Art that makes me uncomfortable: Tehching Hsieh

Cell installation

When I can’t sleep, I do what everyone else does: surf the internet. But in an effort to make myself feel like I’m not totally wasting my brain, I limit myself to reading Reuters, the New York Times, BBC News, and a few book blogs. This isn’t the best idea — oftener then not I get my brain worked up and end up more restless and sleep-deprived than I started. Anyway, last night, at 12:55am, I find an article in the Times about Tehching Hsieh, a Chinese performance artist and painter who hitched a ride to the United States on an oil tanker. Hsieh’s first performance art pieces are rather grim: he jumped from a two-story building and broke both ankles, and then had a half-ton of wallboard hefted onto his chest until he nearly smothered. Is that art? Or simply self-destructive?

His later pieces are more interesting, but they also make me shiver. Not for the physical impact as much as the psychological. Whereas a few hundred pounds of sheetrock can be lifted off, the impact of spending a year in a prison cell refusing to speak, read, or write is profound. Or how about donning a uniform and clocking in at a time-stamp machine every hour, night and day, for a year?

Still, within Hsieh’s pieces I can identify something that speaks to me — a personal desire or need for pushing boundaries, or setting myself to impossible tasks. (Melville: “God keep me from ever completing anything.”) Once I had a vision that I would write up a catalog card for every day that I could recall out of a designated five-year period. I own an old wooden 50-drawer card catalog. I was going to file away my life and then put it on display. I’d have to set a time limit within which to write up the cards, or I’d be toiling away at it until I died. Think of how many small memories spring up over time — the process would never end otherwise. Add to that the agony of intense, obsessive self-examination. But Hsieh? To examine his life, he chooses to spend a year in a wooden cell, refusing to do anything but think: “Every three weeks he allowed spectators, but he did not acknowledge them. He was too busy thinking — about his past, his art, the passing of time and the boundaries of space.”

The idea of locking oneself away for a year is strangely appealing, as is the silence that Hsieh enforced on himself. Try not speaking for a mere week — I did it once, sort of,* and there was a persistent tightening in my chest until a calm came about the third day. Suddenly I found I couldn’t speak. The fifth day I gave up, let out a breath, hightailed it to a bar and talked a few strangers’ ears off. I broke my silence at the bar because though I couldn’t take it anymore, I found I needed to be anonymous to get my voice back. Anyone who can do that for an entire year, well, I wouldn’t hesitate to use the term “pathological.”

I’d certainly like to see the exhibit. Alas/thank god I no longer live in New York.

* I was a full-time freelancer in a freelance gig slump, living alone in a giant loft in Brooklyn with hardly any furniture. Not speaking for a few days was pretty easy. But I didn’t last the full week, and I think I spoke to the cat a few times. Truly I am weak.