Book Review: Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh

Out of Now. The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh (updated edition), by Tehching Hsieh and Adrian Heathfield.

Available on amazon UK and USA.


Publisher MIT Press writes: In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh made a series of extraordinary performance art works. Between September 1978 and July 1986, Hsieh realized five separate one-year-long performance pieces in which he conformed to simple but highly restrictive rules throughout each entire year.

Through the course of these lifeworks, Hsieh moved from a year of solitary confinement in a sealed cell to a year in which he punched a worker’s time clock in his studio every hour on the hour to a year spent living without shelter in Manhattan to a year in which he was tied by an eight-foot rope to the artist Linda Montano and finally to a year of total abstention from all art activities and influences. In 1986 Hsieh announced that he would spend the next thirteen years making art but not showing it publicly. When this “final” lifework—an immense act of self-affirmation and self-erasure—came to a close at the turn of the millennium, he tersely and enigmatically said that during this time he had simply kept himself alive.

After years of near-invisibility, Hsieh collaborated with the British writer and curator Adrian Heathfield to create this meticulous and visually arresting documentary record of the complete body of Tehching Hsieh’s performance projects from 1978 to 1999. This milestone volume is now available again, in a paperback edition featuring the full text and all the illustrations in the hardcover, with an updated list of Hsieh’s exhibitions.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-9, 1
One Year Performance, 1978-1979

There are artworks that keep on haunting me and make me wonder “would i ever have the guts/strength/courage to do the same?” Michael Landy destroying all his possessions is a good example of that. And then there’s Tehching Hsieh. He’s the legend who to wanted to make the process of thinking about art an artwork in its own right. He did so by setting himself some simple but almost inhumanely restrictive rules that he followed, religiously, for one year. He first sat in a cell with no communication for a year. He then punched a time clock every hour on the hour for a year. He lived on the street for a year. He tied himself to a fellow artist for a year. For his last performance, he avoided engaging in any art practice. Again, for a full year.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance n. 2, Time Clock Piece, 1980-81

The works took place from 1978 to 1986 in New York, a period in which he had to navigate between the growing attention from the public for his work and the necessity to remain under the radar because he was an illegal immigrant from Taiwan. If his year long performances were not radical enough, Tehching Hsieh also announced in 1986 that he would spend the next 13 years making art without showing it publicly. In the art world, this kind of crazy gesture is akin to suicide. In 1999, when he finally emerged from his voluntary cultural exile, all he said was that in that period he had ‘kept himself alive.’

Out of Now is a new and slightly updated edition of a book that’s been out of stock for the past few years. The book collects the visual documentation of the artist’s performances. The photos, maps, artist statements, etc. As well as white pages for the 13 years of artistic silence.

The introduction to the documentation consists in a series of short essays by writer and curator Adrian Heathfield who places Hsieh’s practice into the cultural context of its time while demonstrating how different it is from the ideas and concepts of that same period.

My favourite part of Out of Now is the long interview Adrian Heathfield did with Tehching Hsieh. The conversation is both deep and charming, hopping from topics as diverse as Hsieh’s mother opinion about his work to the various ways in which each piece consumed his life.

The final part of the book compiles texts written by famous and anonymous people who express the impact that Hsieh’s work had on them. There’s Tim Etchells, Santiago Sierra or Marina Abramovic writing about their admiration for his work but there’s also an unsigned letter from someone who thinks that Hsieh’s work brings ‘shame and discredit to the Chinese people”.

Out of Now documents a series of artworks but somehow manages to keep their author shrouded in mystery. Hsieh is interviewed, his work is analyzed, put into images and commented. The more you read, the less you understand the man who has pushed his emotional, physical and psychological endurance to such extreme limits. That’s probably the best homage that a book could pay to a man who is so often described as being a ‘cult figure’ in the art world.

One Year Performance, 1978-1979

Statement for One Year Performance, 1978-1979

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-1979. Copyright Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1978-79

For “Cage Piece”, Hsieh constructed a cell inside a loft in TriBeCa. The rules of his solitary confinement were listed in a curt manifesto: “I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.” Every day, a friend would bring him food and take out his waste.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance n. 2, Time Clock Piece, 1980-81 (still from video)

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-81

Tehching Tsieh, Carriageworks, Install Documentation
Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1980-81

For the “Time Piece,” the artist essentially denied himself sleep in order to punch a time clock every hour on the hour, twenty four hours a day, for one year. He apparently had to attach multiple alarm clocks to amplifiers to penetrate his foggy brain. Every time he punched the clock a movie camera would take a single movie picture shot of him.

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1981-2, 1
One Year Performance, Outdoor Piece, 1981–1982

In his third performance piece, Hsieh spent one year living in the street, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort. He walked around New York City with a backpack and a sleeping bag and charted his wanderings on maps.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

Tehching Hsieh, Art Life, 1
Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance, 1983-1984

For his next performance, he tied himself to artist Linda Montano with an 8 foot long rope. While the rope obliged them to do everything together, but any intentional bodily contact was forbidden.