A MAN OF HIS TIME
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
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