Tehching Hsieh’s Voluntary Lockdowns

While the confinement of lockdown is difficult for most of us, performance artist Tehching Hsieh’s work embraces the limits of space and the endlessness of time.

Photo Credit: Tehching Hsieh

Our lockdowns are only lockdowns to a certain extent. Those of us lucky enough to live in suburban areas have access to supplies and the means to visit those we care about should they need our assistance. Of course, lockdown has been an abrupt and inconvenient change to the way we live our lives, but the fact remains we are not completely and totally locked in our homes without possibility of exit.

Legendary Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh explored what it means to be truly locked down in the first two of his One Year Performance’s. Later on in his career, Hsieh would venture out of total confinement to perform works such as One Year Performance 1981-1982 (Outdoor Piece), in which he slept and lived outdoors in New York, and One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece), which saw Hsieh tied to a fellow performance artist with an eight-foot rope for a full twelve months. However, it is One Year Performance 1978-1979 (Cage Piece) and One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece) that resonant most with the current widespread feeling of being an elephant stuck in a cage.

In Cage Piece, Hsieh locked himself away in a small cage with only a wash basin, a light, a bucket and a bed from September 1978 to September 1979. As if this weren’t restriction enough, the artist did not read, write, speak or use a television or radio. Our easily accessible entertainment services have helped many survive the COVID-19 lockdown, and have been beneficial in escaping thoughts of worry or dread. Yet somehow Hsieh managed to survive the year without any mental stimulation or human interaction. As he said in an interview, ‘I was thinking about wasting time. Before I had a studio but I didn’t know what to create. I was just wasting time, thinking, for years. Then I turned wasting time into art.’

While we may not consider ourselves to be ‘wasting time’ but rather waiting out our time in lockdown, Hsieh’s work puts all life and living into the perspective of time passing, a thought which can be as comforting as it can be terrifying. Though we have endless sources of entertainment, constant connection to friends, family, news and the support of others during our lockdown, it can be easy to feel like we are merely watching time revolve, days turn into nights, the natural processes of our bodies being all we have to observe and ponder.

Tehching Hsieh took the idea of passing time even further in his next year long performance, Time Clock Piece. This work saw the artist punching a time card every hour on the hour for the entire year. Hsieh shaved his head at the start of the year and took a still photograph each time he punched his card, culminating in a six-minute film in which his hair slowly grows longer. While this work gave Hsieh noticeably more freedom than his Cage Piece, it explores times relentlessness more aggressively than any other work.

Photo Credit: Tehching Hsieh

Called by some an exercise in extreme boredom, this year-long work feels relevant to days spent at home, waiting for lunch after breakfast and dinner after lunch, with no possibilities of excitement or escape from the monotony of daily life. Lockdown has made time weigh more heavily on us, due both to its being wasted and its nagging, unceasing presence. It is important to note that Hsieh missed punching the time clock 133 times out of a possible 8,760, perhaps growing too weary to stay focused as we too grow weary of our routines.

Time has never been more present in our modern lives than during this time of lockdowns and quarantines. While it is undeniably for the best in terms of global recovery, the personal effects isolation has are just as undeniable. Tehching Hsieh’s work of endurance and patience brings us strength and hope against the heavy weight of time. His unerring humanity resonates with all of us as we knuckle down in a perpetual waiting game, a game that will not truly end even when we emerge from lockdown.

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