Tehching Hsieh: No Art

On my studio desk at Gallery Aferro I keep a framed sheet of Tehching Hsieh’s photocopied statement committing himself to the last of five art performances, that consisted of imposing a disciplined activity on himself for an entire year: remaining silently in a cage, punching a time clock every hour, remaining outdoors, and being tied without touching with a six-foot rope to another performance artist, Linda Montano. Hsieh’s original plan for a fifth performance would further extend the fourth’s involvement of other participants by requiring a torch to be carried on schedule from volunteer to volunteer for a period lasting a year. The logistics of this last piece made its realization impossible–when browsing through the files of an art ephemera dealer a couple of years ago I saw my name on a small list of people foolhardy enough to take on the task–and in its place Hsieh came up with the idea that between July 1, 1985 and July 1, 1986 he would not make, experience, talk about or read about art. He followed this with a sixth performance, proposing that for 13 years, ending December 31, 1999, he would make art but not publicly show it. On New Year’s Day 2000, a large group gathered at Judson Memorial Church with high anticipation of a revelation of the nature of this artmaking, only to be anti-climatically greeted with the bare statement “I kept myself alive. I passed the December 31st, 1999.” Since then, documentation of the durational performances have been have been exhibited and published but Hsieh has made no new art.

My appropriation of Hsieh’s proposal as studio decoration is in part a joke about my own activities but it also calls to mind a continuing fascination with Hsieh’s work, and in particular the perhaps hastily conceived NO ART piece. There always was a bit a leeway provided in his work. Going through the comprehensively documented time cards one notices the occasional missed punched hour. Queried about extending the constraints of the “Not Art” piece to not thinking about art, he conceded that task would exceed even his exceptional self-discipline. A couple of days before he embarked upon the year spent outdoors a very philosophically fastidious friend of ours pressed him to define precisely the demarcation between being indoors and outdoors; Hsieh, visibly nervous about his coming ordeal, noted that he was simply relying on vague commonsensical intuitions. In the case of the “Not Art” piece this vagueness at times became comic. He reportedly would turn away from a picture of the Bay of Naples at a pizza parlor but, if I remember correctly, would still go to movies. One story had him hiding in a closet when someone who had declared the current segment of her life as art entered a room. Having coffee with Hsieh after the piece was over I asked him if he could have spent the year painting as long as he declared the paintings not to be art. He ceded the point but noted that he was keeping to intuitive definitions of art.

The deeper problem is that adequate definitions, even intuitive ones, have been hard to come by. Defining art has always been difficult and these difficulties were brought to the fore and sharpened by Duchamp’s readymades among other modern artistic innovations. But the problems seem to have always been present. In The Invention of Art the philosopher Larry Shiner convincingly argues that our ordinary notion of art is a somewhat improvised concept designed to accommodate under a single term the hodgepodge of originally functional objects that were removed from their original contexts and brought together in museums. There have been many attempts to define a rigorous demarcation between art and not-art but in my view none of them have worked and I suspect, perhaps for the better, none will.

Hsieh’s work brings the “is it art” question to the fore. On one hand, for many the sort of commonsense conceptual intuition that Hsieh himself relies on would for many to rule out classifying any of his durational works as art. On the other hand, documentation of the work as art has been been elaborately exhibited at major artworld gatekeeping institutions like the Guggenheim and MoMA, his work also represented Taiwan during the 2017 Venice Biennale, and it was the subject of a major publication by MIT Press. There was even a small legal recognition of the art status of these works: arrested after a fight during the piece in which he remains outdoors for a year, the judge accepted his request not to make a personal appearance in court, noting that everything can be a work of art. As with Duchampian readymades and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes one might hope for a theory that would remedy the seeming defectiveness of the concept of art allowing a definitive verdict about whether these objects or events are or are not art.

What is distinctive about Hsieh’s “Not Art” piece is that raising the question of its status as art pushes the issue of its status as art into the realm of paradox. The four previous pieces in the series were clearly conceived of and accepted by the artworld as works of art and there is no indication that this particular work was intended to have a radically different status. However, by virtue of Hsieh’s self-imposed constraints the piece can live up to the precedent of the earlier works, that is, it can be an artwork, only if during between the period between July 1985 and July 1986 Hsieh was not engaged in artmaking. But on the basis of that precedence it would seem that such obedience would provide the work the status of art while thereby simultaneously stripping that status from the work. So, on the one hand this is only a work of art if it is not a work of art, but if it is thereby not a work of art it then plausibly also takes on the status of a work of art. The force of this paradox came to the fore for me when during that year Hsieh’s work was featured in an exhibit at the New Museum which included a wall label that stated that Hsieh’s current piece, clearly presumed to be an artwork, could not be included in the show, a statement which would be appropriate only if the work was not an artwork, which in turn would make it an artwork. As is typical with the recognition of an object’s or event’s paradoxical nature, what might have seemed to be that thing’s stable identity collapses into a continual interminable vibration between two incompatible states. The status of this work, either by design or because it was not adequately thought through, is deeply unstable.

Faced with this paradox it would seem that even a theory that resolved the Duchampian and Warholian cases would be powerless against the deeper instability of this work. But from my perspective the very conceptual defectiveness that allows these problem cases to exist has been a productive aspect of our notion of art. Imagine that a philosopher of art devised a theory that explained why the less problematic readymade type cases were in fact art (perhaps somehow ruling out of consideration our more paradoxical case as somehow ill-formed). My suggestion would be that in successfully doing so it would reduce these works to props in a philosophical thought experiment, negating whatever power they have as actual works of art. Our interest in these works lies precisely in the vibration resulting from their uncertain status, from our not knowing how to experience them. As I suggested above, it is perhaps the skeptic about their status who may most powerfully experience what they have to offer. The lack of a rigorous concept associated with what we call art has allowed for the experiential open-endedness that has been so productive in modern art but also for the open-ended appreciation of the job-lot mixture of objects not specifically made as art in our sense that populate our museums. In this case defectiveness may be more a feature of the concept rather than a bug.

This may be illustrated by one other example from Hsieh’s work. The piece in which he was tied for a year to artist Linda Montano was collaborative and presumably the intentions of the participants have equal weight. I remember an interview in which it became clear that each had a different conception, Montano seeing it as an exploration of human relationships while Hsieh characterized it as “just art.” While I personally find the implications of Hsieh’s conception much richer than Montano’s neither one has priority, giving the work an ambiguity, vibration, of interpretation that is I think also an essential aspect of much the art I most value.

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