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Issue 235

The Rigour of Tehching Hsieh's One Year Performance

In ‘Time Clock Piece’ the artist punched a time clock every hour for a year, capturing the synchronicity of ‘life time’ and ‘art time’

BY Vivian L. Huang in Features , Opinion | 28 APR 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 235, based on the theme 'Time Warp'

How does time give form to art and life? From 11 April 1980 to 11 April 1981, Tehching Hsieh punched into a time clock installed in his downtown New York studio every hour, on the hour, immediately capturing one frame of himself and the time clock on 16mm film. With the intent to punch in 24 times a day for 365 days, Hsieh ultimately clocked in 8,666 times out of a possible 8,760 (sleeping through the remaining 94). The second of Hsieh’s six exceptional durational performance works, One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece) (1980–81) is accessible after the fact thanks to his meticulous documentation in the form of artist and witness statements, hourly stamped timecards, hourly film stills, the resultant six-minute film and monthly public viewings during that year.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece), 1980–81. Courtesy: © Tehching Hsieh; photograph: Michael Shen

As the artist told me when we met this winter: ‘I am recording time.’ Hsieh posited that ‘life time’ and ‘art time’ need to meet on the same level in performance. In a 2020 interview with Collecteurs Museum, he noted: ‘The water level of my art and life need to be the same, so I can sail into art from life, and transfer life time to art time.’ The synchronicity of life time and art time is so essential to his work, Hsieh told me, that he sets the clock to local time now when installing it for exhibitions.

Hsieh suggested to me that the rigour of his life as an undocumented immigrant prepared him for the rigour of his durational performances. In 1974, after leaving high school, training as a painter and completing his compulsory military service in Taiwan, Hsieh absconded while working as a seaman near Philadelphia, and spent US$150 on a cab ride to New York with the intention of pursuing art. When he arrived, Hsieh had no connections or orientation to the art world. Without legal papers for 14 years, he could not apply for arts funding or secure documented work. To survive, he washed dishes, cleaned restaurants and solicited financial support from his family abroad. In a 2015 interview with Ran Dian, the artist observed: ‘I felt good doing my work in an illegal context; it was difficult, but I had some kind of freedom. I had no identity. Of course, that’s a difficult status, but it gave me energy. If you’re scared, you can’t do it. You have to take the risk.’

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980–1981, installation view at Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy: Taipei Arts Museum and © Hugo Glendinning

Part of that risk involved trusting that, with time, people would respond to his work. Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, Adrian Heathfield, who co-authored Hsieh’s monograph Out of Now (2008), put it frankly: ‘The reason for his exclusion into history at the time […] is because [he is] not white.’ In fact, Hsieh’s performances did not gain traction in the art world until 2009 – 30 years after he completed his first durational piece – when he was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and his work was included in the group show ‘The Third Mind’ at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Now celebrated in performance history, Hsieh’s five, year-long performances, conducted between 1978 and 1986, hovered for a while in an obscurity seemingly encouraged by his sixth and final artwork: Tehching Hsieh 1986–1999 (Thirteen Year Plan), a performance which saw him refuse to exhibit art publicly for 13 years until the new millennium. During Time Clock Piece, Hsieh opened his studios to the public on a monthly basis – publicizing with mail and street posters – but the numbers were modest. Hsieh told me, ‘It still takes people much longer to respond to my work,’ and continued, ‘But it’s good, because I deal with time and long duration. It makes the piece more clear.’

Hsieh’s work shows how the access and surveillance of documentation can forestall curiosity for the greater process – whether in art or in life. While Time Clock Piece draws focus to the top of the hour, the remaining minutes of the year are fugitive. And although Hsieh, who lives in Brooklyn, claims he is no longer an artist – no longer in ‘art time’, perhaps – he generously responded to my questions about what went unrecorded during that year. Sometimes, Hsieh told me, sleep deprivation caused the distinction between day and night to blur, and he once slept continuously for three hours – a precious opportunity, as he saw it, to recharge (chōngdiàn). His dream life was compromised that year, and Hsieh recalled a ‘nightmare of immigration’ in which he was deported. Hsieh recounted to me the stretch of evenings in April 1980 when, inexplicably, the camera did not capture the frame at 11:00pm, which he did not notice until enlarging and cutting the images for display at the Guggenheim Museum in 2009. Then, on 19 January 1981, Hsieh punched in at 7:05pm – not because he was late but because the building’s electricity dropped out for five minutes. Subsequently, Hsieh had to readjust his wristwatch alarm, since the time clock was sealed according to the performance rules. What might be perceived as slip-ups in fact attest to the processual stuff of life, uncontained by documentation.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980–1981, poster, 1981. Courtesy: © Tehching Hsieh

Time Clock Piece is an exceptional work thanks to Hsieh’s virtuosic technique, whereby, despite a preponderance of documentation, the details of what actually happened during his year remain inscrutable. As the artist told Ran Dian: ‘Doing life and doing art is all the same – doing time. The difference is that, in art, you have a form. This approach gives me freedom.’ In making an artistic commitment to document time, Hsieh created a performance in which the details of his undocumented life could be preserved in history, yet remain free.

This article appeared in frieze issue 235 with the headline ‘Around the Clock

Read more thematic columns here

Tehching Hsieh's ‘One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece)’ is on view at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, until 30 July

Main image: Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980–1981, installation view at Venice Biennale, 2017. Courtesy: Taipei Arts Museum and © Hugo Glendinning

Vivian L. Huang is a scholar of race, gender and performance at San Francisco State University, USA.