A character called Sam Hsieh makes several brief but alluring appearances in Rachel Kushner’s bestselling novel The Flamethrowers
(2013). In that book, Hsieh is something of a cultural secret. He is also a symbol of the radical capacities of a principled art practice, situated by Kushner between the defining tensions of the 1970s: revolutionary politics, corporate powers and the thirst for expressive freedom. That many people may only know of Hsieh as a minor fictional character is fitting for an artist whose practices are revered by other artists, but hard to believe – let alone interpret.
The ‘real’ Tehching Hsieh – he went by the name Sam in his first years as an illegal immigrant in New York – has proven difficult to find and locate within the dominant narratives of art and performance history. Doing Time
in Venice is consequently the first exhibition bringing together two of Hsieh’s One Year Performances
in their fullest forms. The resilient opacity of Hsieh, and his work, comes down to much more than his outsider status, the fact of his race in white art scenes and histories, or the general marginalization of performance in mainstream visual art institutions in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Our lagging behind Hsieh is more revealing than these sadly persistent issues. We are, perhaps, just catching up with the realities of contemporary life that Hsieh subjected himself to, contoured and made manifest in his long durational artworks.
The pairing of ‘Time Clock Piece’ and ‘Outdoor Piece’ brings to the fore the most pressing human issues of our time: the impoverishment of experience under capitalism, migration and the law, the lives of those who have nothing, our engagements with the elements, acceleration and death. First, let’s establish what was made evident. After a year spent living in a self-built cage without communication, Hsieh committed to clocking on to a worker’s time clock on the hour, every hour, for a whole year. This exhausting labour was rendered into an unprecedented experimental visual artefact: a 16mm film in which a wave of time is registered passing though his fluttering upright body. After a six-month hiatus, a subsequent year was spent eschewing all shelter, propelling Hsieh into an itinerant life of elemental exposure, prey to the vicissitudes of the weather, social violence and the law. Hsieh was an underground phenomenon, living and creating at the edge of art culture.
At the time, an aesthetics of duration was emerging in the long wake of western conceptual art, and the burgeoning transatlantic scenes of body art. But Hsieh proceeded without art world reference or influence. No artist had thought of systematically going that far with duration, of consigning their waking life so absolutely to art, or of recording and verifying its enactment so ‘totally’. Hsieh made life-time his subject and his medium, drawing attention to his subjection during that time, in revelatory conditions of existence. He lived out abjection as an ongoing proposition. A year of time is impossible to capture in representation, as Hsieh understood well; and a non-white, paperless young man with no social or art world status was unlikely to be believed. So Hsieh’s para-legal statements, contracts and archival machinery were invented to secure the veracity of his work’s existence. That these performance works were seen as extreme, as outliers of major currents, and without category is not surprising. That he persisted against prevailing conditions, and insisted (like a true perfectionist) in his variously constrained and recorded life experiments becomes a monumental work of faith. Perhaps he was saving his acts for a time in which they would be more readily understood? A strange faith, then, in history, or even in time itself.
‘Time itself’ – whatever that is – is the subject of the ‘Time Clock Piece’. Hsieh’s perverse use of a symbol of factory-line control lets us know that the labour in question is 24/7 not 9 to 5. The artwork convenes a world in which late-capitalism attempts to account for all of life and Hsieh ‘sacrifices’ his body to its machinery. In the click of the shutter the powers of late-capitalism coincide with the technologies of visibility. Visual representation is figured as the necessary correlate upon which capitalized time depends. Hsieh is pressed into a listless state of sleeplessness, broken dreaming and exhausted consciousness, where the primary function of his body is simply to produce: a timely image of himself. He appears to be living through the end-time of late-capitalism’s culture of acceleration and selfishness. But in the eerie stuttering dialogue between photography and film that Hsieh convenes, other senses of selfless time emerge: lived times, at once familiar and strange, immeasurable and without capture. The living body evoked in these image-affects does not exist in one time, but a kind of ‘no-when’: in the radical heterogeneities of duration. If the felt force of Hsieh’s critique has not yet reached you, just think of that dopamine hit you are now craving, having left your smart device alone for the five minutes it has taken you to read these words. Think of the way technology has got under your skin, into the cells of your flesh, curtailed your sleep, heightened your productivity, cast every waking moment of your life into a chemically driven rush to connect, process and acquire. Then it’s possible to understand the lost life-times that Hsieh’s firm look and trembling body disclose: where seeking is not mastered by technologies of bio-power.
Hsieh’s ‘Time Clock Piece’ sees late-capitalism as a system founded on productive acceleration, and it proposes wasting time as a counter-value. His labour is strenuous but ultimately excessively empty. Most of the time he is waiting, doing ‘nothing’, activating a hollow form of accounting; his actions amount to an unworking of work, an anti-production. The movement dynamics of this laborious waste are brought to the fore in Hsieh’s subsequent ‘Outdoor Piece’, where he embarks on a relentless wandering work, an arduous journey to nowhere in particular. Hsieh ‘simply’ lives outside, but stays on the streets of New York in a new kind of deprivation. Pushed to physical limits in this elemental exposure – an outside of the outside – he makes a form of bare existence art, where the nature and means of survival are in question. Hsieh’s archival system produces a stark set of photographs of life on the street. But most tellingly he produces a replete series of daily maps with hand drawn routes and notations – a kind of bio-graphology – marking the places in the city where the physical necessities of eating, excreting and sleeping took place. The maps teach us to re-think the relation between elemental necessity, shelter and home. It is in the shelterless condition of this work that Hsieh finally recovers his Taiwanese name, and encounters a breach of his self-imposed life rules. He is accosted by a man on the street, fights back and is soon arrested, though he acted in self-defence. A night in a police cell violently ruptures the order of the work.
Hsieh’s complex relation to the law unfolds. He persistently reiterated the language of the law in his typed inaugural declarations and ‘contracts’ of verification. All the while, he withheld his reality as an illegal immigrant. The law comes back to Hsieh in the state of exception he inhabits – outside of the law yet anchored to it – and seems at first to assert its proper functions, subjecting Hsieh’s body to its authority. Hsieh swiftly returned to his life on the street, but what returns in the final analysis, in the moment of judgment, is a strange reiteration by the law of Hsieh’s state of exception. Rose McBrien, the judge in Hsieh’s hearing, acknowledged Hsieh’s art project and its principles or ‘laws’ by not insisting on his presence before the law. His sentence for his offence was given as “time served.” Hsieh’s general condition of illegal citizenry was fortunately not noticed or acted upon. Judgment is disclosed, not as the rule of law, but as a performative statement machine. The judge sticks to her words, allowing Hsieh’s body to slip out of one subjection and into his self-chosen one: it seems that the rule of the solitary, abject, itinerant artist overrules. It is in such moments that we might understand the radical value of Hsieh’s experimental practice of a life: its potential to remake the laws of a given world.
I am so delighted that Taiwan has decided to ‘re-claim’ its long lost black sheep, a reticent and reluctant agent. In so doing – during such dark global times of racial hatred of migrants and indifference to planetary destruction – Taiwan affirms the value of those who call no nation home, of the wandering and dispossessed. She affirms the labours of those who do not seek the riches of self-possession, but instead a life made in difficult art, in communion with elemental conditions and possessed by the edges of ideas. Taiwan’s hospitality to its ‘exiled’ son also affords the opportunity to view three previously unseen early works from 1973, made before Hsieh’s emigration. We return to a place where a certain exilic impulse is already in motion. In these photographs and performances Hsieh is wrestling with the ground on which he must walk. But his actions and engagements also disclose his nascent concerns: with environment and time, qualities of existence, images and documents as frail remainders of an elusive life force.
Despite his relatively slight art world presence and circulation, Hsieh has long planned a full retrospective of his works: a linear exhibition hall whose spatial dynamics precisely mirror his art’s temporal frameworks. Five large, identically sized rooms will contain the accumulated archives of his first five yearlong works. The fifth room is empty, bar Hsieh’s statement and poster: for that year he absented himself from all engagements with art. Subsequently, Hsieh made a ‘Thirteen Year Plan’, throughout which he made art but did not show it publicly. His final unfinished work, under cover of this plan, was to withdraw from all human contact: an unlivable ideal. And so, Hsieh’s five rooms are followed by a further thirteen achingly empty rooms. To carry the invisible: an ‘impossible’ architecture. After the ‘Thirteen Year Plan’, Hsieh says that he is no longer an artist and does not make art.
Hsieh’s refusal of art – of its foundation in appearances and presences, and his eventual personal refusal of the name of artist – is perhaps the bitterest pill for the art world to swallow. Given his convictions and laborious sacrifices, we would do well to take these propositions seriously. If it does not re-present or make evident, if it resides somewhere barely visible and legible, if it is not made by those people with a need to call themselves artists, what, then, is art? Perhaps it is just a condition of experimental life?
In Hsieh’s projected retrospective, the long line of empty rooms has an exit. It is marked by Hsieh’s simple closing statement of the ‘Thirteen Year Plan’ and a life in art: “I kept myself alive.” Hsieh’s final performance of disappearance remains unrealized and unseen. Yet, the constellation of his propositions endures, emanating from an ineffable life, lived at limits...
Unwork the world
Art is existence, giving and showing itself
Art is unseen life, a form of survival
Nothing is potential
Perhaps Hsieh’s retrospective exhibition will remain a fiction in his lifetime, or in mine, or perhaps one day we will have learnt the cultural value of his negations. Viva Hsieh! Going barely: a life.