Exclusive Extract: Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh interview

In this exclusive extract from the new paperback edition of Out of Now, The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, editor Adrian Heathfield interviews Tehching about his process and his exceptional series of One Year Performance artworks.

 One Year Performance, 1981 - 19842

AH: One of the most radical dynamics of your performance pieces is the way that they make art and life simultaneous, so that the two activities cannot be separated. This collision is made absolute by your use of long durations. When you started making work, why did you decide the performances would take a year? And did you know that you would be making a long series of One Year Performances?

TH: The reason I chose to use one year for the first piece was to do with my life experience. At that time, I had been an illegal immigrant in the States for four years. I earned money to survive and tried to do my art but without a smooth advance. One day, after work, I was walking back and forth doing my thinking in the studio. Suddenly, I thought, “Why don’t I make the process of thinking about art in my studio an artwork, and present it using a long duration?” I had spent a lot of time in this situation of isolation, as if I was doing time. Giving the thinking process an art form, my idea would be embodied. Also I knew that to present life, I needed to use a long duration. One year is a basic unit for human beings to calculate life, and it is also the time the earth takes to circle the sun completely.

I decided there would be no reading, no talking, no watching TV, nor listening to the radio, as a way to show my isolated thinking which had barely any impact from the outside. The whole series of my One Year Performances was not constructed at one time. I was not certain I would have a series at the beginning of that first piece; it was only during it that I came to know how I should do my next work.

One Year Performance, 1978 - 1979


AH: Before you came to the States had you made other similar pieces?

TH: No. I started using painting as my art when I was eighteen and continued until I was twenty-three. Looking back at those paintings, you will see my style ranges from Post-Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism. I was influenced by some of the great masters of our time. One painting, which I did while in compulsory military service, is a conceptual piece. I divided a white canvas into two rectangles and painted the lower portion army green. In the center of the white part I wrote my military ID number. In one of my last paintings called Paint Red Repetitions I used red acrylic paint to make circles on a thirty-sheet sketchbook, one circle on each sheet. I dipped the brush into the paint, swirled a circle, flipped this sheet over, and then repeated the same set of actions on the next pages, until the last sheet. It took me about four minutes to finish this piece.

After finishing three years of military service, in 1973, I had a solo show. However, little by little, I realized that, simply through painting, I couldn’t express my art well enough. I decided to stop painting.

AH: You stopped when you came to the States?

TH: I stopped painting in 1973. I had no idea where I should go. The whole environment in Taiwan was very oppressive; there was little chance to catch exciting avant-garde art from the Western world. I did hear of something called Happenings and Conceptual Art. Only the names, that’s all. I didn’t know any more than that.

Still searching for a way to do my art, I made two pieces before I came to New York. To some extent you might say that they have to do with time. I bought a Super 8 camera to document my actions. One piece was a process where, in an orderly fashion, I laid down 100 sheets of Kodak photographic paper (20 x 24 in.; 50.8 x 61 cm.) one by one on the floor outdoors, ten pieces in a row. As soon as they met the light they turned dark. I worked in a zigzag. After each row I turned in the opposite direction to lay another ten pieces in the next row. Until I finished turning the last one. After 100 pieces were laid down I went back to the first row and flipped each paper over; now the white sides were up, the darkened sides became the underneath. This contrast of light and dark tones between each paper continued until I finished the last one. The process took twenty minutes and the camera witnessed it all.

An earlier piece was the “Jump Piece” where I jumped from a second floor window, about fifteen feet high, onto a concrete floor. I broke both ankles and have had pain ever since. The Super 8 camera recorded this act. A friend of mine took some photos. I have preserved the x-rays taken after I was sent to the hospital.

AH: You knew about Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void?
TH: No. I didn’t hear his name mentioned until I had done my first One Year Performance.

                              One Year Performance, 1980 - 1981

AH: Have you ever shown this piece?

TH: The day when I came out from the cage this piece was shown in the adjoining room along with some other earlier pieces that I had done in New York. I didn’t make this decision. Since I was not supposed to talk to anyone during the first One Year Performance, my friend Cheng Wei Kuong decided to show these works by himself. If I could have made the decision on my own, I would not have shown these pieces since by then I considered them bad art.

AH: But this piece is fascinating. Around the same time in the mid-seventies in Europe and America there were related actions in the emergent movement of Body Art.

TH: I didn’t know anything about this though. I tried this piece because I knew that painting had posed a limit in the expression of my art. I needed to do some experimental works.

AH: You wanted to make an event, or you wanted to make a film?

TH: I had no idea what “event” meant at that time, although I was actually making one and I was being quite focused on my acts. As I didn’t know that I could have an audience present, I used a camera to record the process of my action. The film exists as document.

AH: It seems to me that there is a direct link between this piece and your later pieces in its use of documentation and embodied risk.

TH: Yes, there is a continuity in my use of the document. In 1978, I made a series of art actions, two pieces that were a little bit “risky.” One piece called “Paint Stick” where I drew a line on my left cheek with a red oil pastel and, right below that mark, I cut a parallel line with a mat knife and let it bleed; then I turned to my right cheek and did the same acts. The other piece was called “Half-Ton.” First, I was standing and holding an upright piece of sheetrock. Then, I had two friends gradually add pieces of sheetrock until there were eight pieces that weighed a half ton. After all the sheetrock pieces were in place, I dove to the ground and the sheetrock fell over me. I broke my clavicle while taking the weight during this piece.

In fact, I was not always dealing with risk. There was a “Throw Up” piece, where I ate Chinese fried rice continuously until I could not take it anymore and threw it up. Right after, I went on eating fruit salad until I vomited. I used a video camera to record the process.

For two years I had done a cleaning job in a restaurant in SoHo. My job was that every night I would put up more than one hundred chairs on the tables, sweep and wax the floor, then put those chairs back on the ground. I used a video camera to document the whole course of this work, which took about forty minutes.

AH: So taken together, although these pieces involve pain and risk, they would seem to be more about task and labor seen from a position of profound disadvantage?

TH: I was in a position of profound disadvantage indeed. But the reason why my work concentrated on pain and risk was more related to my inner struggle. You certainly can interpret this through a sociological view or other perspectives. But I didn’t think of it that way while I was doing it.

AH: In the earlier pieces the risk is very obvious, physical, visceral, but in the One Year Performances the risk is not so dramatic: they are about constant difficulty, the risk is much more sustained.

TH: My earlier pieces are experimental. They are not mature. The risk is manifested intentionally, but in my One Year Performances this risk dissolves into life and is not particularly emphasized. If my earlier pieces were suicidal works in a destructive way, the One Year Performances would be a sort of slow suicide in a constructive fashion.

My influences were Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Nietzsche, Sisyphus, contemporary art and my mother. I was more interested in philosophical thinking: a way to develop myself, a way of asking myself, “What does life mean to me?”

                           One Year Performance, 1983 - 1984, Theching Hsieh and Linda Montano

AH: The earlier pieces are somewhat about time, because they are sudden events. But what made you fix on the idea of very long durations? What made you focus on time as the prominent structure for your work?

TH: Culture shock and the language gap deepened my experience as an illegal immigrant. During the first four years of living in New York, instead of being a practicing artist, I was a thinking artist—a frustrated person who stayed in the studio thinking about life and art. My One Year Performances present my different perspectives of thinking about life, but they are all under the same premise: life as a life sentence. So these pieces are all practiced through long durations.

AH: Do you think you were marking a difference between your perception and philosophy of time and the culture and values of the place and time you were living in?

TH: Mostly, I was living in my own world. I had very limited information about the world outside. To explore new things, I depended on my intuition a lot, so I had to be true to myself. While still in Taiwan, I was influenced by the spirit of the Enlightenment and inspired by Russian literature. My life experience together with these earlier influences gave me tremendous support to do my works. Of course New York’s multiculturalism and freedom had an impact on me. These elements drove me, as an artist, to face my own matter and the essence of life introspectively. My works were made in the last quarter of the twentieth century and executed in New York. This was their context. Yet in the conception, my works do not have to be done at a specific time or site. For me, time is a notion of boundlessness, it is not only related to the present. I am not like many contemporary artists who are intensely attached to the present. If there’s any difference, I think I built one kind of art form that I could live, think freely, and pass time within.

One Year Performance, 1980 - 1981

AH: You put yourself in conditions that were very tough for you physically over a long period of time...

TH: I knew it would be challenging, that was why I did a one-week experiment before I started each piece. Having been in the army for three years and having lived in rough conditions as an illegal immigrant for several years, also having done construction work for a living, I was adjusted to a tough situation. I was young and physically healthy. But even if I hadn’t had those experiences I would still have utilized whatever experience I had to fulfill my acts. What is determinant is the will.

AH: The severity of the One Year Performances was very connected to your experiences as an illegal immigrant?

TH: I wouldn’t say my work is autobiographical. My illegal experiences in the States did make me consider those who live at the bottom of society. I intended to transform this consideration into a philosophical approach. A person living at the bottom might show his pains and his resentments politically. But as an artist, he should have the ability to transform basic living conditions into artworks in which to ponder life, art and being.

AH: But this transformation through art is one that still involves the expression of pain? Art has a cathartic function?

TH: Pain was released in my work, although I wouldn’t emphasize it. I got the idea of doing a “Wanted by US Immigration Service” poster before the first One Year Performance, which was a kind of self- portrait to me. It was shown in public when I was doing the “Outdoor Piece.”

                            One Year Performance, 1981 - 1982

AH: When you did this—publicly drawing attention to your illegal status—did you make it easier for the immigration officers to find you?

TH: I was living on the street during the time the “Wanted” poster was exhibited in a group show. No officer came to find me.

AH: It interests me how much your work assimilates and plays back the language and processes of the law: the phrasing of the declarations in the documents that begin the One Year Performance works and lay down their rules, the processes of signing seals, the repeated use of a witness...

TH: As an illegal immigrant, it was natural for me to be concerned with the law. As an artist, I tended to use an accurate language to present my concept. The language of the law was appropriate to support my ideas. But I was the one who built rules, executed them and broke them as well.

You could see my work in some part as being about or representing the illegal immigrant, the refugee or the homeless person. But I don’t think of art from this view, I think of it as being about the struggle in life, and I’m inside it. You could say a work is about this or about that. It is not about something only. It continues to be open. It is possible for you to see it in many ways.

                            One Year Performance, 1978 - 1979

To read more about the life and work of Tehching Hsieh purchase a paperback copy of Out of Now, The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh on Unbound now.