Tehching Hsieh: One Year Performance 1980-1981
Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, Beijing
June 28 - September 15, 2013
By Travis Jeppesen
Between 1978 and 1986, Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh threw himself into a rigorous – some might even say insane – series of performances that each lasted one year. In one, Hsieh remained outdoors the entire time. In another, he and fellow performer Linda Montano remained tied together with a very short rope, but were not permitted to touch one another. The intense duration of these pieces, combined with the strict constraints, gives one pause to contemplate the implications of such tortuous rigor. Why sacrifice one’s well-being to the altar of time? Is this a positive or productive means of going about endowing a life with meaning?
A recent exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was centered on one of those performances, One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece), in which the artist punched a time clock once at every hour for the full year. The main part of the exhibition space was filled with documentation of the project: namely, the daily time cards, hung over strips of photographs depicting the artist after each hour’s punch. Hsieh shaved his head at the beginning of the project, so we get to watch his hair grow over the course of the year. By the end, it’s really shaggy. Who knew that hair grows so fast? In the front of the exhibition, a sixteen-millimeter film gives us a sped-up version of Hsieh’s portraits-slash-hair-growth over the designated period.
Throughout it all, Hsieh wore the same blue collar worker uniform, which is included in a glass vitrine in the center of the exhibition space, alongside some further documentation. In some ways, performances like this are more akin to a sporting event than art. As such, rules and referees must be introduced into the game to make sure there’s no cheating. Therefore, Hsieh brought a witness, David Milne, into the piece, to sign off on the punched time cards. In addition, a list of how many times in each month Hsieh missed punching the time clock, including the reasons why (usually sleep), is displayed in the vitrine.
Again, all this forces us to return to the concept of time. On paper or in the realm of spoken language, “one year” is fairly easy to get your head around. Confronted with the combined force of the documentary footage comprising the exhibition, however, the enormity and bluntness of this task of endurance hits you – how overwhelming, the perpetual and prolonged banality of the reduced, futile gesture. As a commentary on work, such a project could only be carried out in the temporal realm. Work is the regime that is meant to order our lives; this is what “civilization” is supposed to entail: contributing one’s labor to the maintenance of the status quo. If we evaluate the sum total of all human endeavors, how many jobs can we say are really meaningful? What does “meaningful work” mean? In sacrificing an entire year to a single reductive gesture, Hsieh implies that the act of “clocking in” is equivalent to shutting off one’s brains, shutting down the entire operation of selfhood in commitment to a communion that is ultimately, we suddenly realize, illusory.
Hair. It grows so fast: something dead that lives on each of us. Just as the dead and deadening force of work, which takes up so much of our precious little time as live beings, continues to enslave that majority of us that has no other option. Tehching Hsieh may not offer a solution, but at the very least, he makes us aware of this quandary in a way that no other artist has – and the obliterating weight of that accomplishment is quite equal to the undertaking.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author