Tehching Hsieh: The ‘master’ of performance art

What heights would you go to, to produce a piece of art? Described by fellow performance artist Marina Abramovich as a ‘master’ of the form, Tehching Hsieh, renowned for his influence on performance art as an art movement, has pushed his mind and body to the extreme in his lengthy performances; all in the name of art. 

What heights would you go to, to produce a piece of art? Described by fellow performance artist Marina Abramovich as a ‘master’ of the form, Tehching Hsieh, renowned for his influence on performance art as an art movement, has pushed his mind and body to the extreme in his lengthy performances - sharing one common concept that “life is a life sentence, life is passing time, life is freethinking”.  

Born in 1950 in Taiwan, Hsieh dropped out of high school and took up painting, having a solo exhibition at the American News Bureau in Taiwan after his mandatory military service. He abandoned painting soon after, and filmed his first action performance ‘Jump’ where he jumped out of a second storey window and broke both his ankles on impact. The piece attempts to convey the pain felt in the moment of impact. Hsieh later destroyed the film records and now only a photo series remains. Hsieh arrived in the US in 1974 by abandoning the ship he was working on as a seaman and remained an illegal immigrant until 1988 when he was granted amnesty. 

With an ambition to succeed as an artist but limited resources and unable to speak English, Hsieh supported himself through working in restaurants cleaning dishes. “I was eager to do art but had no ideas to do any work,” he said. “One day all of a sudden I thought: what else do I look for? I don’t need to go out to find art, I am already in my work.”

Beginning in the late 70s, Hsieh performed five one-year performance pieces, where Hsieh captured himself in an array of often extreme situations in order to create conversation. 


One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece)

From 29th September 1978 to 30th September 1979, Hsieh locked himself in a small wooden cage, furnished only with a sink, lights, bucket and a single bed. Hsieh’s friend visited daily to deliver food, remove his waste and then capture a single photograph to document the project. During this time, Hsieh didn’t talk, read, write, listen to music or watch TV; he lived in silence. 

The endurance was witnessed by Robert Projansky, a lawyer, who attested the entire process, making sure the artist never left his cage throughout the whole year. His performance was also open to the public to be viewed once or twice a month from 11am-5pm.


‘One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece)’

A year later, from 11th April 1980 through to 11th April 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour, essentially depriving himself of any prolonged period of sleep or activity. Each time he punched the clock, he took a single picture of himself, which together made up a 6-minute movie. It was like being in limbo, just waiting for the next punch,” he recalled.

In his 2013 list of the greatest performance art works, Dale Eisinger of Complex wrote that the piece "is thought to have bridged a gap between industry and art in a way particular to the individual that Warhol's grand factory pieces couldn't achieve".


‘One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece)’

Hsieh’s third installment of one-year performance pieces, dated from 26th September 1981-82, saw Hsieh spend one year outside. He moved around New York City with a backpack and a sleeping bag and was not allowed to shelter from the extreme weather, enter any buildings, cars, trains, airplanes, boats, or tents. 


Art / Life: ‘One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece)’

Imagine spending a year physically bound to another person. In this performance Hsieh and fellow Linda Montano spent one year between 4th July 1983-84 tied to each other with an 8 foot long rope. Residing in one room when inside, the artists were unable to touch each other until the end of the performance. Similarly to his ‘Time Clock Piece’ both artists shaved their hair at the beginning of the year and were shoulder length by the end. 


‘One Year Performance 1985–1986 (No Art Piece)’

Hseih’s final piece could be described as the opposite of art - he did not create, think about, look at, or read about anything related to art. A signed, legal statement and a promotional poster, similar to the ones produced for his earlier performances, are the only documentation or trace of this year-long piece. 


Hsieh’s final performance art was a thirteen-year piece titled ‘Thirteen Year Plan,’ where he chose to make art, but not show it publicly. This lasted from his birthday in 1986 to his 49th birthday in 1999. On 1 January 2000, in his report to the public, he announced that he had "kept himself alive". He has stopped making art since then. Hsieh currently resides in Brooklyn and runs a cafe and Asian foodstore with his ex-wife Qinqin Li.


The seriousness and dedication with which Hsieh pursued his projects offer credibility to his performance art pieces and above all else admiration for his craft. Hsieh’s primary interest in passing time, and the paradox of making art by not making art, of acting with inaction, highlights his singular approach: a total blurring of artistic production; transforming anti-creativity, something perceived as negative in the art world, into a creative accomplishment, that will be admired for years to come.