8 Propositions for Islands // Part 1: Artist as Island

Kate Britton

Tehching Hsieh is an island.

In the first of his now infamous one year performances his isolationism was stark: from September 30, 1978 to September 29, 1979 Hsieh occupied a small wooden cell in his New York loft. He did not converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television.

In 2000, following a 13 year ‘plan’ in which he made but did not exhibit art, Hsieh retired. He left only this period of private production and five one-year performances as legacy of 18 years of art making. In durational performance he remains unrivalled.

Hsieh is consistently ambivalent about the spatial in his work (calling it ‘secondary’ to time), however he cannot help but evoke it, from the oppressively sheltered cell of the first one year piece to the expansiveness of Outdoor Piece (in which he stayed outdoors for one year).

Throughout his work, he carves out material and existential territories that are palatable even in their documentation. At Carriageworks right now one can see such documentation from his 1980 – 1981 one year performance, informally known as the Time Clock Piece.

8627 hourly time clock punches, each represented by a single image, hang on the walls. The year is compressed into a six-minute time lapse video. Hsieh’s hair grows past his shoulders. His face becomes drawn. Between the gallery walls time itself becomes an island.

Indeed, the one year time period itself is inherently spatial: one year, Hsieh says, is ‘the basic unit of how we count time. It takes the earth a year to move around the sun. Three years, four years, is something else. It is about being human [. . .]’[1]. The earth is an island.

One year – one rotation of the earth around the sun – a closed circuit – an island of time and space. In Hsieh’s work art and life become interchangeable; for 18 years art subsumes life until the two merge and art becomes unnecessary. Both simply pass time.

Hsieh’s performances are isolated spatio-temporal islands, bounded by time that is both formal (via earth’s passage around the sun) and embodied in the artist. Isolation can come in many forms, and Hsieh has lived through most: spatial, communicative, temporal.

The peculiar passage of time and bounded space of what Adrian Heathfield has termed the artist’s ‘lifeworks’ has made an island of him. He moves through life as the earth around the sun, encountering only that which falls within the limits of his performative architecture.

‘I brought my isolation to the public while still preserving the quality of it’, Hsieh has said of his Outdoor Piece. In the extremity of his actions – in their singularity – he evokes the time and space of the island. Thus the first proposition: artist as island.



[1] Menegoi, Simone. ‘A Question of Time’, Mousse Magazine, Issue 11

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