Tehching Hsieh’s Lessons for Quarantine

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.

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