Tehching Hsieh’s art of survival in America

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1981–1982. Performance view, New York.

ON A STOOP IN TRIBECA just south of Houston, Tehching Hsieh was drinking tea. It was February 1982. Six months had elapsed since the artist embarked on his third One Year Performance, for which he declared he would “stay outdoors for one year” and refuse to enter any “building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave, tent.” A record-breakingly cold winter expelled even the memory of warmth from the city, and Hsieh had allowed his hair, normally kept at a military buzz, to grow into an untidy mane. Together with his sleeping bag and weathered backpack (where he stowed his camera), he must have convincingly passed as one of the many “vagrants,” or unhoused people, who were occupying Manhattan streets at unprecedented numbers. Accounts vary, but a man from inside the building allegedly threw an iron rod at Hsieh. As the artist, brandishing a pair of nunchucks, moved to defend himself, the NYPD arrested him, eventually charging him with possession of a criminal weapon and second-degree assault.

Four photographs of the arrest––drawn from video footage that a friend, the artist Claire Fergusson, happened to be taking that day––show Hsieh’s progression from nervous pleading to full-blown panic. In the first image, Hsieh’s back is turned from the camera, his arms clasped across his chest as he tries to explain the situation to the officer, who leans over to listen. In the next picture, more cops have appeared, encircling him. His face is framed by their backs, his eyes searching for the camera as if anticipating what is going to happen next. In the last two stills, Hsieh’s composure breaks. He drops to his knees and grits his teeth, trying to make himself as unmovable as possible. In the final photograph, he stretches himself out like a cat in the threshold of the precinct, his arms above his head. This is the point in the video footage where he yells “I can’t go inside!” and lets out a high-pitched wail.

Stills from Claire Fergusson’s footage of Tehching Hsieh’s arrest.

Of the 8,760 hours that Hsieh performed Outdoor Piece, the fifteen spent in the police precinct presented a double threat to the conceptual and personal stakes of his work. Going inside meant tarnishing the wholeness of his performance. But it also meant the possibility of being deported, as Hsieh was an undocumented Taiwanese immigrant at the time (he was granted amnesty in 1988). Judge Martin Erdmann eventually released him because he recognized Hsieh from a Wall Street Journal profile, and even let him stay outside of the courtroom while discussing the case with his lawyer: “I didn’t see any reason to bring him indoors . . . These days anything is art. Staying outside may be art. I’m getting old and nothing surprises me.”

At that point, Hsieh had already enacted Time Clock Piece, in which he punched in and out of a clock card machine every hour, on the hour. He had lived in a cage for a year. He would soon spend the same duration tied with rope to a fellow artist, Linda Montano (Rope Piece, 1983–84), and then, from July 1, 1985, to July 1, 1986, abstain from making or looking at any art (No Art Piece). But Outdoor Piece remains singular in its collapse of art and life through his encounter with the law.

Would Hsieh perform Outdoor Piece today? Perhaps, in Eric Adams’s New York, he would have been one of 239 recently people forced off the street by sanitation workers. Considering the ongoing wave of attacks against people of Asian descent, his movements may have been more circumscribed by caution. Maybe. To imagine that his performance would have been uniquely impacted by these events, however, risks ascribing novelty to conditions that are more of a continuity: On June 19, 1982, perhaps as Hsieh was choosing where to unroll his sleeping bag for the night, two white men murdered Vincent Chin in Detroit, a racist hate crime that galvanized Asian Americans across the country. The early ’80s also saw a crackdown on homelessness, with some courts trying to revive anti-vagrancy laws that had long been struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, as art historian Joan Kee notes in her analysis of legal and contractual frameworks in Hsieh’s oeuvre. Still, it is not unfair to say that the volume on these issues has been turned up in 2022, that it feels deadlier and deadlier to be a non-white person in public space. Hsieh’s performance is one of survival in America.

Of the 8,760 hours that Hsieh performed Outdoor Piece, the fifteen spent in the police precinct presented a double threat to the conceptual and personal stakes of his work.

In Lisa Hsiao Chen’s recent debut novel Activities of Daily Living, her protagonist, a Taiwanese immigrant named Alice, connects Hsieh’s experiences to those of other migrants. She journeys to the Far Rockaways in Queens, where, in 1993, a ship named the Golden Venture illegally carrying 286 Fujianese asylum-seekers ran aground. Although Hsieh drew his constraints from the procedures of Conceptual art, the conditions of his immigration to the US and the contours of his life there resembled that of other Asian American immigrants at the time. In 1974, he jumped off an oil tanker in the Delaware River and used most of his savings for a cab ride to Manhattan, where he worked for many years in restaurants and construction sites while immersing himself in the downtown art world, eventually kicking off his performances with Cage Piece in 1978.

In January, a mentally ill person pushed Michelle Alyssa Go to her death at a Times Square subway station. In November, GuiYing Ma died from injuries sustained from a violent attack as she was sweeping a street in Corona, Queens. Both of the attackers were unhoused men. Some aspects of Hsieh’s identity mirror those of the recent victims (Asian American, undocumented), while others mirror those of their assailants (unhoused, victims of police violence), with additional, unassimilable markers, such as his professional identity and relative privilege as an artist. As we will see, there are elements of Outdoor Piece that should give pause to those who might read it as a work of embodied social realism or a straightforward commentary on the plight of homelessness, and any interpretation of Hsieh’s work must resist flattening its creator into an avatar of marginality. Still, the performance can be viewed as a screen on which Asian American experience, carceral politics, and intersecting and sometimes conflictual race and class solidarities are crystalized across time and space. As reported in the New York Times, many Asian American groups, “including the merchant associations that once dominated community politics, have demanded more police officers on the streets, tougher prosecution, and more restrictive bail laws” in response to recent violence, whereas younger, college-educated liberals “have taken the opposite tack, arguing against tougher policing and endorsing more progressive measures to address mental illness and homelessness.” Hsieh’s piece might help reflect the difficulty, and the necessity, of working through these antimonies.

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece). Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2009.

It doesn’t seem that Hsieh felt all that safe during his performance. He carried around those nunchucks in his backpack. His favorite places to sleep were the small parks of SoHo or a drained public pool where he could minimize unwanted disturbances. Looking at the surprising abundance of self-portraits Hsieh made with a tripod that year, one imagines what kinds of threats (existential and immediate) he might have been navigating. In one black-and-white photograph, he looks wearily into the camera, his cheeks blackened by the cold, snowflakes accumulating in the folds of his jacket. Another image finds him seated on a curb, his hand to his forehead, looking around suspiciously. Hsieh’s performance survives through this documentation, but perhaps even more so in the minds of his “viewers”—absent alibis who are left to imagine details from Hsieh’s long year out of doors. The smell of damp pavement in the morning. The angle of the sun over the lip of an emptied pool on a January morning. Choosing what to burn to keep you warm.

The kinds of dangers that Hsieh encountered in Outdoor Piece were both manufactured and real. That Hsieh presented as a cis man, and that he entered into this condition willingly and with relative financial stability (he sublet his apartment in SoHo to finance the year), likely instilled some sense of protection. His undocumented condition, although precarious, was also something he felt comfortable enough divulging to the public. For a work that he showed in 1982, Wanted by U.S. Immigration Service, 1978, he made a mock “Wanted” poster that disclosed identifying information such as his fingerprints, height, weight, birthdate, occupation, and legal name (rather than the pseudonym “Sam” that he used for his performances). He also wasn’t begging on the streets, soliciting strangers for food, or performing/selling his body or wares for a living. This relative remove from public interaction might have also made him feel safer. His diaries give a sense of the rhythm of his days. May 11, 1982: 8 A.M. wake up at 120 Mercer St. Around 11am buy lunch at 373 Ave of the Americas. 11:30 am defecate. Buy dinner at 8:40pm at 117 Mott St, at 11:30pm sleep at 120 Mercer St. Of course, his year was physically demanding, but sometimes the day-to-day of it sounds not so bad, almost meditative. For Hsieh, homelessness was a temporary condition that, however strenuous, could be made more palatable by the knowledge of its eventual release.

Outdoor Piece has drawn criticism, including the accusation of aestheticizing poverty. Writing in the catalogue for the 1986 exhibition “Choices: Making an Art of Everyday Life,” Marcia Tucker noted how her friend found Hsieh “unethical” for “making a mockery” of those for whom incarceration or homelessness wasn’t a lifestyle choice. “Maybe aestheticized danger is a luxury item because it is chosen and it ends,” Linda Montano remarks in Chen’s novel, describing the “emotional dangers” inside and outside of their performances. “I think raising a child is dangerous. And being married is dangerous. And having early-onset dementia is dangerous . . . I can’t do the marriage, I can’t do the relationship, I can’t do the children, I do what I can do.”

Perhaps, if he had decided to stay in his apartment for the year, Hsieh would have avoided the dangers he encountered with Outdoor Piece. Or perhaps the dangers would have found him anyway as an illegal immigrant in America. Within a legal system that codified his difference and exclusion, he made a new one, through which the question of whether he belonged could be answered only by himself. 

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