1. One-Year Performance, 1978-79: the artist Tehching Hsieh sealed himself in an 11.5’ x 9’ x 8’ cage containing bed, a sink, and a pail. He did not speak, read, write, or use electronics.
I am drinking green tea and watching Tehching Hsieh refill a napkin holder. We are in a café in Clinton Hill. He tucks in chairs, rearranges the Sriracha and soy sauce bottles on the table, picks up a receipt off the floor. He moves quickly and seamlessly between each gesture. No one else—mostly Pratt students on laptops—looks up. Hsieh sits down and a cook brings him a plate of pork and bok choy over rice.
I’m in awe.
A few months ago, I heard a rumor that Hsieh had opened a cafe in Brooklyn. I’ve visited a dozen times since, making a ritual out of sitting, ordering tea or dumplings, and pretending to read a book. In fact, I was watching. In Hsieh’s modest labors, I’ve found the reward. I could watch him refill napkin holders all day.
My second time to the cafe, I asked the barista, a white kid with tattoos and thick glasses, if this was the café owned by Tehching Hsieh.
He hesitated. “Um, yeah,” he said. “But…he likes to keep it pretty low-key.”
2. One-Year Performance, 1980-81: Hsieh punched a time clock in his studio every hour on the hour, twenty-four hours a day, for one year.
Tehching Hsieh created six of the most rigorous and astonishing artworks in modern history. More accurately, he lived through those six works of art—five of the works took one year to complete, and the sixth took thirteen.
In 1973, after completing military service in Taiwan, Hsieh stopped making paintings and switched to performance. In Jump Piece, he leapt from a second-story window, fifteen feet, onto a concrete floor. The fall broke both of his ankles. He still has pain from it, and in the café, I can see an unevenness in his step. In other early works, he sliced his cheeks with a razor and ate fried rice until he vomited.
The year after Jump Piece, he boarded a ship in Taiwan, abandoned it when it docked on the Delaware River, and made his way to New York to pursue his art. For four years, as an undocumented immigrant, he cleaned, washed dishes, and worked on construction sites. Then he secured a studio in TriBeCa, and for the next two decades tested the boundaries of art and his own endurance.
3. One-Year Performance, 1981-1982: Hsieh lived outdoors, not entering a single edifice or mode of transport for one year. He kept only clothes and a sleeping bag with him.
Last year, I went to a rare lecture by Hsieh at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 78th Street. As I entered the foyer, I spotted him walking up an ornate marble staircase, escorted by two giddy grad students. He wore a green-gray sweater and jeans. He looked just like the photos online—sardonic lines around his eyes, hair shaved close to the skull, a constant half-frown. Under his sweater, his thin frame showed musculature.
I came craving the gory and banal details of those legendary pieces. In the cage piece, did he go out of his mind with boredom? What kind of food did his friend bring him? In the outdoor piece, where did he bathe, poop, eat? What did he think about the whole time? Were these pieces painful, lonely, embarrassing? Weren’t they hard?
4. Art/Life One-Year Performance, 1983-84: For one year, Hsieh and the artist Linda Montano lived tied together by an eight-foot rope around their waists. They were not allowed to touch each other. Every day they recorded a conversation; those tapes are sealed off and have never been played.
As with all performances for which we are not present, we must piece together the artwork from documentation and use our imaginations to fill in the experience.
In his NYU presentation, Hsieh delivered a slideshow of those famous pieces, describing in blunt details what he did each time. He showed documentation: each piece starts with a brief signed statement on legal paper. Hsieh’s work starts with the statement, the cage of the artist’s own intention.
He told an anecdote about being dragged into a courtroom during the outdoor piece because of a ticket. He screamed, his lawyer intervened; the exchange was captured in a series of photographs. The judge allowed him to stay outside. Hsieh mentioned that 1981-82 was one of the coldest winters in New York’s history. At this, he smiled.
I don’t remember much else about the talk. Afterwards, I told my friend Carl that I was dumbstruck. He didn’t at all discuss those questions I wanted answered. Like, “Wasn’t it hard?”
Carl said, “If you have the kind of mind that asks those questions, you couldn’t do those works.”
You can read into Hsieh’s works a relation to almost any major concept in modern society. They are statements on existentialism, time, love, isolation, ennui, angst, interconnectedness, freedom; they raise political questions of incarceration, homelessness, bureaucracy, immigration and citizenship, public space.
At the same time, the works are solely about experience: intangible, ephemeral, beyond words and ideas. They are fully contained in action. Hsieh’s works are so compelling, in part, because anyone could do them; to my knowledge, no one has tried. Unlike other works of art, they are not a question of originality, or talent, or concept, or fame. They are a question of will.
5. One-Year Performance, 1985-86: Hsieh did not make, talk about, see, or read about art for one year. He did not set foot into museums or galleries. “I [redacted] JUST GO IN LIFE,” reads the statement.
I have talked myself into believing that every detail in Hsieh’s peculiar café has significance. At the entrance, visible from the street, a worker sits in a glass booth and folds dumplings. She brings finished trays to the back kitchen to be boiled or fried. There are two car hood-sized Mitsubishi A/C units mounted to the ceiling. One wall is dominated by a huge walk-in refrigerator with eleven doors, stocked with kombucha, bottled teas, and sparkling water for purchase.
I want to believe that all these eccentricities are shaped by a clear vision for this cafe, that it is a work of art.
Yes, the dumpling-making references Hsieh’s work, a tribute to the cage piece, maybe even a parody of it. The dumpling worker performs a continuous meditation on labor and visibility and repetition. The a/c units speak to comfort, total climate control. The refrigerator doubles as stock room for the food and for selling drinks, showing us the process of food storage while making a luxurious display. I could, say, live here for one year.
The food is tasty, nothing fancy: dumplings, noodles, and over-rice dishes. Maybe the menu references Hsieh’s long separation from Taiwan, over forty years now—he makes comfort food, a way to build his sense of home here.
But in order to take Hsieh’s art seriously, I will stop making these associations. His art, if anything, reminds me that this is only a cafe. In an interview, he said, “My view of life is: whatever you do, living is nothing but consuming time until you die.” Cage, café—all just living.
6. Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999
I, Tehching Hsieh, have a 13 years’ plan.
I will make ART during this time.
I will not show it PUBLICLY.
This plan will begin on my 36th birthday, December 31, 1986 continue until my 49th birthday December 31, 1999.
This is the statement for Hsieh’s last work of art. He marked the millennium with his 50th birthday, and with another work that challenged his idea of art and not-art. When he emerged, on January 1 of 2000, he stated simply, “I kept myself alive.”
He later revealed his artwork was to disappear—in 1991 he travelled to Seattle, then north, working construction jobs. He said it was like his early days in America again, living without papers. In 1988, Hsieh acquired U.S. citizenship. Perhaps the trip was an attempt to escape the confinement of citizenship with the confinement of statelessness. He stopped the journey because, he said, if he “stayed in this double exile status for such a long time just for art’s sake, it was not my ideal response to life and art.”
My deep attachment to Hsieh and his work, my minor obsession with his café, comes from familiarity. As a child of diaspora, from families pushed around the world by upheavals in China and Korea, I share Hsieh’s fascination with disappearance, a true and immovable home. Hsieh used art to transmute all the pain and alienation of migration, of the art-making process itself, into something miraculous. His main material is his own body.
Hannah Arendt, in her essay “We Refugees,” recognized that she and her fellow emigrants were “nothing but human beings,” while, paradoxically, we “live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for quite a while…since passports or birth certificates, and sometimes even income tax receipts, are no longer formal papers but matters of social distinction.”
Stripped of our papers, our possessions, our markers of social distinction, who are we? Hsieh challenged us to ponder this while he discarded all of it. A cage, homelessness, silence, the partition of the day’s hours. Without any measure to his life, Hsieh pointed at the infinite abundance of simply being alive.
Hsieh’s quiet existence is an anathema in a society that prizes the prolific, the productive, the hyper-visible artist. When he refills napkin holders, it signifies, to me, a new act of invisibility. I own a restaurant now, he seems to say. I will cut against the mystique of the legendary, reclusive artist. I am here, in plain sight. Try the dumplings.
Of course, I don’t say anything to Hsieh. “What did you learn at the limits of your humanity and endurance? Is the experience of diaspora art? Have you found home?”
No, it all sounds too overwrought. This isn’t a story about art. This is a story about drinking tea and keeping myself alive.