clock Piece, a photographer said, “I want to come shoot you.” So I asked him, “Will the photographs be your work?” He said, “Yes.” Then I didn’t want to do it. He was from Taiwan and he said, “I’ll only show the work in Taiwan,” but I felt it was wrong. He wants to shoot the daily-life part and then the documentation belongs to him. How can that be? Again, I don’t want to say it’s because of my poor budget... I also didn’t think that was a part that needed to be documented. Of course, if I had had more documentation, it would have been better.
With the Cage Piece, I didn’t film the whole year. we didn’t have a security camera at that time. I only had $150 per month for food and I didn’t have a grant. People say to me now that I could have applied for grants, I was illegal I couldn't apply for grant, but that’s not important. What’s important is that I did what I wanted to do.
Another thing that we read about the “Rope Piece” is that nobody will have access to all of the taped conversations that you recorded with Linda. Can you explain why?
TH: Oh, yes. You see, I’m a person of little words, with not much to explain. Linda is different — she likes to speak more about the story of the work. This way of documenting is my type and not Linda’s type. I feel that it gives people more to imagine, you know? Talking with Linda was very important in this piece. I know that people have curiosity and want to know what was going on between us, but I feel that the concept is to let people imagine. Everybody carries a story inside, and our stories are not public in that way. We have that quality as human beings. If you tie yourself to another person and then open up tape recordings of the conversation, it means that you don’t want to have your privacy. I’m not trying to judge or say it is like a pandora’s box — I don’t mean that. But I document in this way to convey a message about this concept of a private self. It’s like a…“forbidden zone.” Some areas, you don’t open up. With the “Rope Piece” piece, daily-conversation is important, there is space for imagination left for the audience.
We were also reading that you and Linda had some tough moments during this piece. It must have been difficult to be attached with another person, especially because you didn’t have a previous relationship with her. Can you tell us about this tension? How did you both manage this? We think it’s amazing that you never cut the rope, which means that...
TH: ...it means this piece worked. Normally, we say, “a couple,” meaning that you and another person are very much balanced and in harmony. In real life, two people cannot be this way all the time. If you only talk about the harmonious times, then you miss a lot about humanity. All real things happen with people. In a way, a mother is tied with a child. As a mother, you have a lot of concerns but people don’t mention that part much because it would mean they were “complaining.” However, that is part of human existence and reality. The work had that quality of reality.
Of course, we had harmonious times, but they were short. Like, maybe 5%, and 95% was struggle. [Laughs.] But if we had been harmonious and peaceful for the whole piece, the quality of the work would have been different. Even if someone had done this piece with their boyfriend or girlfriend, it would bring up some difficulties. That one year would feel like ten years, or even a whole lifetime. They would feel so much pressure in such a short time and then they would probably split. That’s why, in that time, I knew it would be best for myself and Linda to work together even though we were so different. It was in my character to choose not to do the piece with someone I was very close with and even if I had done it with someone I was close with, it would have still been a struggle. You can imagine. Because humans, we don’t typically tie ourselves to each other in that way.
How did you choose her, in particular, for this piece?
TH: Oh, she came to me. I was looking for somebody.
You knew that you had strength because you had done other long durational works before, but what was her experience with this? Had she performed a long durational work before?
TH: No, I don’t think she had, but I knew she could make it. Actually, she had done a one-week performance before. I had done one-year performances but this piece is a different kind of experience. I think many people can do it, but they might not want to waste their time to do it, especially the work could only be recognized 30 years later or may not be recognized at all.
We imagine that to do this piece, you had to give a lot. You had to be humble because you were attached to another person and you had different times that you needed to go to the bathroom, to sleep, or to eat. Do you think that during that time, you became more understanding?
TH: This piece was really challenging. my character is more of a solo person, a solo performer. So this “togetherness” was my weakest part. This piece shook my previous three one-year performances. Two people together, if you are so opposite, what you do becomes not worth something, not valuable. It affected that kind of feeling. There was no respect. We just did the action. I’m not saying that went one way — it went both ways. It was not just me, or Linda. It was both of us.
Do you think that was a learning experience about human beings?
TH: I don’t want to say that. It’s the same thing as with my work — I don’t want to say what it means about human beings or about how to be a good person. I’m just passing time. You know, to me, if I learn from life or if I learn from art, it’s all learning. I don’t want to say that in a special time, I learned something more. Maybe I’m stubborn. I know you are asking me about this conceptually, but I try not to talk about my artwork as a special experience. I try to say that it’s just passing time. I really only use the word “to learn” when I’m saying, “I learned cooking,” or something like that — not about concepts.
There were some images from the “Rope Piece” in which you were in Philadelphia with Linda when she was teaching. It seems like you had to deal with a more social environment than you probably had in your normal life or in your other works.
TH: Oh, yeah. That’s true, because Linda knew a lot of people in the art world — like Pauline Oliveros. They would come meet us, but I was more on the side. I didn’t usually participate. It was more like they were doing the piece and I was on the outside but still tied to her. [Laughs.] Even in the photo where Linda is meditating, I am more on the side waiting. But I was polite. If I had not been polite, then it would have been a problem. You know what I mean? They were all feminists, and they were all friends, I’m an Asian man with poor reality but I didn’t use that identity. Sometimes the piece felt like their piece and not my piece.[Laughs.] It was actually a similar thing with my four previous pieces — they all had that quality. I didn’t do the work in the mountains, I did them in the city. All of civilization, all of society were around me, but I lived isolated. Being tied with Linda was a similar kind of situation.
We have this feeling that you are so engaged with what you do and at the same time, it follows a certain aesthetic. The way that you constructed the cage, the uniform, shaved your head … All of these elements made these pieces so sharp, so perfect. It’s clear that with these works that it’s real life and that you are in the moment but, at the same time, it’s also possible to look at how you create a scenario and an environment. It’s very minimalist.
TH: I could say I don’t know how this happened, but of course, really, it’s in my nature. I would say to myself, “This piece, I will do like this.” Then, I would try to think more, but I couldn’t. You don’t have to be well-educated to create this kind of work. Also, I know myself. I don’t have many ideas, That’s why I created only six pieces. You mentioned minimalism, and this goes back to your question about why I don’t open the tapes from the “Rope Piece.” It is minimum. Daily conversation is important for this piece, the tapes bring up this concept, what we actually talked about is not important.
You just said something that is quite incredible. You said that you know yourself. Since I started to know about your work some years ago —
TH: As the artist, I can say, “My work means this,” but someone else may not see it that way or may not agree. When I say, “I know myself,” this is equal to a homeless person who says, “I know myself.” It’s that. It means that everybody has freedom to have their own opinion. This has something to do with the way I understand humans.
The feeling is that it would be impossible to do this kind of work without really connecting with yourself. To do this when you were young, you had to have some kind of connection with yourself. You gave up everything to do these works. This is not really a normal thing.
TH: Well, I had to build that up. My life work is really one piece in that way. You have to look at how I developed myself throughout my lifetime. That kind of experience, you won’t lose it. It comes naturally. Most artists, they understand themselves, but they can also explain what they are doing — that part I am not so good at. Of course, I really try to use words, in retrospect. Today, you are asking me many of these questions about why I made these works and I try to answer, but I still cannot answer so well. Since I was young, my art comes from life. I don’t want to say that everything I do is called “art.” I have just six pieces that I call art. I can save the art discussion for philosophers and I feel good about this. The life part, for me, is maybe private. I have good conversations with myself and only I know what’s going on. Maybe that’s what I mean when I say I know myself.
It seems like you never felt pressure from the art market. The art system is so powerful and often changes artists’ attitudes. Artists change their production because they say, “If I do this, I can sell more, or maybe that curator will like the work more.” You have a gallerist, Sean Kelly, but it doesn't seem that you feel pressure from this system.
TH: Right. I say that if an artist’s work sells well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good work— and some art, you just can’t market it. I don’t try to make it marketable either. There were critics who wrote bad reviews about me. I mean, bad reviews are reviews too, but they’re just not what you want them to be. [Laughs.] That doesn’t mean I have to care about it. I can live the way I want and that’s enough. I think this is part of my nature. And hope someday I could do my retrospective, but I know it requires a big budget. It’s very expensive. I already have a proposal, but if nobody wants to do it before I die, that’s okay. I accept that. I cannot change these things but I can change myself. Out of Now is a book with my complete documents and in depth discussions, and people will read it.
So you are planning to do a retrospective of your work?
TH: Yes. All of these works will become one piece, all together, someday. Sean [Kelly] is taking care of this and if it happens, it happens, and if it doesn’t happen, it means I don’t need to show my work in a gallery. I did talk to Marina about this and she had some very good thoughts and experiences. We exchanged ideas.
In the “Cage Piece,” you were dependent on your friend Chen to bring you the food. What was that relationship like?
TH: With that piece, I hadn’t prepared too much, so I said to him, “I have $150. What food can you get me?” For the first three weeks, do you know what happened? In the room where the cage was built, there was one column. And because I didn’t say what I wanted beforehand, of course, every day the food was the same. One day, I threw the food at the column. That was how I complained. I had to do it through action because I couldn’t talk. He had almost walked out of the room and then he turned around and saw the food I had thrown. He came back and cleaned it up. I lost that meal, I didn’t have any meal that night. Then the next day he came with the same meal, and then I understood. I had to think about how it was not easy for him to take care of me. I only threw the food like that one time, and I felt good about that. He didn’t take care of me like a king, you know? [Laughs.] He took care of me like a prisoner. I would say that was a good thing because my economic situation was bad so the budget was small. Chen was a person who just did what he could do. He was my good friend from Taiwan— it wasn’t like I met him in New York. He was a good person to do this because nobody else would do this for someone like me. I was illegal. Who else would help me? Impossible.
Did you remain friends afterwards as well?
TH: Yes, yes. You know, he makes me think about a movie. Do you know a movie called “Cold Blood ”? It was from the Korean war, a very old movie. Two US soldiers finished in the Korean war in the 1950s and then they came back and began to murder people. They were two partners and together, they could do something. I’m not trying to say that is my story but with Cheng, we were more like companions who could do something together. [Laughs.]
Which of the one-year performances, if any, most radically changed your perception of time?
TH: In my work I use real time from 1978-1999. Each of my performance works shows a different perspective of thinking about life but they are all basically under the same preconditions: Life is life sentence, life is passing time, life is free thinking. This is basically my philosophy, my concept, and the way I think about time. Of course, I made a form, six pieces of work, one piece per a year for the first five, thirteen years for the last piece, but for the fifth piece, I already knew that I was running out of ideas. With my first four pieces, you can say that each is a footnote of my last [two pieces]. I did the work, and it was not designed for “art world communication” — it was more like a life philosophy. We can communicate about the work, of course, but I am not a philosopher and I am not a writer. I just past the time. For all the six pieces of performances, it was like Snoopy who stayed at the same side of the bed and then I stopped doing art since 2000, Snoopy changed his position in bed and for him, life is changed. With every piece I did, I was trying to make life change, we all try to make a life for ourselves with no repetition, but, actually, not much changed.
We are interested in your feelings.
TH: You see, I tried to work in different ways. I think with time spent, the quantity of one year is the same. It does not matter whether you are rich or poor. It doesn't matter how you pass time, It's just time passing. I tried to make it universal. Of course, I called my works “art,” that is a pretty intellectual word but the action was a pretty homeless way to live.
Put it like this: if you see a homeless person is writing, you might think he or she is a crazy person. If you see an intellectual person is writing, you will think he or she is a writer. But from far away, what you could see is only the gesture of writing, they both are writing. My work is just about that far away perspective. What is important for me is passing time, not how to pass time. I do it my way and you receive what you want. I don't change anything. I just unfold, bring it to life. other people could find out what's inside of the work philosophically because I feel that's not my concern. To me, we all have time, and we fill it with content.
This is like your philosophy regarding the tapes from the “Rope Piece,” in a way.
TH: Yes. That part is controversial. people like to communicate. They want to ask these questions, “How, how, how?”
There are other channels to communicate with people. You can write, you can speak, but also you have body language. Your body talks. When you were in the cage for one year, you were not talking but you were communicating something. For you, what was the most rewarding experience you had with someone that attended one of your works? Did anybody ever say something to you afterwards that made you feel happy? You probably had a lot of feedback.
TH: I did have a lot of feedback but I don’t remember it that well. I would have to find something that was written to me.
Do you remember that you heard good things from the audience? That it was a good experience for them to be there?
TH: In my whole life and with the work, I don't think I had a lot of support. I had some, but I don’t think I needed a lot either. It’s not like people really wanted to come see my work. Of course, some people did come from the public. I’m sure there was good feedback but it really does not come to mind because this was a long time ago. My work doesn’t need to have people come to see it, and I felt good about it. If a person was really there in the audience, I could feel their feelings. In my opinion, to write about one work, you have to really feel it, to touch it, and then to write. You couldn’t fit that kind of feedback into another person. I did have this kind of feedback that the writers really get into the work, and it felt good.
You asked me about how I didn’t make much documentation of my work. Sometimes, people say I made too much, because of the book. It is expensive to make a big book like this. Compared to the whole piece, this documentation is not enough but, in another way, if somebody wants to install my work in a gallery or museum, there is so much to install. The works are so big that when I documented them like this, the documentation is not much compared to the whole piece, but you still have to do lot of installation work. Generally, I get support from people, I don’t get that much negative writing about the work. It’s not easy to write good negative writing. There are the kind of people who say that the work is masochistic but they don’t criticize well about the work. They don’t have strong reasoning.
I’ve already gone into my deeply personal things and tried to use words to explain. You want to reach into this area but, to me, I know it's not easy to explain. The idea I’ve tried to bring here is that I know I do work called “art” and in this way it’s already intellectual. But at the same time, I try to be grounded.
Like I said to you, wasting time is my highest level of living life. Of course, some people respond and say, “I don’t think you are wasting time.” To me, wasting time is the concept, I used long duration to practice this simple idea. On the contrary, many people don’t want to waste time and energy, they want to do one big idea in a short time, so somehow I turned that philosophy upside down. I had to really spend time and just spend it. When I was living in the street for one year, a friend gave me a suggestion. He said, “Maybe you can learn some English, find some books, so you can learn a little bit more.” But I didn’t want to. I told him, “I’d rather be just hanging around. Not knowing where I’m going. Just passing time.” That’s why, in so many years, I still haven’t learned English well. I don't have some part of me that is devoted to following civilization.
But the rules — that statement that you create for each piece — you followed those perfectly.
TH: If there is even one part I expressed well from the beginning until now, then it will be okay. But I am still struggling to say what I want to say. Which is…to do an art piece actually has the same meaning as doing anything else. One student said to me, “Do you feel you doing the six pieces is enough?” I said, “ I don’t finish my work, but I don’t do art anymore.” To me, It's my freedom. it means that it's not because of outside pressure to make me decide to do work or not. It’s just because I cannot make another work. I show my limit. It means I feel I cannot make it. I have done six pieces, and they are one piece together. But people care that I’m still alive so why I am not creating art? I let people judge or think what they want to think. At least I have this freedom. I know that I cannot use art to express some parts of my life, my person, my character. That’s my personal life.
I want to explain some more about my retrospective. I’ll just show you quickly. This is a whole installation. It goes one, two, three, four, and then the fifth and sixth sections that are all empty. Time is transferred to space, the size of the space is the same. Each year spent — it doesn’t matter how much work you’ve done or documented — is equal, because the quantity of one year is the same. I use this to explain what I was saying before about how it doesn’t matter, whether you are the king or you are homeless — poor or rich — time is the same. My philosophy is that my works are just ways of passing time. It’s not just to show documentation of the pieces. My philosophy is that it doesn’t matter what you spend time on. Whether you want to be just waiting to die or you want to be very creative — it’s up to you. But I chose what I did to pass my time. That’s the concept I tried to bring it to a physical space. Does this make sense?
This plan just feels like it is right for that documentation. The focus is on how far I could go to just pass time, not how I actually passed the time. It is conceptual not narrative. And I call passing time my art. If you call something art, that means it is in a higher place, but to me, I try to bring it down to the bottom because that’s what makes it universal. Universal means everyone could talk about it. I tried to use that method to deal with time in my work.
That’s where art should be — not on a higher level. Life is art and art is life. It’s all connected, in that way.
TH: Yes. As an artist, you meet many different kinds of people. Some people say simple words, and you can already have good communication with them. But somebody else could come and you can tell that the communication won’t happen . I want to be able to respond to all of those things seriously. That means answering this, this, and this. All the responses are different and they make you feel fragile. You have to choose what to focus on. But all of the responses to my work have some reason or make some sense. Again, for me, it’s about passing time not how to pass time. With the work, I try to leave communications open to all responses.
That Snoopy comic that you showed us — did you write the words, or is that a real comic?
TH: When I was doing the “Time Clock Piece,” I saw a cartoon like that. I don’t know whether it was in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. The one I showed you, though, I drew from memory. Charles Shultz really created a comic like that, but this one is not the original. I only saw the original once in a newspaper. Probably he has one that is in color, but I don’t know. It’s not that I invented it. I copied his concept. [Laughs.]
We wonder if we can find the original.
TH: You see, Snoopy, he has his way of passing time. Everybody wants his or her life-changing moment. When we see Snoopy’s “life-changing moment,” we laugh, right? To us, it looks like nothing has changed. Of course, humans, we feel we are much more complex than that — but in another way, we’re similar to Snoopy. [Laughs.] You think you’ve changed but really it’s Snoop kind of change — not much change at all. The “Time Clock Piece” and the “Cage Piece” seem so different, right? But to me, in my mind, they are the same. I went inside the cage and then afterwards I was thinking; I punched time clock every hour and then afterwards I was thinking. I created these series of works in different contexts. I really want to see this retrospective show happen but, like I said, it’s a big budget. It’s not easy to make it happen. At least I made this concept so I can propose it. I don’t want to use only documentation to bring my concept to life. To bring it clearly to life, I have to build the space in this way.
Special thank you to Tehching Hsieh, QinQin Li for making this studio visit possible, Alex Zafiris for assistance in editing this interview, and Balarama Heller for photographing this visit.
Recapping Tehching Hsieh's lecture in NEON + MAI's As One at Benaki Museum, Athens