The Man Who Worked 24 Hours a Day for a Year
Tehching Hsieh is the most remarkable performance artist you’ve never heard of. Unlike more famous peers such as Marina Abramović, whose The Artist Is Present exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art attracted large crowds and celebrities, Hsieh has been relatively unknown outside of the art world.
Perhaps this fact isn’t surprising given the fact that his last major work was “to create something entirely in private.” Whatever this piece was, he worked on it for thirteen years without showing it to anyone. When the time came to an end, he simply reported that he was finished—without ever saying what it was.
Before he went into exile, Hsieh conducted several public, year-long, experiments that are difficult to classify. For one of them, he spent the year (all of it) living outside in New York City, never entering a building of any kind.
For another year (again, all of it), he lived only indoors, locking himself in a small wooden cage with only a bed, a wash basin, and a bucket to relieve himself. During this time he allowed himself no TV, radio, or writing and reading material of any kind. A friend came by every day to deliver food and tidy up, but Hsieh exchanged no words with them.
In learning about Hsieh’s unusual life, the experiment that I found most interesting was called Time Clock Piece. Once again taking place for a year, this one required him to punch a manual time clock every hour of every day. When he “punched in to work,” he’d also take a photo of himself with a movie camera. This later turned into a short film that compiled the year’s footage into six minutes.
In other words, for the entire year he could never sleep more than 59 minutes at a time. He accomplished this goal to 98.5% completion, missing only 156 check-ins in the 8,760 hours that made up the year.
Some saw this performance as a protest of industrialized labor. Others saw it as a demonstration of conformity, perhaps signifying how silly it is that so many people clock in and clock out of their duties every day.
The only point of interpretation Hsieh himself expressed was a reference to Sisyphus, the Greek god who was forced to roll a rock up a mountain over and over. It’s an apt comparison, but the only lesson I’ve ever heard in relation to Sisyphus was “don’t be like that.” In other words, if you find yourself doing something that’s destined to prove fruitless, the best thing you can do is walk away.
So in my view, the lesson doesn’t quite fit here. Time Clock Piece was something that Hsieh chose to do, not something that was forced upon him by Zeus or anyone else. How else could we interpret this year-long trial of sleep deprivation?
“Meaningless change is crucial for our lives.”
I found another clue in a 2017 interview Hsieh did with The Theatre Times. When the interviewer mentioned something about “a paradox or contradiction in your work,” he responded with a Snoopy cartoon (see below) and said:
“Let me show you something. Life is like this Snoopy. Do you think things have really changed for him? But this meaningless change is crucial for our lives. We are obliged to pay attention and take care of details.”
For me, the lesson to Time Clock Piece is found in those last two sentences—not necessarily the lesson the artist intended, or the one that anyone else interprets, but the one I take from the project.
Meaningless change is crucial for our lives. We are obliged to pay attention and take care of details.
Once I read that statement, I thought about it for a long time. Not all change is meaningless, of course, but a lot of it is. Every day we pass many, many hours that we’ll never think about again. Often we spend entire days, weeks, or even longer periods of time that disappear into a void.
We can try to fill those days with meaning, changing our activities, reordering our priorities, and so on. Or perhaps, as Hsieh demonstrated through his fascinating, brutally difficult project—we just need to pay closer attention.
More reading on Tehching Hsieh:
- Profile in The Guardian
- “Tehching Hsieh: One Year Performance 1980-1981” Installation View
- Medium Article
- Doing Time, Passing Time, Wasting Time
- Exhibit at Tate Modern
Images courtesy of the artist