Tehching Hsieh’s Lessons for Quarantine

June 2, 2020

Earlier on in #quarantinelife, I was a virtual ideas machine.  Seriously golden nuggets were just falling out of my mouth every time I spoke.  I actually was a little annoyed, because I had more ideas in the span of eight weeks than I had in the previous three years, when I actually had at least a little free time to execute them.  Now that time is basically over, which is sad but also perhaps freeing, in its way.

One of the ideas I had during the brief moment of intellectual fertility was to interview the performance artist Tehching Hsieh about what he has to say about how to live under quarantine.  Hsieh is famous for his series of One Year Performances: for one year each, he punched a time clock every hour on the hour (sometimes called Time Clock Piece), never went indoors, lived in an 11’6″ x 9′ x 8′ cell (Cage Piece) and remained tied by an 8-foot rope to fellow performance artist Linda Montano (Rope Piece), with whom he was not romantically linked at the time and actually didn’t know before the piece began (this feels important to point out).

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The one I thought spoke to the most to our current moment was the performance where he lived in the cell, because of the obvious comparison that while we were all feeling cooped up, he was quite literally cooped up: no Netflix, no sourdough starters, no Times digital subscription or Quarantine Chat or anything at all.  He didn’t even make eye contact with the visitors who were allowed in every three weeks (totaling nineteen times a year).  This is how he described his life during that year:

Thinking was the focus of this piece and was also my way of survival.  While doing this piece, thinking was my major job.  It doesn’t matter what I was thinking about, but I had to continue thinking, otherwise I would lose control not only of myself but also of the ability to handle the whole situation.  It was difficult to pass time.  I scratched 365 marks on the wall, one for each day.  I had to calculate time; although I may have broken the rule of no writing, it helped me to know how many days I had passed, how many more days I had to go.  

More:

What I needed was the use of my confined body to carry out the work, while at the same time, my mind, detached from the confinement, was free to think and to advance. I am as free in the cage as outside.  My work here is not focusing on political imprisonment or on the self-cultivation of Zen retreats, but on freedom of thinking and on letting time go by. 

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He also talked about dividing his cell into different “rooms” in his mind, and breaking up his day by going on a walk “outside” (aka around the cell) and then returning “home” (his bed).

But then the more I thought about this, the more I realized that for me, actually the most analogous situation was the piece he did with Linda Montano.  I am, after all, not alone in my quarantine, but inside a decently-sized-for-NYC-but-not-big apartment 99% of my time with two small children and my husband (so actually, my version of this would be being tied to another artist and two young monkeys).  I’m sure some young-and-in-love types would hear about this piece and be like, “Oh, that sounds so lovely, being with someone all the time!”  But my response is: OMG no.  And it turns out that actually, Hsieh and Montano ended up really disliking each other.  Hsieh puts it diplomatically (“Linda and I were exposed to each other.  That brought complexity.”) but Marina Abramovic, in supplementary material provided for the publication of the book Out of Now, which chronicles Hsieh’s work, provides more insight:

But with Tehching and Linda there was no love.  I was really puzzled by scratches above their two separate beds where they slept.  Later on, I heard that they didn’t get along and in frustration they scratched the walls with their nails.  They had made this promise and they are both very fatalistic in their work so they didn’t want to break it.  

Interestingly, my husband felt like the piece that best mirrored our current times is the Time Clock Piece.  Why?  Because he is being asked to “clock in” without any sort of actual supervision and without actually going anywhere, I think was the gist.  Not to say that Hsieh didn’t have people to whom he was accountable––usually lawyers or other third parties were in charge of making sure he was doing what he agreed to.  And my husband also pointed out, intelligently, that the homeless populations in cities affected by COVID-19 might be represented by the piece where Hsieh stays outdoors entirely for a year, as many might be trying to actively avoid shelters, where crowding makes contagion even more likely.

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So I wrote to Hsieh, asking him if maybe he’d be willing to be interviewed and tell me a bit about how he feels his art relates to this moment, etc.  And he responded quickly!  And nicely!  And said no.

The beginning of his email read: I’m open to the connection you are building between the current situation and my work, at the meantime my work is about passing time, rather than how to pass time, I’m afraid it won’t the best for me to talk about my work in relation to the current situation.

Which reads a little like fancy art world speak for, “You obviously didn’t get my point, plebeian” to me.  But yes, of course I do understand that allowing time to continue on passively is not the same thing as figuring out what to do with your time (eye roll emoji).  That doesn’t negate the obvious question here: what on earth did you think about for an entire year?!

Hope you are doing well, although we all feel constrained in a way, at least we still have free thinking.

Said a person living with two toddlers… never.

Pugwashisms

May 10, 2020

Last summer, my kids and I were lucky enough to be invited to spend a few days at a friend’s family’s summer house, on a rather magical island in the Atlantic with a long, bright beach and a weird little petting zoo and a giant pond of salty water smack dab in the middle.  The friend’s family had an excellent collection of vintage children’s books, including a few about Captain Pugwash, a rather inept pirate who gets his crew into all sorts of pickles (due to said ineptitude) and has to rely on his savvy but unacknowledged cabin boy, Tom, to save the day.  I wish I could find an image of this one page which just depicts Pugwash dreaming about having a normal life and tending to a garden, but humans are idiots and therefore most of the stuff that comes up on Google Images is related to the not nearly as charmingly illustrated film, and not the books.

Anyway, apparently Pugwash has a number of funny sayings he uses when he’s miffed, which Wikipedia has helpfully compiled.  Work this into your every day repertoire, folks.

“Dolloping doubloons/dolphins!”
“Coddling catfish!”
“Lolloping landlubbers!”
“Suffering seagulls!”
“Staggering stalactites!”
“Nautical nitwits!”
“Plundering porpoises!”
“Kipper me capstans!”
“Tottering turtles!”
“Dithering dogfish!”
“Scuttling cuttlefish!”
“Stuttering starfish!”
“Blistering barnacles!”
“Shuddering sharks!”

Nothing

May 1, 2020

“What is nothing?” I ask.

“Nothing is when you are given a very small portion of ice cream by an adult, and you look at the plate and at the adult and you ask for more and the adult says you have a huge portion and you say, ‘That’s it?  That’s nothing.’  And that is nothing,” says Lulu.

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Hey Willy, See the Pyramids by Maira Kalman

Eff Off

April 12, 2020

Thank you for driving home how utterly trapped I am right now.  #letitdie

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Lego Auschwitz

March 29, 2020

Libera, Lego Concentration Camp

From the beginning, Konzentrationslager caused a huge sensation, with viewers split on whether it was an important work or a travesty. Depicting genocide with a toy made people uncomfortable. Some Holocaust activists saw the work as trivializing the experiences of survivors, while others disagreed. The Jewish Museum in New York City displayed the sets for several months in 2002 as part of an exhibit on Nazi imagery in modern art.

Even LEGO joined in the criticism, complaining that [artist Zbigniew] Libera hadn’t told the company what he was intending when it donated the bricks and that this contribution didn’t constitute sponsorship as implied by the packaging’s labeling. LEGO tried to get Libera to stop displaying the work, backing down from its pressure only after the artist hired a lawyer.

From The Cult of Lego by John Baichtal and Joe Meno

A Funny Email from a Sassy Midwife

March 19, 2020

A sassy midwife just sent me the following:

I hate those yogi tea bag sayings that say “let your breath cure the world today” or whatever…I always sharpie them out and write “good job blinking!” or “Hi.”  We are so hard on ourselves, our tea should be a respite, not additional pressure!

I have often thought about this when opening one of those individual Kleenex pouches with “Seize the day!” written on them.  Can’t a girl blow her nose without being asked to Lean In?!

The Butlers of Post WWI England Are the Millennial Tech Company Underlings of Today

March 8, 2020

“In fact, a comparison of how I might interpret a ‘distinguished household’ with what the Hayes Society understood by that term illuminates sharply, I believe, the fundamental difference between the values of our generation of butlers and those of the previous generation.  When I say this, I am not merely drawing attention to the fact that our generation had a less snobbish attitude as regards which employers were landed gentry and which were ‘business.’  What I am trying to say –– and I do not think this an unfair comment –– is that we were a much more idealistic generation.  Where our elders might have been concerned with whether or not an employer was titled, or otherwise from one of the ‘old’ families, we tended to concern ourselves much more with the moral status of an employer.  I do not mean by this that we were preoccupied with our employers’ private behavior.  What I mean is that we were ambitious, in a way that would have been unusual a generation before, to serve gentlemen who were, so to speak, furthering the progress of humanity.  It would have been seen as a far worthier calling, for instance, to serve a gentleman such as Mr. George Ketteridge, who, however humble his beginnings, has made an undeniable contribution to the future well-being of the empire, than any gentleman, however aristocratic his origin, who idled away his time in clubs or on golf courses.”

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

 

Keywords

March 4, 2020

related to Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia,” according to The New Yorker.

Africans
Badminton
Cambodia
Children
Choking
Embassies
England
Firings
Hiroshima
Khmer Rouge
London
Nannies
Passports
Rape
Rwanda
Servants
Slaves
Swimming Pools

Honestly

March 4, 2020

The Coronavirus lewk is this cape with gauze face mask from Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

The Playlist in Hell

February 13, 2020

I was working at a Joe & the Juice in Manhattan a few months ago, and they were playing the following songs on an interminable loop, and while I like a few of these songs on their own, by the end of a few hours I was seriously ready to die.  I think I missed a few titles but it honestly couldn’t have been more than 25 songs total.  I started to write them down for posterity’s sake, but then zoned out every so often as a means of self-preservation.

 

 
Genesis “Invisible Touch”
Chaka Khan “Ain’t Nobody Love Me Better”
Dolly Parton “9 to 5”
A horrible updated 80s version of “In the Jungle”
Fleetwood Mac “Everywhere”
Luther Vandross “Never Too Much”
The Proclaimers “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”
Hall and Oates “You Make My Dreams”
A-ha “Take on Me”
Kim Carnes “Bette Davis Eyes”
Eric Carmen “Hungry Eyes”
The Pointer Sisters “I’m So Excited”
Wham! “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”
Michael Jackson “Beat It”
Rick Astley “Never Gonna Give You Up”