On Killing Time – Tehching Hsieh, the Cage Piece and life as a life sentence

Posted by admin in Esitys magazine, In English, Reviews / 15/09/2009

INSIDE REVIEW

Inside review is a term for a way to write about performative art works from inside the piece, from the perspective of the artist. It works especially well for pieces that are based on a simple concept. Inside critique enables the writer to study, evaluate and view critically the meaning of the position of the performer to the piece.

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Published originally in Esitys magazine 3/09.

 

Michel Foucault calls the philosophy of the Greco-Roman period the aesthetics of existence. The Greek philosophers thrived to live their lives as art pieces. The Taiwanese-American performance artist Tehching Hsieh was moving close to this idea as he engaged himself in the 70’s and 80’s in various durational performances, in which his life was placed inside the art piece. Having read enough about Hsieh’s art I decided to make a small experiment, a sip of his first one year performance, known as the Cage Piece.

 

STATEMENT

1. Each of the lifeworks of Hsieh started with a statement, which defined the rules of the piece. The statement was a part of the performative level of the piece, and followed the style and procedural nature of the law. The pieces placed the life of the artist inside strict regulations and documented that restricted life in a pedantic way specifically chosen for each piece. A tension between the outer, performative, level and the inner, experiential, level of the pieces was characteristic to them. The experiential level was not articulated.

2. One Year Performance 1978-79 (”The Cage Piece”): in 1978 Hsieh confined himself inside a cell built in his studio and stayed there for a year without communicating, reading, writing, listening to the radio or watching television.

3. Hsieh tells that the focus of the piece was thinking, a period in time inside which the thinking process of the artist becomes the art piece. The documents, or the piece in total, do not tell anything about the nature of that thought process, only about its frame. The performance stays silent. This fits the piece well, I love those aesthetics, but it still does not satisfy me. Adrian Heathfield points out that among the contemporary critics of Hsieh the Cage Piece was seen mostly as a representation of something, not as an experience or execution of something. When viewed through the documents, the piece stays on the level of representation for me as well. I want to know more about its core, about the thought process that Hsieh performed through it. At the same time I will follow Heathfield; for the retrospective book about the lifeworks of Hsieh he made an almost 24-hour try-out of the third one year performance, in which Hsieh stayed for a year outdoors in New York.

4. I replace the year with three days in a hut at an attic of a wooden house in Finnish suburbs. The hut is a room inside a room, a small house with its own walls and roof, built inside the open attic. Hsieh limited his space with bars. The hut has a door, a window, a bed, a blanket, a pillow, a lamp, a water can, a bucket for waste and few clothes. It is sized 2,6 (length) x 1,9 (width) x 1,9/1,4 (height) meters, which is a bit less than what Hsieh had.

5. Hsieh’s assistant Cheng Wei Kuong photographed him every day. I figure that the meaning of the pictures builds through time, as a long series. I give up the precise documentation.

6. As Hsieh, I have an assistant, my friend Jussi Salminen, who takes care of my food and waste during the days.

7. My goal is to examine the experience of the artist. Although I cannot get an idea of the implications of the long duration, I might be able to get a small hunch of the effects of the piece to its maker.

8. Instead of the outer level I will document the inner one: I’ll write about my experience afterwards.

 

 

… I want to write in the style of a diary, but I cannot write inside the experiment and a diary written in retrospect seems unappropriate. However, the experience of time inside the piece changes my mind. Time is not numbers: seconds, minutes, hours or dates. It also doesn’t seem to be chronological: the order of things does not matter. The days and moments only appear to compose themselves one after another. The diary becomes a collection of seams, interlocking to each other and roaming between myself and the world, forwards and backwards in time…

 

…THE ART OF TIME…

…Hsieh states that he didn’t blur art and life in his works. The pieces were ”art time” that had ”the quality of life” and ”it’s rhythm”, they were primarily not lived time. The months between the pieces were ”life time”. When I exchange the last words with Jussi before stepping over the threshold, the border between art time and life time is very clear. Even though it is not an actual art piece but an experiment mirroring one, and even though I keep on living on the other side of the threshold, the border created by the threshold and the clock is very much present. The space that is confined inside the walls of the room and 72 hours, is by its nature vibrantly artistic, aesthetic and philosophical…

…when passing, time changes. When not measured it coagulates into a formless mass, which I eventually start to shape. At times I let it flow freely or stay floating in the air, at times I arrange it into movements, breaths, thought patterns. It slumps into the past, it vaporates into the disjointed streams of future. Then I start to feel anguish and bring it back to the present and hold it so it would not flee. I organize it and myself…

…I sit on the bed. I lay on the bed. Sometimes I fall asleep. I stand. I strech the blanket on the floor and settle on it. I think about the past. I stretch. I sit. I think about my breath. I cry. I dream about the future. I walk back and forth, in a circle, in the figure eight. I start to count my steps. I eat. I drink. I defecate. I sleep. I wake up. I think about the past. I watch the small bit of outside world I see from the window, the branches of trees and the banner of a department store called “Prism”. I listen to the sound of a train. I listen to the sounds of cars. I follow the amount of sunlight….

…I understand Heathfield who calls Hsieh an extreme existentialist. I feel being around questions of human existence. The human being who has freed himself from the daily challenge of survival with his huge frontal lobe. The human who has outsourced the maintenance of his life and created thus time with no meaning. That I have now in my hands: stripped time, marinated in aesthetics, politics and philosophy. From the outside, from the point of the view of the audience, 72 hours. From the inside, as a lived experience, an indefinitely sized area, being, field, mass…

… viewed from the outside, the time and space of the performance is easily framed into tables created by a watch, a yardstick or a map. After stepping inside the art, both space and time are more prone to mutate, to burst over the lines of the table, to drip as ink through the paper, to evaporate into the air…

…how do we spend our days and why?…

 

…ART AS A PRISON AND PRISON AS A PERFORMANCE…

… the relationship with discipline mirrors the relationship with time, the surrounding frame is extremely disciplined, but inside it there is no discipline whatsoever. The time and the space are not used to anything, being is not directed anywhere. ”The prison develops into their peak all the proceedings, that are presented in other disciplinary institutions. It has to be the most magnificent machinery in order to force the deformed individual to adopt a new form of life, and its policy is the subordination of individuals to total education”, wrote Foucault. The idea of the prison institution was at least originally based in education, in the healing of criminals through isolation and work. I was not forced into anything, and thus my room resembles more a monks cell and as Foucault states: ”through centuries religous organizations have been masters of discipline”…

… however the life of a monk is based on spiritual practice, directed towards god, enlightment, purity, void. Hsieh avoids religious aesthetics and stresses that he doesn’t aim in self-cultivation – and rejects thus both agendas, that of the prison and that of the monastery. Still he slips to mention that ”I was more interested in philosophical thinking: a way to develop myself, a way of asking myself ”what does life mean to me?”” The rejection of practice seems like a strategy of negation used by the alternate reality game -designers: the game states it is not a game. This is seen important in order for it to be a reality game. The Cage Piece seems like a spiritual practice stating ”this is not a spiritual practice”. That states instead ”this is art”. At the same time the difference to a retreat of a spiritual ideology is clear. A retreat is created to support the practice, the structure of this piece supports nothing but the confrontation with being…
…wait a minute…isn’t that the goal of spiritual practices as well…

… if the performance is experienced from within, the focus is not only in the existence of thinking but also in its quality. In spite of its strong corporality, the piece, when viewed from the position of the spectator, converses on the subjects of time and thinking only on conceptual level. The art time is lived only by the artist. If the work is art of thought, how could it be experienced as thinking, as the varieties that time brings forth from it? When lived, thinking with no structure is degenerative in nature. The speciality of the frontal lobe is in organization. Human development unfolds through organization, and unorganized thinking easily falls into old channels. Thinking as art needs new ones. But I am in the cage only for three days and have no idea where the thoughts of Hsieh traveled…

 

…THE CONSTRUCTION OF PERFORMANCE FROM HUMAN RELATIONS…

…isolation into loneliness seems to emphasize human relations as the platform of performances. The closest relations are to the working group, in my case to Jussi. The relationship emphasizes the presence of trust characteristic of group work. I am on the mercy of my assistant. The assistant is an invisible structure, which is extremely important to the execution and existence of the piece. The piece keeps silent of the assistant in the same way it keeps silent of the quality of thinking. At the same time it emphasizes the cult of the artist and heroism of an individual. The existence of a backstage enables the existence of a stage. The act of the assistant is invisible, so the act of the artist would be more visible. The publication of my own act serves my egoistic endeavors…

… Hsieh opened his studio to a live audience every three weeks. I am also visited by an audience on the second day, peeking through the window of the hut. The performance changes immediately. The thought process and the being are questioned inevitably in a new way. I can continue what I am doing only apparently, in reality I am right away thinking how could I perform my being in the best way. What position would represent my experience most authentically? I try to avoid posing, but I cannot avoid trying to avoid posing. I can’t just be. I want to select, I want to perform in a certain way. Images of Hsieh’s performance come to mind. What have I done the most? Propably sat. I move to sit on the bed. I try to perform in the most non-performative way. I think whether this would change during the year, with time…

… the second layer of audience experiences the performance only through documents, as a part of the canonized history of art. There is more of these people and the performance is all more selected for them. Certain pictures are selected into a retrospective, certain thoughts into an article. When doing that, we move further from the experience of the artist, from the flow of thought, and closer to its formal (re)presentation. The diary-like fragmentary presentation breaks the contrast created by the piece, it doesn’t follow the rules of its aesthetics. Contrast is the lifeblood of the piece – the contrast between prison and freedom, between the said and the unsaid, between art and life. I violate it by writing this, blur art and life, let the piece flow like sand through my fingers…

 

…OUT OF TIME…

… I finish my experiment at 6 pm on the third day. The day is definitely the longest one. The formlessness of time vanishes and it becomes streched waiting, a thirst for the end. I wonder, why am I waiting, what am I waiting for? Nothing special is going to happen after 6 o’clock and I don’t have to hurry anywhere. It is not especially uncomfortable to be in the cage. Only this waiting is. It feels even more stupid when there is no reason for it. I want to know what time it is, as if it would make it run faster. The days, the time of which had no direction but the routinized rocking between food and sleep, were complitely different from this. Their time was not like this time running away from itself. Time hiding inside the clock…

 
8. After the experiment I return to the ordinary rhythm of my life. Soon.

9. Hsieh continued with four other one year performances and finally with one lasting 13 years. After it was finished at the end of the millenium, he quit making art and has since presented his works in retrospective exhibitions and in a book done with Adrian Heathfield and published in 2009.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Michel Foucault: Ethics. Subjectivity and Truth. Penguine Books, 1994.

Michel Foucault: Tarkkailla ja rangaista. Otava 1980. [Finnish edition of Discipline and Punish.]

Adrian Heathfield, Tehching Hsieh: Out of Now. Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh.
Live Art Development Agency & MIT Press, 2009.

www.one-year-performance.com

Author: admin