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Hsieh Tehching: the artist who lived like a homeless person in the name of art

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Tehching Hsieh’s Outdoor Piece (1982), was created in the post-modernist period; however it has much in common with the modernist artists who practiced prior to the 1970s, including the artists indifference to the world around him and the subsequent elevation of Hsieh to a genius-like status, typical of male artists in the modern era.

Modernist art has been described as autonomous, existing on its own without reference to the outside world. The same can be said of Hsieh and his Outdoor Piece. Hsieh came to New York during 1974 as a single entity. Jumping ship, he arrived as an illegal immigrant from Taiwan with no English-speaking skills and little understanding of the New York art scene. After passing some isolated years in his studio, he embarked on the first of five year-long performances, called the Cage Piece, in which he lived inside a cage for a year. For the second act, Clock Piece, he punched a timeclock every hour, of every day, for a year. For the third piece, known as the Outdoor Piece, Hsieh declared that he would not take any form of shelter, including going inside a “building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave or tent” for one whole year. In short, he lived like a homeless person and, apart from an involuntary short stint in police custody, he completed his performance to his desired effect, living through one of the coldest New York winters with little more than a sleeping bag. Outdoor Piece, like those that preceded it, was performed solo, with no audience participation. It included four public gatherings that were advertised in advance around New York city via posters. Outside of these pre-arranged viewings Hsieh avoided contact with others. His work was solitary. If he became too social, he felt the work would break. For the duration of Outdoor Piece, Hsieh remained in the outside world but he was not a part of it.

The durational aspect held particular significance for Hsieh. Hsieh chose precisely one year as it represented the “earth’s orbit of the sun.” It signified a length of time that is not predetermined by human convention, such as a week or an hour. However, the commencement date he chose had no particular significance. This work could have begun on any given day or year. He states that his work is concerned with the passage of time. Like On Kawara and his date paintings, Hsieh had a systematic dedication to the recording of time over a long duration. While Kawara marks time with the creation of a daily painting, Hsieh marked his days with the creation of a map. Each day Heish noted where he ate, slept and defecated, presumably resulting in 365 completed maps. In this way Hsieh links a physical act with the passing of time.

Hsieh’s artworks sat outside the traditional gallery space both literally and socially. Adrian Heathfield and other curators blame his earlier lack of fame on the Eurocentric nature of the art-world. His work was often been excluded from major texts on conceptual and performance art. However, Hsieh’s work, which remained largely unappreciated at the time of creation, more recently has received recognition for its contribution to the advancement of durational performance art.

Hsieh’s break came in 2009 when the Cage Piece was exhibited at MoMA and the Clock Piece at the Guggenheim museum. Combined with the publication of a monograph, Out of Now, co-authored with Heathfield, Hsieh was finally acknowledged as “a seminal early figure in the evolution of durational performance art.” One reason for this belated acknowledgment was his exit from the art-world in 1986 when he declared he would not show art publicly, followed by him ceasing to make art altogether. Had it not been for the events of 2009, he may have drifted into oblivion. More recently, in 2014 he held an exhibition in Sydney and afterwards represented Taiwan at the 2017 Venice Biennale where the maps and the clothes he wore for the Outdoor Piece were displayed. He is now confirmed as “one of the most important Taiwanese living artists.” He has also been called “the master” by Marina Abramovic, “ground breaking” by others, as well as “one of the great artists of our time.” Suffice to say, he has finally made it into the art archives as one of the ‘greats’.

Hsieh declared that his life, bound by a set of self-inflicted rules, was art. Hsieh’s Outdoor Piece has obvious links to homeless and Hsieh’s status as an illegal immigrant. However, Hsieh did not make this work to highlight the plight of homelessness, refugees or illegal immigrants. He avoids assigning any such meaning to his work. Moreover, he specifically seeks to distance himself from any political intention, stating that “the more I give a critical commentary on political powers, the less powerful my art will become.” He doesn’t believe that art can change the world. Perhaps such comments are driven by the conservative political climate in Taiwan. Or perhaps he is sincere in his conviction that his art is not about anything outside of himself and the passage of time, after all, men do tend to have lower levels of empathy compared to women. Yet, critics continue to attribute meaning to his artwork despite the artist’s insistence that no such meaning exists. In this way Hsieh’s work has more in common with the minimalist, modernist artists of the 1950s and 1960s, who valued simplicity. Hsieh stated that "I just wanted to say what art could be," thus implying the making art for art’s sake. This sentiment is at odds with post-modern artists, and in particular feminist artists, who “challenged romantic constructions of the artist qua solitary genius.” Instead of using his art to challenge the treatment of others, Hsieh imitates the hapless situation of a homeless person in the name of art.

Hsieh’s real genius is in his realisation that by giving a political slant to his work, he was setting himself up for negative criticism - a fate that he did not desire, even if it resulted in some benefit to others. Instead he leaves behind one of the most revered artworks of the post-modernist era, unmarred by criticism and untouched by time.

About the author

Leah Mariani is a financial professional turned artist and mother of two. She writes a blog and creates artwork about fashion, feminism and family. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram @leahmarianiartspace or sign up to future artist e-news here.

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