Four years after he left Taipei for New York in 1974, the Taiwanese American artist Tehching Hsieh began the first of a series of grueling “One Year Performances” in which he would subject himself to conditions of extreme deprivation or banality over a extended period of time. In recent years, these performances have been feted by a Euroamerican artistic establishment seeking to expand its reaches, first by identifying works that could persuasively be incorporated into well-entrenched rubrics like “conceptual art” and “performance art,” and second, by integrating artists whose cultural and racial origins might reflect favorably on the establishment’s claims to expansion.
Even more significant, however, is Hsieh’s engagement with the law as a presumptive artistic medium through his self-imposed obligations. Prior to his initial One Year Performance (Cage Piece) in which he locked himself in a furnished wooden cage whose proportions were comparable to that of a prison cell, Hsieh hired an attorney to draft and notarize a statement obligating him to refrain from speaking, reading, writing, or listening to television and radio. In voluntarily pledging to honor these restrictions, Hsieh was continuing what since the early 1970s was a sustained response to the infrastructure of regulation as evinced through its iconography (certifications, identity cards, passports, and other forms of documentation), and by the absence of such as Hsieh experienced first-hand as both an illegal alien of color and when homeless on the streets of New York. But by hiring an actual lawyer to draft and then guarantee the validity of his obligations, Hsieh raised the question of contract’s centrality in regulating the scope and type of action by which recognition of the self takes place. Generally defined as a voluntary and enforceable agreement between two or more parties upon the exchange of some form of consideration, the contract assumed new urgency as an artistic medium in the 1960s and 70s, especially as increasing numbers of artists invested in promoting Marcusean views of the New Left saw themselves as workers in rightful need of just consideration.
Conversely, Hsieh’s use of the notarized statement was intended to compel, or obligate, viewers to reveal the degree to which they considered the viewing experience in terms of cost-benefit terms, a view further supported by the exceeding banality--or, to borrow Sianne Ngai’s term, “stuplimity” -- of his works that led many audiences to question its relevance. Hsieh’s performances consequently frame the viewing experience as necessarily transactional in nature, in which the artwork is primarily regarded as a means of output and viewers subject to a metaphorical kind of debt that must be redeemed through subsequent action. We, he implies, want art to deliver something, whether it be sensation, pleasure, or catharsis. That he did so with all transparency shows his good faith, a legal doctrine that denotes a will to fairness and equity, and a doctrine which against the delimiting agendas operating in late 1970s New York as well as in the twenty-first century present could not be more relevant.
Joan Kee, assistant professor of history of art and a 2011-12 Helmut F. Stern Professor at the Institute for the Humanities, is a specialist in modern and contemporary art. Her first book, Methods: Tansaekhwa and Contemporary Korean Art (forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press in spring 2013), traces the emergence of Tansaekhwa, one of the most significant artistic movements of modern and contemporary Korean art. A second book project, provisionally titled What Art Has to Say About the Law and based in part on Kee's experiences as a lawyer, considers artistic responses to the law in the context of legal developments taking place in post-1965 America.