He was one of 15 children from a family in southern Taiwan. He dropped out from high school and started creating paintings; he went on to create several performance pieces after finishing his three years of compulsory military service in Taiwan. In 1974, he jumped ship to a pier on the Delaware River, near Philadelphia, and made his way to New York City, working as a dishwasher and cleaner during his first four years there.
From 1978 to 1986, Hsieh accomplished five One Year Performances; from 1986–1999, he worked on what he called his "Thirteen-Year Plan". On 1 January 2000, in his report to the public, he announced that he had "kept himself alive". He has stopped making art since then.
In 2008, MIT Press published Out of Now, The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh by Adrian Heathfield and Hsieh - a monograph with documentation, essays by academics and artists and an extended conversation. The year after its release, he told the New York Times, "Because of this book I can die tomorrow."
The next year, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York exhibited a collection documenting his work. The exhibition, titled "Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh" and organized by Klaus Biesenbach, was the inaugural installation in a series of original performance pieces at the museum. Positively reviewed by the New York Times, the show led to a larger recognition of Hsieh's work. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York also showed one of his works the same year as part of its retrospective exhibition, "The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia: 1860-1989."
He is most known for six durational performance pieces completed between 1978 and 2000.
One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece)
In this performance, which lasted from 29 September 1978 through 30 September 1979, the artist locked himself in an 11.5-by-9-by-8-foot (3.5 by 2.7 by 2.4 m) wooden cage, furnished only with a wash basin, lights, a pail, and a single bed. During the year, he did not allow himself to talk, to read, to write, or to listen to radio and TV. A lawyer, Robert Projansky, notarized the entire process and made sure the artist never left the cage during that one year. His loftmate came daily to deliver food, remove the artist's waste, and take a single photograph to document the project. In addition, this performance was open to be viewed once or twice a month from 11 am to 5 pm.
One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece)
For one year, from 11 April 1980 through 11 April 1981, Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour. Each time he punched the clock, he took a single picture of himself, which together yield a 6-minute movie. He shaved his head before the piece, so his growing hair reflects the passage of time.
Documentation of this piece was exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2009, using film, punch cards and photographs.
During the summer of 2017, this piece was displayed at the Tate Modern Art gallery in London.
One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece)
In his third one-year performance piece, from 26 September 1981 through 26 September 1982, Hsieh spent one year outside, not entering buildings or shelter of any sort, including cars, trains, airplanes, boats, or tents. He moved around New York City with a packbag and a sleeping bag.
Art / Life: One Year Performance 1983-1984 (Rope Piece)
In this performance, Hsieh and Linda Montano spent one year between 4 July 1983 and 4 July 1984 tied to each other with an 8-foot-long (2.4 m) rope. They had to stay in the same room when inside, but were not allowed to touch each other until the end of the one-year period. Both shaved their hair in the beginning of the year, and the performance was notarized initially by Paul Grassfield and later by Pauline Oliveros.
One Year Performance 1985–1986 (No Art Piece)
For one year, Hsieh unaffiliated himself with art in any way possible: he did not create any art, didn't talk about art, didn't look at anything related to art, didn't read any books about art, and did not enter any art museum or gallery.
Tehching Hsieh 1986–1999 (Thirteen Year Plan)
At the beginning of this epic piece, Hsieh declared, "Will make Art during this time. Will not show it publicly." This plan began on his 36th birthday, 31 December 1986, and lasted until his 49th birthday, 31 December 1999.
At the end, on 1 January 2000 he issued his concluding report, "I kept myself alive. I passed the December 31st, 1999." The report consisted of cutout letters pasted onto a single sheet of paper.
His pieces are not feats of stamina nor consciously motivated by a desire to suffer (although they have been described as ordeals), but rather are explorations of time and of struggle. According to the American cultural critic Steven Shaviro, Hsieh's work can be seen as being about imprisonment, solitude, work, time, homelessness, exposure, marriage / human relations, and the way in which art and life are related. The artist himself states his work is about "wasting time and freethinking".
A little after 1999, he declared he was no longer an artist. He has, however, continued to give interviews to an art audience. He has expressed that he likes the work of Praxis (Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey).
Influences on contemporary artists
- In 2001 André Éric Létourneau embarked on a 16-year-long art project where he meets 198 different persons unknown to him and spend with each of them a day with them to search for a place to keep a three-minute silence for one of the countries in the world.
- In 2014 Benjamin Bennett embarked on a series of live actions broadcast by streaming on the Web named "Sitting and Smiling". For each section he stares motionless in front of the camera for a period of four hours each time, twice a week without pause since the project started. He admitted to Vice magazine being inspired by Hsieh's work.
- "Tehching Hsieh". 2008. Retrieved 2014-08-18.
- Kate Sutton. "Manchester United". artforum.com.
- "ART: A Caged Man Breaks Out at Last". New York Times. Retrieved 2015-03-18.
- Adrian Heathfield; Tehching Hsieh (December 2008). "Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh". Retrieved 2014-08-18.
- Performance 1 on Artabase
- "Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh". www.moma.org. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
- "A Caged Man Breaks Out at Last". New York Times. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
- "'Doing Time': Tehching Hsieh In Conversation With Adrian Heathfield". 2017. Retrieved 2017-05-19.
- "Taiwan Features Tehching Hsieh at the 2017 Venice Biennale". Hyperallergic. 2017-04-24. Retrieved 2017-05-19.
- Smith, Roberta (19 February 2009). "A year in a cage: A life shrunk to expand art". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 19 February 2009.
- Biggs, Domela, Waldron and Kirk (eds) "Liverpool Biennial International Festival of Contemporary Art The Guide". Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art Ltd. ISBN 978-0-9536761-8-7.
- Shaviro, Steven. "Performing Life: The work of Tehching Hsieh". Archived from the original on 3 June 2008. Retrieved 8 June 2008.)
- Delia Bajo; Brainard Carey (August–September 2003). "in conversation: Tehching Hsieh". thebrooklynrail.org. Archived from the original on 2009-03-22.
- Tehching Hsieh official website
- Video interview in the Art Newspaper with Jean Wainwright, 7 April 2009
- Interview with Robert Ayers, April 2009
- "Body of Art" audio slideshow on BBC Radio 4
- Official website - The Taiwan Pavilion "Doing Time" at the 57th Venice Biennial
- Taipei Fine Arts Museum official website - The Taiwan Pavilion "Doing Time" at the 57th Venice Biennial
- Asia Art Center