Stranded in the Jungle--23

Tehching Hsieh

CLOCK. Tehching (Sam) Hsieh started performing his Time Piece at 6pm on April 11, 1980. He finished it a year later, at 6pm on April 11, 1981. Hsieh installed a time clock in his Lower Manhattan loft. He punched this clock every hour on the hour, twenty-four hours a day, for a whole year. The work required total dedication. Hsieh organized his life around his task. He never strayed far from home, so that he could always get back in time to punch in. He never slept the night through. An alarm clock woke him up hourly. To keep an accurate record of the performance, he had a witness verify and sign his daily punch cards. Then he collected the cards in monthly notebooks. Over the course of the year, Hsieh missed only 131 of the requisite 8,760 punch-ins. Rare as they were, these failures pained him. He had hoped to be equal to the demands of the piece. He wanted the performance to coincide, as fully as possible, with his life. "To help illustrate the time process," he shaved his head before the piece began. Then he let his hair grow freely. By year's end, it had reached shoulder length. You can see it grow in the film he made of the performance. Hsieh set up a movie camera near the clock. Each time he punched in, it shot a single frame. The completed film compresses the year into about six minutes. A day flies by in a second. The clock's hands spin round. Hsieh's body jerks back and forth. He punches in over and over. His life is stripped down to this one gesture. The film bears witness to the rigor of Hsieh's performance. It shows that he put in his hours, and did what he was supposed to. The routine was much the same as with any job. The time clock is an artifact of the workplace, after all. It doesn't just measure time. It changes the way we experience time's passage. It divides the day into small, precise, homogeneous units. These units accumulate, one after another. So much time equals so much work equals so much money. Pick up your paycheck at the end of the week. Work time is not our time. It is alien to our bodies. It takes no heed of the rhythms by which we wake and sleep, and have sex and eat and go to the bathroom. But still, we must submit ourselves to this mechanical time. It's part of the discipline of having to work for a living. Hsieh took up this discipline in his own performance. He chose to do what most of us cannot choose not to. He reduced his life to work, and nothing but work. He embraced work in its purest, emptiest form. This work produced nothing, accomplished nothing. It served no useful purpose. It earned no wages. All it did, really, was point back to itself. Each punch of the clock repeated the same monotonous statement: "this is work." But with that statement, everything was changed. For work was no longer separate from the rest of life. Work time now coincided with inner, subjective time. Hsieh's life was transformed. He grew intimate with time. He felt it weighing down upon his body, at every instant, in every motion he made. His life was all work, but this work was entirely his own. There was no difference between what he did, and who he was. Isn't that a rare state of grace? In the Time Piece, Hsieh turned his life into a work of art. Not that this was anything grandiose. He went about it modestly, without a fuss. By his own account, he did nothing out of the ordinary. He simply followed the course of everyday life. It was all a matter of dedication and persistence. Yes, Hsieh's performance was a public spectacle. It was about time and work, and freedom and fatality and human finitude. But it was also something intensely private. It was about what it actually felt like to punch the clock so many times. It was about Hsieh's patience and his rapt attention to detail. It was about the boredom he must have felt, the stress, the fatigue, the endless waiting. It was even, perhaps, about the delirium that he may have suffered, from being so long deprived of continuous deep sleep. But these are things that cannot be told or shown. They can only be lived, as Hsieh lived them for a year.

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