On September 30, 1978, a man walks alone into a cage in a small studio in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. The cage measures 11 and a half feet long, nine feet wide, and eight feet tall, and contains nothing but a bed, a sink, and a pail for excrement. The door closes behind him. A lawyer steps forward and locks the door, and sticks on a tiny slip of paper with Tehching Hsieh’s signature scrawled on it as a seal. He does the same to the bars of the cage, which are constructed from pine dowels. Any attempt to breach the walls or door of the cage will tear the seals. The lawyer also carries with him a statement signed by the man, which forbids him from talking, reading, writing, listening to the radio, or watching television while he is in the cage. Having finished his task, the lawyer takes a last look at the man, silent in the cage, and leaves.
The door closes. It will not open again for a year.
The suffering of illness is inseparable from the pain of isolation; this intimate correlation is best documented in poetry written about sickness. In “Visiting Hour,” Norman McCaig writes of visiting a loved one who is sick and warded in the hospital: “And between her and me / distance shrinks till there is none left / but the distance of pain that neither she nor I / can cross.” Other poets write first-hand of their own experiences of isolation while confined in the hospital: in poems like Elizabeth Jenning’s “Sequence in Hospital,” in which she describes “the healthy world / Held at a distance, on a rope,” or in Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips,” in which she speaks of water that “comes from a country as far away as health.” Illness seems to literally as well as figuratively transport the sufferer into a distant world—not only the cold confines of the hospital ward but also a world dominated by the sensation of pain—cutting them off from their former life and stranding them in sickness, alone.
Now, distance asserts itself all the more violently, forcibly rewriting the rules of care that we have toward our most vulnerable. No longer can we tend to our sick in the comfort of their own beds and homes, or keep watch over them in their struggle. In the pandemic we’re living through, the ill are separated not only by the veil of their own disease, but also the sealed spaces of isolation wards.
And this isolation, like the disease that demands it, is ever-growing, spreading throughout our whole society. Doctors disappear for month-long shifts in the isolation wards in Hong Kong to minimize the risk of transmission with the outside world. In Atlanta, Doctor Michelle Au, whose work in a specialist airway team directly exposes her to the virus, has one mask to reuse throughout an entire day. In her home, she confines herself to the basement beyond a demarcated line that her husband and children are forbidden to cross. Social workers are needing to radically adapt strategies of care for those who rely upon their presence. At-risk children are now isolated from supervision and communities at school, cut off from social worker home visits, and trapped at home with potential abusers. With many shelters, soup kitchens, and publicly accessible bathrooms closing, homeless people and other economically vulnerable individuals are dangerously untethered to sources of aid; in this crisis, the distance between the lives of the upper and lower class has only grown wider.
In a lesser but nonetheless transformative way, even those of us who are fortunate enough to be sheltered from the worst consequences of the virus are having to radically reimagine what constitutes our lives. The movements and activities that once gave our days a rhythm, a pulse, have been stripped away. The little things that we took for granted as a given fact of our existence. A long-awaited concert or movie. A walk in the park, the air crowded with the throng of humanity enjoying a warm Friday evening together. Going to work or school, the painful and yet necessary grind of it. A meal, a conversation, a moment of intimacy with a loved one; the sound of their voice, the touch of their hand. All these things that make you feel connected, driven, intensely and presently alive, are now gone, and we as a collective humanity are now contemplating what it means to live a confined life.
To find a way to move ourselves, to move on, even as we are forced to stay still: that is the imperative that we seem to have issued for ourselves. How do we resume our lives? How do we let things become normal again?
Perhaps one answer lies in the story of a man, living quiet and alone, in a cage for an entire year. His name is Tehching Hsieh, a Taiwanese-born artist who dropped out of high school to further his creative pursuits and migrated to America illegally in 1974 to pursue his art career. This work, entitled “One Year Performance 1978-1979,” better known as “Cage Piece,” is the first of a series of performance works spanning the rest of the century. Each work takes a similar form: Hsieh constructs strict guidelines that set extreme restrictions upon his life. For the duration of each piece, he follows these rules (with the exception of his final work, every work lasts one year exactly). In order to ensure that Hsieh abides by his rules, the entire process is extensively documented, accounted for, and even notarized, as it was by a lawyer for “Cage Piece.” That is the performance: Hsieh’s life for an entire year.
Can we call this a performance? The notion of something performed suggests a conscious artifice, that the performer assumed a certain persona that differs from their ‘normal’ self. Moreover, the audience is traditionally aware of the artifice. We are mentally primed to acknowledge what we see as something outside of our everyday lives: a moment of escape, of immersion into something fictive, the illusory space of a performance in which the rules of society and even reality are briefly suspended. But there is no audience in Hsieh’s work, because no one could possibly be there watching Hsieh for an entire year. His work consumes his life for that year, such that it strips away any performative behavior. He isn’t putting on an act.
Another way to understand Hsieh’s works is to think of them not as performance, but as excruciating mental and physical acts of endurance. Solitary confinement of over 15 days is considered torture by the United Nations, never mind the full year that Hsieh subjects himself to in “Cage Piece” (1978-1979). In the following year, Hsieh performs “Time Clock Piece” (1980-1981), forcing himself to punch a time clock every hour on the dot for one whole year. Never able to sleep, let alone concentrate on any other task for more than an hour consecutively, Hsieh’s life is reduced into the act of waiting—for the next hour to strike, for the next punch of the clock, day after day, month after month, until the year is finished. The year after that, in “Outdoor Piece” (1981-1982), Hsieh decides that he will not be allowed to enter into any sheltered building or facility for a whole year, and lives his life outdoors, on the streets of Manhattan, over one of the coldest winters on record.
Even in the midst of these extreme living conditions, life—and what Hsieh calls “life time”—asserts itself, in the form of the menial, mundane routines and patterns of our everyday. His life is reduced to its bare essence, and revolves around the seemingly trivial markers of our lived experiences: eating, sleeping, bathing, and defecating. We tend to distance these basic functions of life from the realm of art and “art time”, which is determined by the fixed length of a performance or the amount of time we spend appreciating a piece. Hsieh merges art time and life time such that it becomes clear that what he is engaged in is the simple act of continuing to live. He does not subvert the conditions which he has imposed upon himself, does not do anything that, on the surface, seems radical, revolutionary, or engaging in some extraordinary feat of artistic genius. Instead, he goes on with his life in spite of his self-imposed suffering. Hsieh finds a way to make the time pass with every day, every meal, every breath.
This is what is so extraordinary about Hsieh’s work—something so simple that it tends to become overstated in discourse about his oeuvre. Hsieh’s work is not so much subversive as it is distilling. He distills the essence of art, of work, of living, down to one singular action: the passing of time. Hsieh’s simple mantra encapsulates the attitude that he embodies in his works: “Life is a life sentence; life is passing time; life is freethinking.” In these three statements, Hsieh documents a philosophical journey that he has lived out in his works. We begin on a pessimistic, despairing note: life as a life sentence. Hsieh was particularly moved by Albert Camus’ tragic image of Sisyphus in the eponymous existential meditation, The Myth of Sisyphus. Drawn from Greek mythology, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a rock up a hill every day only to see it tumble back down. The insurmountable slope, the futility and anguish of the man’s efforts, the knowledge that one is doomed to repeat this fate the next day, and the day after that, ad infinitum. Much like how the fate of Sisyphus is Camus’ metaphor for the existential fruitlessness of human endeavor, the rules and conditions that Hsieh sets for himself remain deeply symbolic. In their extreme restrictions on his behavior, Hsieh seeks to not only make visible but hyperbolize different forms of confinement and suffering that undergird our fundamental experience of life. In enacting these trials over the course of an entire year, such that it becomes his life, we come to see his works as a twisted mirror for our own reality.
Perhaps this is the answer that “Cage Piece” presents to us, as we ask “how do we go back to the way things were?” Maybe the truth is that this is, and has always been, the way that things were: that to live is to be confined, and this moment is nothing but a forced and heightened confrontation with the fate that we strive so hard to ignore. When you peel back the little things that we cling onto that give us a sense of comfort, this life, of confinement and isolation, frustration and loneliness, is what lies beneath.
And in a way, isn’t our desperation to return to a state of ignorance that we call “normalcy” a statement of privilege? Privilege that isn’t afforded to individuals with undocumented status, the economically disadvantaged, incarcerated, or otherwise marginalized groups of people for whom a confined life is a normal life. The struggle of the under-privileged is especially visible now at the height of crisis. But they have always been suffering, and a return to the way things were will only relegate them back into invisibility. Hsieh’s works are especially potent when we view them as a mirror for the fate that different marginalized groups suffer. Hsieh himself, as an undocumented immigrant, spent his first four years in the United States sweeping floors in a restaurant in SoHo, hiding fearfully for fear of persecution by the government, unable to reach out and connect with the foreign world outside, his English clumsy and inarticulate. In this constant state of fear, depression, and isolation, he was unable to make any art for four years. In a way, “Cage Piece” merely makes visible the pain that he already felt living in the United States: turning that indescribable emotional anguish of solitude into a cage that he built in his studio to live in. Ironically, the entire procedure is officiated and certified by a lawyer, which draws attention to the binding power of documents to legitimize Hsieh’s work (as an undocumented individual), but also how our legal system coldly draws up laws that condone the imprisonment and confinement of those who don’t have the right social contracts to protect themselves.
“Cage Piece” might be especially resonant with us now, as we too find ourselves confined in small spaces, unable to express ourselves as freely as we were able to before, similarly frustrated with that lack of freedom, of fulfilment. But it is also an opportunity for us to remember that this work has always haunted our histories. In this work, I’m reminded of the images of children in cages in detention camps at the border, of overcrowded for-profit prisons filled to the brim with individuals of poor and minority backgrounds. People of marginalized sexual and gender identities for whom home has always been a cage they try to escape, whose capacity for intimacy and human connection have been policed and outlawed for centuries. This historical moment is one of great turmoil, confusion, and suffering, but if anything can come of it, it could be empathy, and the understanding that this same pain continues every day, albeit less visibly, in the lives of those who do not have a voice to make that suffering heard. Hsieh spoke of his work: “To me, being inside or outside the cage makes no difference.”
In interviews, Hsieh seems dismissive of the claim that his works are in any way political or autobiographical, instead asserting that they are a “universal conversation.” But this statement doesn’t diminish the validity of readings that focus on the potent allusive connections embedded within Hsieh’s works. “Cage Piece” comments on the imprisonment of undocumented immigrants like Hsieh himself, who lived in constant fear of deportation. In “Time Clock Piece,” Hsieh dressed himself in a grey shirt and slacks with a name tag, reminiscent of a factory worker’s attire, and punched a time clock every hour, mimicking how workers would have to document their own working hours by punching the clock when getting on and off their shifts. By doing nothing but punching the clock every hour, Hsieh parodies the rigid and oppressive routines of workers’ lives and contrasts it against the meaningless, nonsensical productive output of his work, attacking the enslavement of the working class within capitalistic systems of production. “Outdoor Piece,” in which Hsieh roams the streets of New York to find food and shelter without ever going indoors, is a poignant statement on the struggle of the homeless and transient. In fact, politics inevitably and powerfully inserts itself into the aftermath of Hsieh’s work. In “Outdoor Piece,” while living on the streets, Hsieh was arrested by the police for vagrancy, and for 15 fearful hours was held inside a police station (ironically, the only time he ever broke his rule of having to stay outdoors). He was forced to confront the real possibility that his undocumented status would be discovered and that he would be deported.
Hsieh’s claim of being apolitical seeks to step outside of discourse that implies that work about marginalized identities can refer only and exclusively to the lives of those individuals. This discourse favors works by individuals who don’t explicitly discuss politics, whose works are praised as “universal” and given deeper symbolic value. In a way, by declaring that the living conditions of the most marginalized in our society are universal, Hsieh’s work does a kind of levelling—it renders these individuals’ lives not as sub-human, separate and distinct from the realm of “normal” human experience but rather profoundly, emblematically human. To me, this statement has the potential to make privileged individuals see the marginalized not as a pitiful, wretched Other, but as a mirror for themselves. That small act of identification could be what galvanizes people from their apathy to start genuinely caring for and fighting for a better life for the oppressed.
This universal claim is also embedded in the second statement that Hsieh makes: that humanity shares the same essential condition of “passing time.” This statement subverts the normative hierarchies that have been constructed in our capitalist societies, such as those that attach the notion of a ‘better’ life or a more ‘fulfilled’ life to one of higher status, wealth, and private property ownership. All this is trivial and even superfluous in the works of Hsieh. Regarding “Cage Piece,” Hsieh suggests: “In many ways in life I am working so hard, but I still feel that this is wasting time. In my art, I make it reverse…I had to let time waste in order to prove how hard I was working.” The notion of “wasted time” contains a kind of materialistic logic, that time is a kind of finite, tangible capital that must be converted into some kind of productive, profiteering outcome in life. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear this kind of criticism levied against those who are poor and unemployed, that they are “wasting” their own lives—as if it is their fault that they lack the productive capacities that are endowed upon more privileged groups in society. Hsieh upends this logic through an existential lens that suggests that all productive efforts are ultimately absurd. In a retrospective interview about his entire series of works, Hsieh states as much: “My view of life is: whatever you do, living is nothing but consuming time until you die…the concept of my work is passing time, not about how to pass time.” Hsieh’s work is performed in a manner such that the performance is never fully visible to the public or to his audience. His work does not draw attention to the specific gestures that Hsieh enacts nor does it give them special significance. But it’s not how he lives that is important: no one way of living is more meaningful than any other. What matters is merely the fact that he is living, and living on.
In Hsieh’s final statement, he transforms the mere act of life into the basis of his own philosophical attitude, that life is “freethinking.” Hsieh suggests that it is in accepting the futility of the human condition that one finds some kind of self-deterministic freedom, to find meaning wherever one wishes to, as long as you pass the time, as long as you survive. Hsieh is aware that this mentality of freethinking is not the same as true freedom, and does nothing to remove the systemic oppression he or any others are trapped within: “My performance was superficial, my reality was still real and did not change in my art life… Freedom is different. You have to pay the price to get it… But free thinking is free of cost.” This is not, however, a statement of resignation to the unimpeachable forces of oppression. It is a statement that absurdly clings to hope even in a situation that seems hopeless, positing an inalienable freedom that we all have no matter how destitute our situation may seem.
This philosophy isn’t abstract or removed from life. It’s something that Hsieh embodied himself. In his final performance, titled “Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999 (Thirteen Year Plan),” Hsieh isolated himself and made art without ever showing it publicly. On 31 December, 1999, he declared that he had kept himself alive for the past thirteen years. Since then, he hasn’t made any new art pieces. His life has become his statement.
In this time, we struggle to make meaning of an existence and lifestyle that by all standards is vastly diminished. It is all the more bitter for those who are especially disadvantaged, for whom living itself has become a heightened struggle, who don’t even have the space to consider how to make their time in self-isolation meaningful. To them, Hsieh offers his work. He transforms these arduous living conditions into the site of a philosophical meditation on the essence of being, and in doing so suggests that the most profound, more artful act of all, is the simple act of living.
Chong Jing Gan B’23 needs more sleep.