A MAN OF HIS TIME

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

WHEN Tai­wan-born New York-based artist Te­hch­ing Hsieh was about 18, he en­coun­tered Al­bert Camus’s es­say The Myth of Sisy­phus, and some­thing stuck with him. “It was rooted in my head,” he says. “I was aware of the ab­sur­dity of Sisy­phus’s bur­den. And his hap­pi­ness.”

There is a very real sug­ges­tion of the Sisyphean in the im­mense un­der­tak­ings to which Hsieh — the per­for­mance artist whom Ma­rina Abramovic has dubbed “the mas­ter” — has sub­mit­ted him­self in the name of art. In a se­ries of “per­for­mances” — the term seems in­ad­e­quate — in the late 1970s and 80s, Hsieh spent a year con­fined to a cage in his stu­dio, a year with­out shel­ter on the streets of New York City, and a year teth­ered to an­other artist at the waist by 2.4m rope. Hsieh has not just de­voted his life to his art, he has, in a very real sense, turned his life into the raw ma­te­rial of his per­for­mance.

Con­sid­er­ing the pro­found in­ten­sity of his work, the 64-year-old man wel­com­ing me into his spa­cious apart­ment above a 99c store in Brook­lyn ap­pears re­mark­ably light-hearted. Hsieh, apologetic about his hes­i­tant English, has a Peanuts comic strip on his com­puter screen. “Life is tough,” says the artist, who this month will visit Aus­tralia for the first time to recre­ate one of his fa­mous works at Syd­ney’s Car­riage­works. “But we must all laugh in life.”

Life in this city was par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for Hsieh in the be­gin­ning. He was just 24 in 1974 when, while work­ing on a Mo­bil oil tanker in the Delaware River, Philadel­phia, he jumped ship, swam to shore and took a $250 cab ride to New York to start a new life. He had ar­rived to pur­sue his dream of be­ing an artist, but spent the next four years wash­ing dishes and mop­ping up Chi­nese restaurants.

Fi­nally, Hsieh found “my rock to roll up the moun­tain” — the idea that would be­come his first per­for­mance piece. He tracked down the ad­dresses of prom­i­nent artists and crit­ics and, call­ing him­self Sam, sent along his artist’s state­ment: “I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year per­for­mance piece, to be­gin on Septem­ber 30, 1978. I shall seal my­self in my stu­dio, in soli­tary con­fine­ment in­side a cell-room mea­sur­ing 11’6’’ x 9’ x 8’. I shall NOT con­verse, read, write, lis­ten to the ra­dio or watch tele­vi­sion, un­til I un­seal my­self on Septem­ber 29, 1979.”

I THOUGHT ABOUT ANY­THING I COULD BUT MOSTLY IT WAS ABOUT ART

TE­HCH­ING HSIEH

From the time the per­for­mance be­gan in his Tribeca stu­dio to a year later — apart from a friend ar­riv­ing to deliver his meals, col­lect his refuse and take his pic­ture — Hsieh was left alone with his thoughts. “I thought about any­thing I could but mostly it was about art,” Hsieh says. “I thought, sat, and walked around in the cage, waited for my meals and ate my meals, scratched one mark in the wall, then the next day ev­ery­thing was started over again. You had to pass one day at a time to sur­vive.”

De­spite the ini­tial self-pro­mo­tion and some 19 days when the stu­dio was open for spec­ta­tors, there were few vis­i­tors. In the midst of New York’s buzzing down­town art scene, lit­tle no­tice was taken of what was qui­etly un­fold­ing in the artist’s stu­dio.

At the art­work’s con­clu­sion, Hsieh was in­spired to re­dou­ble his ef­forts. Only six months af­ter emerg­ing from self-im­posed in­car­cer­a­tion, he em­barked on an­other year­long per­for­mance that would make the monotony of his first or­deal seem like a walk in the park. From April 11, 1980, to April 11, 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock ev­ery hour, on the hour — 8627 times in 366 days. The pun­ish­ing sched­ule meant he

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