Teh Ching Hsieh | The Ideology Of Meaninglessness

Teh Ching Hsieh is a Taiwanese performance artist who’s artwork consists, most of the time, of sitting or standing around for a year doing nothing. Like the year he spent in a self-imposed jail at home, or the year punching time clocks on the hour every hour or the year living as a homeless person. Time seems to be the only constant linkage between the works, and the element that gives it meaning from his ideology of meaninglessness.

Cage Piece (1978) Teh Ching Hsieh
Cage Piece (1978) Teh Ching Hsieh

His first foray into the world of international art has been via by jumping off an oil tanker near Philadelphia and subsequently living in Manhattan as an illegal immigrant in the 1970s. He lived like that, working in Chinese restaurants until one day in 1978 he had an idea to do something about it, which was to build a cage at home and imprison himself for a year; an expression of how he felt his life was like. With strict rules not to talk to anyone or watch TV or do anything productive, this became known as the Cage Piece (1978).

Time Clock Piece (1981) Teh Ching Hsieh
Time Clock Piece (1981) Teh Ching Hsieh

Incidently, it was just a warm-up for the other performances that he was going to do. In 1981, Hsieh installed a card-punch clock, the type for factory workers, at home with the idea of punching a time card every hour on the hour for a year.

Time Clock Piece (1981) Teh Ching Hsieh
Time Clock Piece (1981) Teh Ching Hsieh

With the help of an aide bringing necessities to him and an amplified alarm clock, he would take a picture, a single frame of a 24 frame/sec video camera, every time he punched the clock, resulting in a video lasting 5 minutes or so – 365 seconds.

Time Clock Piece (1981) Teh Ching Hsieh
Time Clock Piece (1981) Teh Ching Hsieh

With the minutes hand stationary and the hour hand spinning around the clock whimsically like a spinning top, the video would show the power of time; an invisible force that sculpts and changes the shape of things. The fact that he wore a uniform and video-ed himself head on, depicts the kind of power structures at work in the life of factory workers.

Time Clock Piece (1981)
Time Clock Piece (1981)

After recuperating from the year of sleep deprivation (he could only sleep for 59mins at a time), he launched his next project; becoming a homeless person for a year. Taking it to the limit, he went so far as to set a rule to not step into any vehicle or take any sort of shelter for the duration.

Outdoor Piece (1982)
Outdoor Piece (1982)

Why he did this is a bit of a mystery. He didn’t beg so its not like he didn’t have enough money. Since homelessness is the epitome, the physical manifestation of being ‘a failure’ in most countries, and most cities, societies in the world celebrate wealth, while avoiding ‘losers’ at all costs, perhaps this is the ultimate subversion.

Outdoor Piece (1982)
Outdoor Piece (1982)
Outdoor Piece (1982)
Outdoor Piece (1982)

Outdoor Piece (1982)

Outdoor Piece (1982)

In the end, some of the publicity posters for Outdoor Piece (1982) caught the attention and imagination of Linda Montano, a feminist performance artist and together they decided to be ‘attached’, literally, with a 8 foot rope around the waist, for a year.

Rope Piece (1984)
Rope Piece (1984)

Enhanced by the fact she was a feminist, they often didn’t get along, which I think was the whole point; a physical demonstration of how people often are ‘attached to someone’ but ‘stuck’ in relationships. As before, they typed out a sheet of rules, defining intentions and boundaries on what he couldn’t do as well as the duration of it. Here an interesting bit read, ‘We will never be alone’. How often people are unhappy because they are alone, or feel lonely, but here they were never alone and yet they were unhappy anyway.

Rope Piece (1984)
Rope Piece (1984)
Rope Piece (1984)
Rope Piece (1984)

Like the end of a Bugs Bunny cartoon with the caption, ‘That’s all folks’, these 4 works would be Hsieh’s total artistic output, as after The Rope Piece he avoided the art world all together by not seeing, talking or making art for a year calling it No Art (1986). And after that year he embarked on his Thirteen Year Plan of making art but not showing it anywhere until the new millenium. But since then he hasn’t made any new works, so in essence no one knows what he has done, artistically, in 30 years.

While it is baffling that someone would try so hard to get into the art world, by physically getting there, and try so hard to make it once there that to just give it all up after achieving some recognition, there is an element of mythology involved. That to disappear from the scene after these extreme performances in itself creates a kind of urban legend; for these acts exist (in those days) only in people’s recollections, like modern day folk tales.

“Wasting time is my concept of life. Living is nothing but consuming time until you die.”  Teh Ching Hsieh

The image of someone imprisoned in a cage jail, of someone clocking in and clocking out day after day, with nothing changing except the effects of time on biological appearance, is a rather nihilistic view of life. Deeply influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche who famously said ‘God is dead’ (how modern society has ‘killed’ Him) and that our experiences have no meaning, lie at the core of Hsieh’s view on life.

If Nietzsche forms his life view, Franz Kafka forms his world view. That many of Kafka’s novels depict a dark and surreal world, punctured by absurdities, where man struggles endlessly against the system in the pursuit of a goal. But the goal is unattainable anyway, hence the nihilistic pessimism on life.

In this regard, the ‘act’ and timing of No Art (1986), a complete reversal of intentions, might come to represent the ideology of meaninglessness most succinctly. However, a prolonged absence from the art world would negate that; people would forget and move on. But, perhaps with the recent fame gained from media exposure for the upcoming Venice Biennale appointment, we could at last see the results of the Thirteen Year Plan or some new works.

Rope Piece (1984)
Rope Piece (1984)