Tehching Hsieh spent a year inside a cage from 1978 to 1979.
In that time, the now 65-year-old artist was deprived of radio, television and any other forms of communication.
The experience wasn’t only a test of mental and physical endurance but a performance artwork named “Cage Piece,” one of four year-long works the artist went on to create.
The next – informally known as the “Time Clock Piece” – saw Hsieh punch a time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year, taking a photograph of himself each time.
Those photographs, along with a witness statement and other memorabilia from this incredible feat, are now on display at Sydney’s Carriageworks gallery.
It is the first time the complete work has been displayed in Australia and the first time Hsieh has visited the country.
The passing of time
The exhibition includes documentary evidence of a year the artist spent depriving himself of sleep in order to closely examine the passing of time.
Walls covered with images show Hsieh – wearing the same grey uniform in each shot – looking tired and bleary eyed as he dutifully poses for a photo after each punch of the clock.
The images are compressed into a time-lapse film which shows Hsieh’s hair go from close cropped to long and unruly.
There were 133 times over the year period when he failed to punch the clock – sometimes from sleeping in, or another time when the power went out in his building – and Hsieh says these moments caused a sense of failure that almost got the better of him.
“December was the worst,” he says.
“But 95 per cent of the work, I made the punch.”
A carefully kept log of all the times he failed to punch in, along with reasons why, is on display as part of the exhibition.
The Time Clock Piece is one of a collection of long-term performance pieces that Hsieh created in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many of them involved tests of mental and physical stamina that most would shy away from.
For “Outdoor Piece,” he spent a year outdoors in New York and sleeping on the streets.
For “Rope Piece,” he spent a year tied to artist Linda Montano without ever touching and between 1986 and 1999 he carried out a 13-year plan to make art without displaying it publicly.
Exhibition curator Nina Miall tells SBS that because Hsieh lived as an illegal immigrant in the US for 14 years, he was always somewhat of an outsider.
This isolation, as well as three years of military training in Taiwan, likely prepared him for the gruelling nature of his work.
But Ms Miall says Hsieh is very clear that the works are not autobiographical.
“He’s interested in the universal circumstance of human beings,” she says.
His work is also not designed to be political.
“The time punching echoes the conditions of the factory worker or industrialised labour,” she says.
“But while I think the comment is there, it’s not the primary focus of the work.
“He asks fundamental questions about the passing of time.”
One Year Performance 1980-1981 runs until July 6 at Carriageworks in Sydney.