Punch the clock
From April 11 of 1980 to April 11 of 1981, Tehching Hsieh punched a time clock almost every hour on the hour for an entire year. During this time, the Taiwan-born performance artist did not fall asleep or leave his studio for more than 60 minutes at a time.
Three decades after this performance, University of Nevada, Reno will host Tehching Hsieh and his “One Year Performance: 1980-1981” at the Sheppard Contemporary Gallery. Only the second time on display in the U.S.—the first was at the Guggenheim in 2009—this installation includes the uniform Hsieh wore day in and day out, 8,760 photographs of the artist’s clock-in mugshots, and a 6-minute film that loops the photos ad infinitum.
In the film, the artist’s appearance changes before the viewer’s eyes as his own eyes reveal dark circles, his hair grows longer, and his expression shows signs of weariness. The photographs cover two walls and 2,821 feet of gallery space, forcing the audience to pick a face to focus on or else give in to the overwhelming sense of repetitive form.
This experience of simultaneous focus and flow is a fitting descriptor for the act of passing time itself and exploring the limits of projected units of measurement—in Hsieh’s case—hours, days, a year.
Paul Baker Prindle, director of the university’s galleries, describes the blurred line between life and art that Hsieh always seems to court. “At a basic level, his work is about just living … the way that he slows everything down and pushes the boundaries of time makes us aware of how tied we are to it.”
“One Year Performance: 1980-1981” is also known as the “Time Clock Piece,” perhaps in part to differentiate it from Hsieh’s four other “One Year Performances.” His first piece in NYC was made in 1978, four years after jumping ship near Philadelphia to come to the United States as an illegal immigrant. Known as the Cage Piece, it involved the artist locking himself inside an 11.5-by-9-by-8-foot cage he built in his Tribeca loft while a friend brought him sustenance and carried out his waste. For an entire year, the artist did not read, write, talk, or leave the cage. Time Clock Piece was his second performance. Next was the year that he lived completely outside in NYC, never entering a shelter of any kind, including buildings, cars, or homes. After that he spent a year tethered to artist Linda Montano by an 8-foot-long rope in their “Rope Piece.” Next came the year the artist abstained from making art, followed by a 13-year performance piece where he made art, but did not show it until the 13-year-mark when he issued a statement that simply read, “I kept myself alive.” Since that time, Hsieh has not made any art at all.
While his work is often characterized as a political statement on industrialization or capitalism, Hsieh views his art as a philosophical record of the passage of time. In a recent email, he wrote, “Through my works I passed time in different ways, but they are all based on one perspective: life is a life sentence, life is passing time, life is freethinking.”
The artist’s decision to stop making work only adds to the mythos of a man who never set out to be an art star in the first place. When asked the reason he stopped being an artist, Hsieh simply replied, “I went back to life itself. Art has a form, but for me they are not much different—doing art and doing life are both doing time.”