Out of Now

20 February 2009

I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year performance piece. 

I shall punch a Time Clock in my studio every hour on the hour for one year. 

I shall immediately leave my Time Clock room, each time after I punch the Time Clock.

The performance shall begin on April 11, 1980 at 7p.m. and continue until April 11, 1981 at 6p.m.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance: 1980-1981


My friend and collaborator on various projects Adrian Heathfield is about to publish a new book – Out of Now, the first major publication on the extraordinary, influential (and until recently rather overlooked) Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh. I made a small contribution to the book, in the form of a letter to Tehching, a short excerpt from which is below.

The UK Public launch for Out of Now (published by the Live Art Development Agency and The MIT Press) takes place on Monday 2 March at 14.30 at Club Row Gallery, Rochelle School, Club Row, London E2 7ES. There will be presentations by both Tehching and Adrian, who’ll do his performance-lecture Walking Out of Life, discussing the aesthetics of duration and questioning the models of time through which performance art has predominantly been interpreted.

Here’s the press release info:

In the vibrant downtown Manhattan art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Tehching Hsieh made an exceptional series of artworks: five separate one-year-long performances that were unprecedented in their use of physical difficulty over extreme durations and in their absolute conception of art and life as simultaneous processes. After years of near-invisibility Hsieh has now collaborated with the writer and curator Adrian Heathfield to create this meticulous and visually arresting record of the complete body of his artworks from 1978-1999. With contributions from the art theorists Peggy Phelan and Carol Becker, and the internationally acclaimed artists Marina Abramovic, Santiago Sierra, and Tim Etchells.

(I’m doing my level best to feel like a natural part of that line-up!)

Ticket info: Bookings for the public launch event are essential. Tickets £5 (includes a free drink). Book by phone +44 (207) 033 0275 (credit/debit card payments) or email enquiries to info@thisisLiveart.co.uk

Adrian and Tehching have made Out of Now a great publication – a meticulous and evocative documentation and an insightful creative evaluation of what I think are some of most challenging, extraordinary and simple performances ever made. I hope what I’ve written for the book gives some idea of the work and what significance it has for me.


The work is also, of course, about extraordinary acts of prolonged yet voluntary subjection, about living life in ways that would normally only be endured coercively, as during incarceration, or as a consequence of extreme socio-economic and/or cultural relegation. It’s about the voluntary imposition of limits to freedom, comfort, opportunity and experience, creating what are in effect unimaginable conditions of physical and mental duress, isolation or hardship. Think monastery, religious order, messed-up cult, labor camp and terrible prison but done quietly, with love and for art. You were living inside the simplest, and harshest of self-made rules.

I was thinking a lot about waste; about apparently wasted time, wasted potential, wasted life. About denial (self-denial, social denial) as a core mode of artistic operation. If capitalism’s structures are repeated in your work they are mirrored without the key element of productivity. It is different in each of the projects of course, but in the “Time Clock” performance especially, the violence is felt instantly in the lack of any product at all (or any actual “labor”). There is only the submission or control of body, time and space, the endless regulation and tracking of (human) resources. The work is time served. A perfect model of late capitalism in fact, in its product-less purity. All the discipline without the pay-off of an object. Prison labor organized by Samuel Beckett. Pointless non-manufacture. Absurd. The act of being is what’s regulated in an extreme form here but it is disciplined to produce nothing.

I was thinking also that at the core of each project is denial. The rules or framing statements you make for each work are mostly prescriptive negations. You create an economy of denial which puts itself squarely at odds with the capitalist orthodoxy, an orthodoxy which for growth requires (and manufactures) endless and expansive micro and macro change–a tedious infinity of new demands, needs, consumptions, social interactions and lifestyle options which must all in turn be facilitated by yet more movement, devices, products, human labor and built spaces.

The work is a direct affront to the quadruple towers of commonsense: productivity and usefulness, self-expression and consumption. A systematic Dada nothing, 365 days a year. A no. A no thank you. Or Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to” writ large. But always (to be clear) a refusal framed and ordered in the terms of the ruling institution–a reified reiteration–the kind of extreme and profound negation that I guess can only be produced by excessive compliance.

From Time Served, Letter to Teching Hsieh, in Out of Now.


Brainard Carey (Rail): Let’s talk about your first one-year performance when you built a cage that you lived in without reading writing or talking. Did you have many visitors, that is, an audience?

Tehching Hsieh: I only let people come in 18 times, not 365 days. It was scheduled. People found out through posters, talking or neighbors. My friend put posters in the street.

Delia Bajo (Rail): Why one year?

Hsieh: Because one year is the largest single unit of how we count time. It takes the earth a year to move around the sun. Three years, four years is something else. It is about being human, how we explain time, how we measure our existence.

From a 2003 interview with Tehching at The Brooklyn Rail.


New York Times review of Tehching’s ‘Cage Piece’ documentation currently at MoMA in New York.  His ‘Time Clock’ documentation is meanwhile at the Guggenheim right now in their show “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989.”