M+, Hong Kong, © Tehching Hsieh. Photo courtesy: the artist
Imagine spending an entire year of your life, alone, in a cage not much bigger than the gallery space you’re in now. Totally alone, with nothing but your thoughts.
Hello, my name is Tehching Hsieh. I was born in 1950. In 1974, July 13, I jumped ship to America as an illegal immigrant.
Tehching Hsieh is a performance artist. Born in Taiwan, aged twenty-four, he started a new life in New York. Here, he would channel his feelings of isolation and disorientation in a new land into ground-breaking, yearlong performances. His Cage Piece was the first.
So, my first one-year performance, Cage Piece—I lived in a cage. I do not do conversation with people, no reading, no writing, no listening to radio, or watching television.
The piece is not political, a symbol about the prisoner or incarceration. Rather, my own isolation. One year time: one year is the earth around the sun, it’s a human life in basic unit, to talk about things over and over, in life.
Tehching Hsieh has selected specific pieces of documentation for this M+ display which help illustrate the mental strain this piece put him under. There’s a calendar, marked with the nineteen days members of the public could observe the silent piece. In photographs, you can see how long his hair grew over the course of the year, and an example of the certificates he had a lawyer sign to prove he wasn’t cheating. Other photographs show some of his more personal coping mechanisms.
Another picture to see, I sit in the corner, in the cage, I sit in that corner. To make believe that’s home, and the other three corners, it’s outside. So, I can go out, take a walk in three corners, and then come home. So, I make it feel that my space is bigger in the cage inside.
The last image is, I do scratch every day, mark in the wall so you can see how many days I’ve passed, how many days to go. So, in all the piece, what I want to say, what I’m thinking is that it’s a life sentence, life is passing time, life is free thinking.
One Year Performance 1978–1979 is a year-long performance conducted by Tehching Hsieh from 1978 to 1979. The documentation of the performance can be displayed in various combinations. In the exhibition titled Individuals, Networks, Expressions that was opened in 2021, displayed objects related to the performance include paper documents, black-and-white photographs and paper posters.
There are two paper documents. Both are typed out and printed in black on white paper. One of the documents is an artist statement signed by Hsieh, declaring that he would seal himself in solitary confinement in a cell-room measuring 11 feet and 6 inches by 9 feet by 8 feet. The period would last one year, throughout which he would not converse, read, write, listen to radio or watch television. During his confinement, a designated person would take charge of his food, clothing and refuse. The other document is signed by his witness, Robert Projansky. He declared that he had personally observed Hsieh enter the wooden cell on the 30th of September, 1978, sealed each and every joint of the said cell with a paper seal, and witnessed Hsieh’s exit from the cell on the 29th of September, 1979.
Among the 4 black-and-white photos, two of them are headshots of Hsieh that look like passport photos enlarged to the size of an adult’s palm. The other two photos respectively capture Hsieh inside the cell and the scratches on a wall of the cell.
As captured in the headshots, Hsieh is an Asian male in his middle years. In one of the photos, he is clean-shaven and has a buzz cut. On his uniform shirt, on the left chest is printed ‘SAM 93078’ and on the right chest is printed ‘HSIEH 92979’. In the other photo, Hsieh wears the same uniform shirt, but has dark hair of shoulder length and has moustache on the outer corners of his mouth.
For the remaining two photos, one captures Hsieh inside the cell from the outside. The cell is constructed of pine dowels arranged into rectangular grids that span from floor to ceiling. Each rectangular frame is about the width of one roll of paper towel and the height of four. Hsieh wears a white cotton uniform, sitting with crossed legs at the head of the bed, which is at the corner of the cell. Leaning against the pillow, he tilts his head backwards. On the wall next to him is a light that is illuminated, and the cell is dimly lit. The last photo is a close-up shot of 53 groups of lightly carved tally marks on the wall in an array of 6 rows and 9 columns. Below the marks is carved ‘Sam Hsieh, 93078–92979’. Each tally mark consists of 7 short vertical strokes and 1 horizontal slash that cuts through all strokes, which seems to be a count of days by eights. The last group of the marks has only one short stroke.
For the two paper posters, they are monochromatic with a black background and a white one respectively. Their layouts are similar. The upper half is a photo of the cell, and the lower half is a calendar for the period of September 1978 to September 1979. Dates that are open to the public are circled, and the opening hours are from 11 am to 5 pm. At the bottom of the poster are the address, and the dates and times for the opening and closing performances.