Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Disappearing artist

Carlos Rojas discusses several works of contemporary Taiwanese art and notions of identity and body. This passage about performance artist Hsieh Tehching stood out to me mostly because I'd never heard of him, but also because I'm perhaps far too cynical to understand the art of pain. Asian artists seem to have a unique penchant for such artistic expression. Witness perhaps the classic example of Yukio Mishima's morbid fascination with death, which led him eventually to take his own life through seppuku. How can this penchant be explained?
...This rather remarkable performance was one of several which the Taiwanese artist Hsieh performed in New York beginning in the late 1970s. In his first (begun in 1978), he locked himself in a room and vowed not to leave for a full year and, furthermore, not to speak to anyone, watch television, or even read during that time. In his next project (begun in 1980), he vowed to punch in on a time clock every hour, on the hour (24 hours a day), for a full year. Hsieh’s next performance (begun in 1981) consisted of remaining outside for a full year (including a New York winter), never once entering a structure with any sort of roof (this is the only one of his performances which he failed to complete, on account of being arrested near the end of the performance). Following his 1983 “Rope” performance, his final year-long performance was the paradoxical commitment not to “do art” (including talking about art, reading art, viewing art, etc.) for a full year. This was then followed by the multi-year (1986-1999) “performance” consisting of a commitment not to “make art” or to “show it publicly” until the end of the millennium.


crojas said...

Thanks Helmut,

To not understand performance art is certainly understandable. A few clarifications, however, might be in order.

First, it is not clear to me that Hsieh's performances are most profitably understood as examples of "the art of pain." Second, regardless of how one undestands what Hsieh was trying to accomplish, it is certainly inaccurate to state that "Asian artists seem to have a unique penchant for such artistic expression" (if anything, contemporary Asian performance art is deeply indebted to European precedents such as Gilbert and George).

One of the interesting things about Hsieh is that his performances are grounded on living conditions which are, at some level, an intrinsic part of contemporary society. For instance, does not his decision to lock himself in a room in essentially solitary confinement for a year speak more directly to the condition of convicts within the US prison system (not to mention, say, Guantanamo Bay) than does David Blaine's decision to lock himself in a plexiglass box over London and fast for six weeks? And, does not Hsieh's decision to attempt to spend an entire year outside in the streets of New York speak more directly to the plight of the homeless than does Paul Hurley's two hour performance in which he impersonates a snail (as part of his "becomings-invertabrate" series)? My favorite, finally, is Hsieh's "time clock" performance (punching a time clock every hour on the hour for a full year), which would appear to be not so much about "pain" as about the way in which a neo-Fordist economy regulates the patterns of our daily lives (and how easily our bodies and metabolisms adapt to these regulations).

helmut said...

Thanks, Carlos. A nice piece too.

I haven't followed performance art much, I admit, and especially not Asian performance art. I do haqve a background as a painter and lived throughout Asia. This is not to say I'm authority on anything, but to say that at least anecdotally (and perhaps confined to Japan), there is a curious art or aesthetic of pain. It shows up in manga, stylized torture porn, Japanese and Korean cinema (Park for example), and so on. It provides a fascinating contrast to that other aesthetic notion of "restrained elegance."

I understand the neo-Fordist reference, but it was precisely that example - clocking in every hour - that seemed to me most excruciating simply as a biological matter. We might say that, yes, this represents the monotony and tacitly accepted torture of modern industrial labor practices, of neo-Fordism.

But, first, why such a Fordist or Taylorist reference (as opposed to neo-Fordist)? Perhaps the clock itself, rather than the clocking in, the enslavement to and regulation by the (non-biological) economic time of others.

Second, why a year? That moves from making the previous point to saying something entirely different, I think - more about self-psycho-mutilation than anything else. We could see the extremity of it as folding back onto the critique of neo-Fordism. But there's something in the work that moves past that critique.

I end up seeing it as a work of pain, closer to the aesthetics of pain mentioned above.

crojas said...

Interesting points. A few quick responses:

First, I do not deny the salience of a certain strand of sado-masochistic expression in East Asian art and culture. What I would question, however, is the posited "unique[ness]" of this "penchant." (Who, after all, gave us Sade and Masoch themselves?)

Second, it is interesting to note that, regardless of how we might perceive the time clock-punching performance, Hsieh himself claims that this was the easiest of his year-long performances--that his body quickly adjusted to the routine and it became almost second nature to wake up five minutes before each hour throughout the night, stand at attention, and ritualistically punch in at the time clock at the top of the hour (to say nothing of doing so throughout the day).

Finally, this also speaks to your question of why the performances all last a full year. While performances of this length are admittedly very unusual within performance art, the rationale would probably be that part of the point of the performances is precisely not for the artist to subject himself to a relatively short period of extreme discomfort (e.g., David Blaine burying himself alive in New York City), but rather to illustrate how the subject adjusts (both physically and psychologically) to conditions which, at some level, have become an intrinsic component of modern society.

helmut said...

I wasn't clear, Carlos. I didn't mean "unique" as in "exclusive," but as in "distinct." I would never claim that other cultural traditions (Sade, Bataille, etc.) don't contain their own "unique penchant".... This point is simply a misunderstanding. But we agree here.

As for the other two points, that now makes more sense to me. Thanks. A biological version of hugging one's chains....

I still wonder, however, about the message, especially the implicit normative element. If the claim of the work is that biological adaptation to Hsieh's clockwork time is "easy," doesn't this dilute the work as a critique (if it is indeed a critique) of neo-Fordism (or modernity or whatever)? If the work as critique drops out of the picture because its central claim is about the human facility to adapt to varying (and seemingly non-"natural") conditions, doesn't it end up claiming simply that there is little critique to be made of neo-Fordism on physio-biological grounds? We at least lose sight of any claim to the ostensive unnaturalness of neo-Fordism, which is one of its central criticisms. And then, if this kind of Foucaultian claim is the case, I'm drawn back to contemplating an aesthetic of pain.

crojas said...

Thanks Helmut,
These are good points. I would simply note that Hsieh's use of "easy" here is relative (easy compared to his other performances), and also that the fact that subjects adapt psychologically and physiologically to their conditions does not necessarily obviate the potential force of the critique of those conditions. Perhaps part of the point of the Hsieh's time card and other performances lies precisely in the disparity between his own (partial) acclimation to the living conditions he has created for himself, and the sense of discomfort and alienation which outside viewers (like ourselves) feel when we observe the performances.