Article found at nytimes.com
"A Caged Man Breaks Out At Last"
IN 1974 Tehching Hsieh, a young Taiwanese performance artist working as a seaman, walked down the gangplank of an oil tanker docked in the Delaware River and slipped into the United States. His destination: Manhattan, center of the art world.
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Cheng Wei Kuong
Tehching Hsieh during his year in a cage in 1978 and ’79, his first performance-art project. The cage, its contents and documentation of the performance are on display at MoMA. More Photos »
The Art of Tehching Hsieh
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Cheng Wei Kuong
Tehching Hsieh during “Cage Piece,” his yearlong performance-art project. More Photos >
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Cheng Wei Kuong
Tehching Hsieh was an illegal immigrant when he mounted “Cage Piece,” in TriBeCa in 1978. More Photos >
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Tehching Hsieh today. More Photos >
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Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
The cage during the current exhibition at MoMA. More Photos >
Once there, though, Mr. Hsieh found himself ensnared in the benumbing life of an illegal immigrant. With the downtown art scene vibrating around him, he eked out a living at Chinese restaurants and construction jobs, feeling alien, alienated and creatively barren until it came to him: He could turn his isolation into art. Inside an unfinished loft, he could build himself a beautiful cage, shave his head, stencil his name onto a uniform and lock himself away for a year.
Thirty years later Mr. Hsieh’s “Cage Piece” is on display at the Museum of Modern Art as the inaugural installation in a series on performance art. But formal recognition of Mr. Hsieh (pronounced shay), who is now a 58-year-old American citizen with spiky salt-and-pepper hair, has been a long time coming.
For decades he was almost an urban legend, his harrowing performances — the year he punched a time clock hourly, the year he lived on the streets, the year he spent tethered by a rope to a female artist — kept alive by talk.
The talk was cultish, flecked with reverence for the conceptual purity and physical extremity of Mr. Hsieh’s performances in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But he himself seemed to have vanished. “Tehching was a bit like a myth,” said Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator of MoMA’s department of media.
All along, however, Mr. Hsieh was invisible in plain sight, meticulously archiving his artistic portfolio as he went about the business of “dealing with life,” as he put it. For 14 years, until he received amnesty in 1988, his immigration status, or lack of status, had informed his art, but it also made him an outsider, enduringly. His work was rarely collected, displayed or studied, and he eventually quit making art entirely.
“My work is kind of unknown, and I am not an artist anymore,” he said in his thickly accented English, which is fluent but limited, often making him sound terse.
Sipping green tea in his minimally furnished loft above a 99-Cent Plus shop in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Mr. Hsieh pushed across his kitchen table a history of performance art that mentions him only in a sentence. “I don’t want to say it was race,” he said, noting that he has long been reticent to promote his work.
But Alexandra Munroe, senior curator of Asian art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, had no such compunctions, given what she described as a historical disregard for nonwhite artists in the avant-garde. “Why was Tehching left out?” she said. “Because he was Chinese.”
This winter, owing to renewed interest in performance art, new passion for contemporary Chinese art and the coinciding interests of several curators, Mr. Hsieh’s moment of recognition has arrived from many directions at once.
The one-man show at MoMA runs through May 18. The Guggenheim is featuring his time-clock piece in “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989” through April 19. M.I.T. Press is about to release “Out of Now,” a large-format book devoted to his “lifeworks.” And United States Artists, an advocacy organization, has awarded Mr. Hsieh ,000, his first grant.
He is gratified by the exhibitions. But he judges the book, which is 384 pages and weighs almost six pounds, to be the definitive ode to his artistic career.
“Because of this book I can die tomorrow,” said Mr. Hsieh, who collaborated on “Out of Now” with Adrian Heathfield, a writer and curator in London.
Such utterances can startle. (“Life is a life sentence” is another.) But Mr. Hsieh’s matter-of-fact delivery makes them seem less bleak than unblinking — an existentialist’s workaday credo.
“He is deeply philosophical,” Ms. Munroe said.
The roots of Mr. Hsieh’s lifelong questioning lie in southern Taiwan, where his little-known artistic odyssey began. There he grew up one of 15 children of an authoritarian father with five wives. But he was doted on by his mother.
“We were not really a poor family,” he said during a long interview, at the end of which he was joined by his radiantly serene wife, Qinqin Li, an elementary school art teacher who emigrated from Beijing after meeting Mr. Hsieh there in 2001. Ms. Li is, Mr. Hsieh noted, 24 years his junior and his third wife.
In Taiwan Mr. Hsieh’s father, who ran a small trucking company, did not consider art a practical profession. Nonetheless Mr. Hsieh studied with a private painting teacher throughout his childhood, until in 1967 he dropped out of high school to devote himself to art. Taiwan in that era was relatively cosmopolitan. Mr. Hsieh wore his hair long, listened to rock ’n’ roll and read Nietzsche, Kafka and Dostoyevsky.
Next, three years of compulsory military service exposed Mr. Hsieh to the kind of rigor and regimentation that later governed his performance pieces.
When he left the army, he had his first solo show, but he had already become more interested in the act of painting than in the product. One of his final paintings, “Paint — Red Repetitions,” was executed in four minutes when he swirled a circle of red on each page of a sketchbook. “I became empty,” he said. “I just moved my hand.”
After that Mr. Hsieh sought new ways to express himself, ultimately buying a Super 8 camera and training it on his new medium: himself.
Though he had not yet learned of Yves Klein or seen “Leap Into the Void,” the 1960 photomontage that purported to show that French artist swan-diving off a rooftop, he tried a version of it for real in 1973. He recorded himself jumping from a second-story window to the sidewalk — and breaking both his ankles.
Mr. Biesenbach said he believed “Jump Piece” to be brilliant, an early indicator of Mr. Hsieh’s willingness to give his life to art. But Mr. Hsieh now considers it immature, an unfortunate harbinger of future self-destructive pieces, like “Half-Ton,” in which he let himself be crushed beneath Sheetrock, or “Throw Up,” in which he ate fried rice until he vomited.
While he was recovering from his jump, Mr. Hsieh set his sights on leaving Taiwan, deciding to train as a merchant mariner so that he could emigrate by ship. In 1974 he boarded the oil tanker that gradually made its way to the United States. Mr. Hsieh jumped ship near Philadelphia. He hailed a taxi and paid the driver 0 to take him to New York City.
During his first long winter in New York the elation faded. Mr. Hsieh shared a compatriot’s unheated apartment and fell into the menial work that would sap his creative energy for four years, until he conceived of “Cage Piece.” Back in Taiwan Mr. Hsieh’s mother, who was baffled by his art, helped support that project with ,000 and one condition: “Don’t be a criminal.”
In the fall of 1978 Mr. Hsieh, then 28, constructed his cell-like cage of pine dowels inside a loft in TriBeCa. He furnished it with a cot, a sink and a bucket. Before he shut himself inside, he issued a terse manifesto, typed on white paper: “I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.”
Mr. Hsieh’s loft mate, Cheng Wei Kuong, who had studied with the same painting teacher in Taiwan, brought his food and removed his waste. After weeks of beef and broccoli, Mr. Hsieh said, he wordlessly threw one meal to the floor when it was delivered; later he felt bad about that.
Each day Mr. Hsieh scratched a line in the wall with his fingernail, which made 365 hatch marks at the end. Each day, with his hair infinitesimally longer, he stood on his traced footprints to be photographed.
Every three weeks he allowed spectators, but he did not acknowledge them. He was too busy thinking — about his past, his art, the passing of time and the boundaries of space. He was thinking about how his physical confinement liberated his mind.
“That piece was an ode to freedom,” Mr. Biesenbach said. “He’s an incredibly thoughtful translator of concepts. He made the idea of meditation and contemplation very tangible for me. And, really, consider that he did this in New York City, the fastest place in the world.”
After Mr. Hsieh emerged, people seemed “like wolves,” he said. At first he retreated to the cage to feel safe. Eventually he packed the cage and accompanying artifacts in a crate, revealing early confidence that his work was worth preserving.
Mr. Hsieh then embarked on a second grueling performance, the punching of the time clock. He again issued a statement, shaved his head, donned a uniform and toyed with what Ms. Munroe called an “iconic modern form,” the worker as automaton, “straight out of Marxism 101.”
During that year Mr. Hsieh essentially denied himself sleep, given the self-imposed requirement to punch the clock hourly. To do so he needed multiple alarm clocks attached to amplifiers to penetrate his befogged brain. Mr. Hsieh put himself, Ms. Munroe said, in “a mindful state of delirium that forced confrontation with time itself”; he also generated a “physical model of time passing” with 8,760 timecards.
That year Mr. Hsieh felt like Sisyphus, he said, engaged in a futile task that nonetheless gave his life purpose and structure. To this day, he said, “wasting time is my concept of life,” clarifying: “Living is nothing but consuming time until you die.”
In the third test of his own endurance Mr. Hsieh moved out of his loft to spend a year on the streets. Vowing never to enter a “building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, tent,” he took on an extreme form of homelessness, believing: “You have to make the art stronger than life so people can feel it. Like Franz Kafka says, you have to take an ax” to the frozen sea in “people’s hearts.”
That year it was the East River that froze. Mr. Hsieh, wandering with his backpack, treated Chinatown as his kitchen and the Hudson River as his bathroom; he slept in drained swimming pools, on cardboard mats and in garbage cans.
Using a tripod Mr. Hsieh documented his homelessness in striking photographs, the only original documentation that he ever sold. Because he was performing in public, he attracted more attention that year than previously. Word traveled backed to Taiwan, upsetting his family, he said, because “some people say I should go to mental hospital.”
Linda Montano, a feminist performance artist drawn to what she called the “soulful” posters advertising his outdoor performance, sought him out just when Mr. Hsieh was looking for an attachment, literally. Having explored constraints of time and space he wanted to examine human bonds. He proposed, and Ms. Montano accepted, that they connect themselves at the waist with an eight-foot rope for a year. The artists slept in twin beds — touching was not permitted — and tried to go about their separate lives attached, which involved a constant tug of war. They often did not get along.
“I was more like a cobra, without feeling,” he said. “She was more emotional.”
In his year with Ms. Montano, which began July 4, 1983, Mr. Hsieh was exposed to the art world as never before because she was a part of it. His next one-year project was to avoid that world completely, to “go in life” without seeing, making or talking about art. And his sixth and final piece, his most inscrutable, was a “13-years plan” to make art but not show it publicly.
During this time he tried to exile himself more deeply inside America by “disappearing” to Alaska, but he made it only as far as Seattle, where, working low-wage jobs, he felt as if he were fresh off the boat once again. Giving up after six months, he moved back to New York, got his green card, worked in construction and sold 96 of his early paintings to a Taiwanese collector for 0,000. He used much of the money to buy an abandoned building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, converting it into an artists’ residence, which he managed.
At the end of the 13 years, on in his 49th birthday, which happened to fall precisely at the turn of the millennium, he issued a statement in collage form, using cut-out letters, that said: “I kept myself alive. I passed the Dec. 31, 1999.”
Afterward he sold his Williamsburg building, bought and renovated the loft in Clinton Hill, traveled with more frequency to China, married Ms. Li and eventually worked with the curators interested in shaping his legacy. But, having lived in such a “persistent exile” from art that he could not return to it, as he said in his book, he declared his life as an artist over and left others to grapple with what that meant.
Ms. Munroe made an attempt: “Maybe he was a man choosing art as a tool to demonstrate a certain philosophical set of conditions, and it served his purpose, so he doesn’t need it anymore. I think he’s bigger than art on some level. I think — I’ll be really extreme here — that he killed art so he could transcend it.”
Perhaps. Or, perhaps, Mr. Hsieh said, with a wisp of a — sad? — smile: “I am not so creative. I don’t have many good ideas.”
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Posted in Performance Art and Body Art by JCairns at March 31, 2012 @ 7:24 PM
Posted in Performance Art and Body Art by JCairns at March 31, 2012 @ 7:05 PM
Performance and the Camera
This weeks readings all point to the issue of documented performance versus live performance. This discussion is always an interesting one that inevitably leads to the conclusion that documentation of performance is not equivalent to live performance. Performance is a performance, not a video, not a film not a photograph. The documentation of live art creates another category, it is its own entity.
For me, wether or not an academic can have a valid analysis of performance using only the secondary source depends on two things
1.) The agency that the camera is given in "framing" what is seen or not seen.
Is it possible for film to have an "objective" point of view? Film acts as a form of munipulation, after all the camera shows us what to look at and constructs a narrative. If it is than a recorded performance would be the following equations:
documented performance = live performance minus scent minus peripheral vision minus felt energy minus change in temperature. In other words the performance is turned into a flat surfaced experience with stimulation of only the visual.
In many cases the medium of film is used to create a new piece of art- it combines with performance to create a separate entity. A great example of this is the film “Pina” which documents dance excerpts from Pina Bausch's pieces and creates a montage of sorts. The director cuts, edits, chooses and displays what is thought to be most amusing/beautiful/aesthetic. The standards of production change so that value decisions are made based on how good it is for the film not the dance.
2.) Wether or not the content of the performance can be communicated on just a visual level.
Schneeman's performance "scroll" illustrates a case where a performance is using visual signifiers to challenge body politics. Schneeman's use of her body confronts notions of the female body found in traditional painting, media, sculpture and other forms of visual art. Because she is responding to visual traditions, the content of her work can be more easily translated through secondary visual sources ie. photographs and video.
"Schneeman and other female performance artists who exhibited their unclothed bodies radicalized these gestures by wresting control of the aesthetic process from male artists. They explicitly sought the reversal of the sublimation of the naked, lust-inspiring body into the elevated nude, which had been a feature of Western art and the ideology of aesthetic disinterestedness for centuries.They sought to challenge the objectification of women through that gaze by pushing it to its limit and seizing control over the condition of display and titillation.
The image, the action of Schneeman’s performance can be received from a television screen.
In chapter 1 of Fluxus, Smith outlines the two categories that define modern art. Both challenging the status quo, the first on an aesthetic level (cubism, impressionism, expressionism) and the second on an ideological level, challenging the entire structure of the art world (futurism, dadaism, surrealism). There remains an over emphasis on the former in art education and common art knowledge. In all of my past art history classes, the focus for this time period has been on cubism, impressionism and expressionism. The one section I recall on futurism defined the movement in terms of superficial qualities rather than the social statement the movement was forming.
Is this exclusion a purposeful move from the monitors of the art world (not in a conspiracy way but in the way that these things naturally develop over time due to aversions)? After all statements being made by futurists and Dada groups made a mockery out of the art world structure all together. Or does it speak more to a failure on the part of the Dada/futurist's to be able to really penetrate the ideals of the art world and audience? As Helen Molesworth notes: "The categories of art and life are hardly self-evident, if one accepts the dissolution of painting, and hence, bourgeois categories of art through art's merger with life as one of Dada's goals, then certainly Dada, and all of its returns, can be read as a series of profound failures, the art object remains virulently strong, seemingly impervious to repeated threats of destruction".
Is it that the institution of Art didn't (and still doesn't) know how to handle this type of “liveness”: the performance's of the fluxus artists could not be sold to an audience, reproduced or printed on t-shirts.
Maybe this exclusion is not accurate and it has just been my experience but I find it odd that such an important movement, and contribution to the postmodern sensibility has been left out from general knowledge. It is interesting to think about what ideas about art have permeated the psyche of the public. I do not think its a stretch to say that concepts of deconstructing modern art practice are still foreign to the general public. Is this because our culture places so much value on product, commodity and the individual that there is no way for us to catch up to the ideas being used in the art world?
"At stake in every struggle over art there is also the imposition of an art of living, that is, the transmutation of an arbitrary way of living into the legitimate way of life which casts every other way of living into arbitrariness" (Pierre Bourdieu)
With the cultural values of today how on earth could we ever grasp ideas that deterritorialize traditional forms or de-centralize the individual?
Posted in Dada by JCairns at February 18, 2012 @ 2:31 PM
Posted in Dada by JCairns at February 3, 2012 @ 11:47 AM
The Typographic Revolution
Cohen speaks about language: “written language is the setting down of speech; it is an immensely abstract mechanism of inditing and preserving the content of vocal narration”. This section inspired a new way of thinking for me. What is lost between voice and page seems it would be such an obvious question as it is literally the translation from a primary source to a secondary source. Human communication is shaped by qualities imbued within the volume, texture, and sensibility of a voice. Emotion, speed and the length of silence between words is of equal importance to the word. In this way the act of reading is the opportunity to re-build all the qualities that were lost from the perspective of the individual.
The system or non system of using the images, font size and shape to re-insert the qualities of voice is remarkable. Would this then be a third source, removed twice? Do these ideas start from the voice or from the mind directly to the hand? This opens up more possibilities than the voice. Hearing a sound is a fact but reading the words as they are laid out in Futuristy invites multiple interpretations.
I interpret this system as using confusion in order to create multiple outcomes. As with the Fluxus works we were reading about, it seems that taking away structure=multiple possibilities=unknown outcome= new definitions.
“The nineteenth century found the conventions of traditional typography violated more frequently…in the interest of a lower commerce of exploitation, publicity and advertising. “
Of course! Advertising has been using this approach forever. Words and fonts become more than the word; they instead trigger an entire brand, image or ideology. A brand name ownes the entity of the word- think of the Campbell’s soup logo, you see that from a mile a way and you do not think of the spelling of the word or the actual word, you think of the brand, of tomatoes, of the soup can in the grocery store, it is owned by this brand. It is its own entity, not just letters re-arranged.
Through the case of an advertisement a word becomes an image or an object-it connects to your memory of your personal interaction with that object or image- it could possibly trigger more than a voice.