In a time of crisis with no end in sight, durational performance, or endurance art, surfaces in our consciousness. Is this the art of our age?
Tehching Hsieh, photographed in New York on July 29, 2020.Credit…Amiko Li
By Andrew Russeth
On the last day of September in 1978 — as the New York City newspaper strike dragged into its second month, Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” became the No. 1 song in America and Andy Warhol attended a screening of Jack Nicholson’s new western, “Goin’ South” — a then 27-year-old unknown artist named Tehching Hsieh began one of the century’s most harrowing art pieces.
Hsieh had constructed an 11.5-by-9-by-8-foot wooden cage in his studio in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood, and that day he locked himself inside, vowing that he would remain there for one year. He would do pretty much nothing: not read, write, talk or otherwise engage himself in any activities. A friend, the photographer Cheng Wei Kuong, started regularly delivering food, photographing him and disposing of his waste bag. One year later, on Sept. 29, 1979, Hsieh stepped out of his cage. Just over six months after that, he began the second of what would be five such works, each titled “One Year Performance.” This time he punched a clock in his studio at the top of every hour. “It was like being in limbo, just waiting for the next punch,” he told The Guardian in 2014.
The curatorial term for Hsieh’s work is “durational performance” or “endurance art,” which is about, and frequently involves, sustaining something — be it life, thought or action — for a long, long while. Another way to think of it is as waiting art: work that addresses what it means to live with uncertainty and to keep going, often with no clear end in sight.
Hsieh is a pioneer of this medium. “To me, he’s a master,” the artist Marina Abramovic, another practitioner of long-length performance, said by phone from upstate New York in early May. “I am just a little student of him.” For her 2010 piece “The Artist Is Present,” which she performed at her Museum of Modern Art retrospective of the same name, Abramovic spent nearly three months sitting on a wooden chair inside the museum for eight or 10 hours a day. People lined up to sit across from her, including Hsieh himself. “Three months — it’s nothing next to one year,” Abramovic said.
In late March, two weeks into New York’s coronavirus lockdown, I emailed Hsieh to see what he made of the situation and how he was spending his time. “Right now, most of us have to be self-isolated in our own cage in order to survive,” he replied. He declined to detail his own experience. “I’m sure everyone has their own way to pass time,” he said, explaining that his “work is about passing time, rather than how to pass time.”
But when I later proposed meeting up for an interview, he agreed. And so, early one morning in May, I met Hsieh near a towering apartment complex, across the street from the cozy cafe and Asian-food store that he and his ex-wife, Qinqin Li, run in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. Hsieh, who is 69 and spry, is retired from art, though since the line between his work and his life was always so thin, there is a feeling that his store is both a nice neighborhood shop and an extended performance, a feeling that was compounded when I saw Ai Weiwei there awhile back, chatting with his old friend and former landlord.
Hsieh, who grew up and painted in Taiwan, had been in the United States illegally for four years when he locked himself in his cage. He had slipped away from the oil tanker he was working on when it was docked near Philadelphia and went by car to New York. He started working as a dishwasher. He wasn’t making art objects, but he was doing a lot of thinking. From a certain perspective, he was wasting time. However, he realized he could make that the core of his practice. By undertaking a project that encompassed his whole life, he told me, “if I’m wasting time in art time, I’m working hard 24 hours.”
Having to punch the clock every 60 minutes for his second “One Year Performance” meant confining himself within a roughly one-mile radius of his home so that he could make it back in time to perform this task. It’s strange to think of Hsieh’s work as relatable, but the pandemic made that the case, making New York — and many other cities — smaller in so many ways, keeping people within the few blocks around their apartment and turning borough crossings into complicated journeys. This kind of smallness led to unforeseen problems during Hsieh’s performance. He’d be visiting a dentist in nearby Chinatown or attending a party, notice the time, and have to sprint back to his studio on his bike. Waking up every hour meant he also had to give up deep sleep. (Miraculously, he missed only about 1.5 percent of his hourly check-ins.)
“It’s not: Try to make it more difficult,” he said of the works. “I tried to make it more clear.” He wanted to pass time, to live inside of it. “Already, life, for everybody, it’s not easy,” he said. He hopped up and held his finger aloft. “One nail, right? If your body touched that, it’d be very painful.” He glided his hand along the stone beneath him. “But if this is like a bed, a nail bed, I lay down, then you don’t feel much pressure. You can stay longer. My work is more like a nail bed in that way.”
It’s no wonder that art about waiting seems to emerge in periods of trauma and crisis, whether personal or societal. At the very least, it becomes newly resonant at such times. And we have all been doing a lot of waiting these past months — for businesses and public spaces to reopen, for daily infections and death rates to tick downward, for an unemployment check to arrive, for a vaccine to be developed, for the opportunity to touch each other again.
Performance that focused on endurance first emerged as a dominant style in contemporary art in the late 1960s and early ’70s, during the ascendancy of both Pop’s sleek cynicism and the cerebral, deadpan humor of conceptual art. Durational art was a coalescing of radical protest, gaudy showmanship and absurdist action. One of the great early examples of the genre happened in 1974, when the Vietnam War was in its dark last days. It was then that the German artist — a former Luftwaffe pilot and pacifist — Joseph Beuys landed in New York from Düsseldorf, was wrapped in felt and taken by ambulance and then a stretcher into a SoHo gallery for his work “I Like America and America Likes Me.” He spent three days, for eight hours a day, locked in a room with a coyote, before returning home by the same means.
Part of the reason waiting is such a powerful artistic practice is because the act itself is so intensely human, how it often involves the artist losing control — of time, of agency — or intentionally giving it up. The slowdowns, delays, closures and unexpected conclusions that transpire invite reflection both about institutional commitments, as well as about what we owe one another. This kind of art is both a confrontation and a provocation. Abramovic has spent nearly half a century in uncomfortable limbo states, in which waiting becomes a matter of extended drama and aching split-second decisions. In a gallery in Naples, Italy, in 1974, for her piece “Rhythm 0,” she stood for six hours in front of a table bearing dozens of items — among them a knife, a feather, a bullet and a gun — and waited for visitors to do what they wanted to her. Some cut off her clothes, but one person loaded the firearm, placed it in the artist’s hand and raised it to her head — before another stepped in, pulling it away.
The next year, a young artist named Chris Burden decided to lie behind a sheet of glass leaning diagonally against a wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for a work titled “Doomed.” The performance would end once someone intervened in the work in some way, though Burden did not tell anyone this was the case. Hours passed, and then a full day, and Burden was still waiting behind his sheet of glass. “On the second night, I thought, ‘My God, don’t they care anything at all about me?’” Burden told Roger Ebert, who covered the event for The Chicago Sun-Times. “Are they going to leave me here to die?” Finally, after 45 hours, a museum staff member set down a water pitcher next to him, drawing the work to a close.
Although waiting art found a new voice in the ’70s, the challenge of waiting — of forcing the audience to look closer, to listen harder — appears in almost every artistic medium throughout history. In Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893), which usually runs for more than 18 hours, a brief piano score is repeated 840 times. (The German pianist Igor Levit actually performed it via live video from a recording studio in Berlin during the lockdown.) Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho” (1993) slows down the 109-minute Hitchcock classic so that it lasts a full day. Leif Inge’s “9 Beet Stretch” (2002) plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over that same period, morphing it into a majestic tone poem — pure atmosphere. What are crucifixion scenes if not early examples of waiting art? Jesus hangs on the cross, awaiting death. Believers gaze upon him, anticipating his return. Waiting has been a central theme in Western art since the “Odyssey,” in which Penelope demands that her suitors leave her be until she completes a burial shroud for Odysseus’ father. She works on it by day and unravels her progress at night, buying herself three years, during which time the suitors sit around her house, waiting (not exactly patiently) for her to finish.
It was Samuel Beckett who, in the wake of World War II, wrote the essential text about the despair of waiting — the 1952 play “Waiting for Godot,” in which two men sit among a desolate landscape, expecting someone who never arrives. “He saw the ruins of Europe,” the artist Paul Chan, who staged a 2007 production of the play in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said via Skype from Framingham, Mass., in April. “He lived through it, and he was in the French Resistance. I think he understood on an emotional and intellectual level and maybe even an aesthetic level what it means to cobble together whatever is available to just go on.”
When Chan first visited New Orleans the year after the hurricane, the battered streets of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward made him think of “Godot.” The play had a history of being performed in the South, as the artist soon learned from local theater veterans like the poet Kalamu ya Salaam and the late John O’Neal, a founder of the integrated Free Southern Theater, which moved to New Orleans in 1965. The F.S.T., which was first based out of Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1963, had made it one of its touchstone pieces when it toured the South in the ’60s. “That was old hat,” Salaam, a former F.S.T. member, told me of “Godot.” Chan’s production, for which he partnered with the public arts organization Creative Time and the Classical Theater of Harlem, was staged five times in two heavily damaged neighborhoods of New Orleans in November 2007. Wendell Pierce and J. Kyle Manzay starred. The project also involved local workshops and a fund that aimed to match the show’s budget, which was then given toward hurricane recovery efforts. The play shows “the quiet courage, and also the banter that people go through when they wait,” Chan said, “and the kind of little things that we do to keep ourselves interested so that we don’t think about the oblivion around us.”
Another work that emphasizes waiting that feels especially prescient now, when galleries and museums across the world have shut down, is Robert Barry’s 1969 conceptual piece “Closed Gallery,” in which he asked three galleries to close for different periods of time. For the work, each gallery mailed announcement cards to patrons and press saying that they would be closed during the show. It was an attempt to pause the churn of commerce — pushing off financial (and aesthetic) gratification for a later date and, more philosophically, an inquiry into where, exactly, art functions. As with today’s lockdowns, there was wrangling over the rules. The dealers “said, ‘Well, can we do some office work in the back?’” Barry has remembered. “And I said: ‘Yes, OK. You can go in the back entrance.’” Viewers were turned away, but business continued — partially, remotely.
The frustration that work encouraged speaks to the reality of the past half-year, where there has been, for many of us, nothing to see or experience, but only questions: How will this work? When will it stop? Perhaps even, on a bad day, what’s the point? That there are no good answers to these questions is the point. While one is doing it, waiting is the absence of something — of energy, of time, of something to do. Art takes this absence and makes sense of it, keeping us company through the long duration. “We are no longer alone, waiting for the night, waiting for Godot, waiting for … waiting,” as one character pronounces in “Godot” after two other men traipse onto the stage. “All evening we have struggled, unassisted. Now it’s over. It’s already tomorrow.” Alas, it is not over. Neither one of the new arrivals is Godot. But our protagonists will be able to go on for a little while longer. “One very important rule when you do long durational performance,” Abramovic said, “is not to think about time. Because when you think about time, you are lost. You’re thinking always about the end of the day.” That could apply to any of us who are waiting — in quarantine, or just in life.
Eventually, though, the wait ends, one way or another. On Dec. 31, 1999, his 49th birthday, Hsieh finished a 13-year piece that consisted of not showing the art he made during that time. He created a collage with text that reads, “I kept myself alive,” which he issued the next day. He has not presented any new work since then, but when I asked if he missed art, he looked puzzled. I had not understood his position. “My work is not like an art-world definition of art,” he said. “It’s more like what you think about life.”
“To me, art and life, it’s no difference,” he said at one point. The work is in the living.
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