On Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living and the art that makes us see the world differently
I share with Lisa Hsiao Chen, as well as Alice, the protagonist of her novel Activities of Daily Living, a fascination with the performance artist Tehching Hsieh. For those unfamiliar with Hsieh, the novel offers this stuttering introduction:
“He’s the artist who locked himself in a cage for a year—
Who punched a clock, on the hour, every hour, for a year—
Who lived outside in the streets of New York City for a year without going into any buildings—
Sometimes in response there might be a nod of recognition; more often than not, their faces are blank as hard-boiled eggs.”
I’ve had almost this exact exchange many times, this breathless attempt to summarize those one-year performances to my blank-faced companion. How to recruit someone into the awe these banal yet grueling projects inspire? How to engage someone in the unsettling exercise of imagining, say, the Outdoor Piece, in which Hsieh spent a year in New York without stepping foot in a single building, eating, sleeping, defecating in the streets and parks and docks of this city that’s challenging to live in even for the housed?
The fascination with Hsieh has become for me, as it is for Alice in Chen’s novel, a badge, a lodestar, sometimes an obsession. For us, Hsieh’s work isn’t just an odd factoid, a footnote in the downtown art scene of the 1970s and ’80s. His work offers a challenge, a demand that hovers above us like Rilke’s famous sculpture and says: You must change your life.
I did change my life recently. Just before the pandemic I moved into a Zen temple where I engaged in two years of intensive monastic training. The experience wasn’t nearly as punishing as Hsieh’s performances, but it did involve giving up control of my days and following a communal schedule of meditation, cleaning, ritual, and work that began around 5 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., with only a couple hours of unstructured time.
When I told friends I was moving there, their reactions were not unlike the reactions Hsieh received: Why would you do such a thing? What do you do all day? And, indeed, the more I lived there, the closer I felt to Hsieh’s work, and the less impossible, or masochistic it seemed.
In retrospect, Hsieh’s work primed me to choose a life that isn’t based on choice.
I first encountered Hsieh’s work when I was visiting New York during college and saw the MoMA exhibition of Cage Piece. The museum had commissioned a facsimile of the cage Hsieh built in his SoHo loft, where he spent an entire year not reading or speaking, and hung photographs of the performance in which Hsieh looks calm, perhaps listless. It was an austere installation about an austere work of art among galleries otherwise filled with lush impressionist paintings and maximalist post-modern sculptures. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Hsieh stuck deep in my mind, like a song you hear once and remember for the rest of your life.
I moved to New York not long after to work in the museum world and encountered his work again a few years later: ephemera from his Outdoor Piece were on exhibit at Exit Art, a nonprofit gallery that shuttered in 2012. That particular song came floating back. And this time, I learned that the founders of Exit Art knew Hsieh, and that my supervisor used to work for them, so suddenly I was two degrees removed from this legendary figure. Just like Alice does in the novel, I began to follow his work, to seek out traces of him, pinging my interest to find others who shared it. I went to see Hsieh speak at a rare public appearance, just as Alice does, and ate at the restaurant he opened in Clinton Hill, where I watched him refill napkin dispensers. This disjuncture between his awesome projects and this everyday activity captivated me, scrambled the categories of art and life. I wrote at the time: “I could watch him refill napkin holders all day.”
Don’t all of us, in the arts, long for works of art that will make us see the world differently? And aren’t we, as humans, a little afraid of that happening? The intensity and endurance of Hsieh’s work forces me to contend with the simple fact that an artist did this: not a monk in the Himalayas, not a saint dead for centuries, but a Taiwanese immigrant living in the same city as I am who is a little older than my parents and now owns a restaurant. Chen writes that his works were “the heavyweights of projects, the kaiju of projects. A lazy twitch from the tail of one of his projects could level a metropolis of lesser projects.” Those of us confronting Hsieh’s heavyweights have to decide whether to run from, go around, imitate, or wrestle with them.
The meta joke at the heart of Activities of Daily Living is that Alice, “thirty-nine, with a cat but no partner, no children,” is working on a project about Tehching Hsieh that she has trouble finishing. But that project seems to be the very book we’re reading. She’s plagued by anxiety, and inquiries into the project provoke a minor crisis: “The real answer is the project doesn’t exist. But calling it a project makes it a thing.”
Those sly couple sentences are the central tension of Alice’s struggle, as well as the central questions in Hsieh’s work: the space between a project existing and not-existing, between life and art, between naming a thing and actualizing it. Alice, inspired by Hsieh, tries to see everything she does as part of her project, so that even though she can’t point to something and call it “The Project,” all of her wanderings and musings are subsumed into it, then captured in the novel: her walks down Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, her lunches with artist friends, her journey to find the place where the Golden Venture ran aground endangering its cargo of undocumented Chinese immigrants, her trip to Venice to see Hsieh’s work in the Biennale. She sometimes carries maps of where Hsieh spent time in his Outdoor Piece, and it’s as if New York becomes one big footnote, a well-preserved object in the archive of Hsieh’s work.
Reading the novel is less like reading a series of events that cascade into an inevitable snowball of plot, and more like watching someone pick apart a dense knot of string, only to find that all the strands form one big web. Watching a Chinese man teach himself English vocabulary in a library leads Alice to reflect on how language united and separated her parents, to recount her volunteer work sending dictionaries to incarcerated people, and to ponder how much Hsieh’s disinterest in learning English was to maintain the aura of silence around his art. Susan Sontag’s short story “Project for a Trip to China” becomes a springboard for Alice to reflect on her biological father’s death, her relationship to Chinese culture, then to compare Chris Marker’s and Marco Polo’s fantasies of the country.
Alice’s other concern in the novel, the project that takes away from but is also part of The Project, is caring for her adopted father as his health fails. We follow Alice on trips from her home in New York to the Father’s (as he’s called) home in the Bay Area, as he goes from a life of isolation to one of progressively more dependent stages of assisted living. We watch his personality go from affectionate and ornery to someone increasingly unpredictable, swinging violently between depression, nostalgia, hope, misery.
We sense that part of the purpose of The Project, the novel, is to filter the profound emotions of watching a parent fall ill through its essayistic explorations. One of Alice’s musings takes her to Andy Warhol: “Warhol, tongue-struck son of Slovakian immigrants, specter, master of banality, po-mo genius of his times, said that having the tape recorder always at his side had the effect of preempting any emotional life he might otherwise have had. He didn’t miss having these emotions. When he pressed play, bad emotions—awkwardness, pain, envy—didn’t have to stay bad. A problem just meant good tape.”
Alice, child of immigrants, maker of cerebral connections, specter-like in her rootless wanderings, might be describing herself and her project. She speaks repeatedly about being trapped in her head, but we also sense that her head has been a refuge for her, where she can turn her attention away from the hard, bodily facts of life—facts that the Father’s decline force her to confront.
On the next page, we see the moment when “Alice watched the fire in the Father go out”: “The Father was in bed, lying on his back. Tears streaked from the corners of his eyes. He wanted to go home. He shouted this, his mouth a gash of anguish. He’d made a goddamned mess of his life. He knew that! And now all he wanted to do was go home.”
The Father’s anguish is distanced from the reader. His words aren’t given as quotations but in description, edging into a close third-person narration (“He knew that!”). Even the phrase, “He shouted this,” removes us from the moment, the act described in retrospect without the immediacy of his voice. One can feel Alice turning on the internal tape of The Project, recording the moment not just as a daughter, but as an artist. The Project turns the blazing magma of “bad emotions” into the hardened, black lava of prose.
Rope Piece, unlike Hsieh’s other works, gives us a second window into the dark house of the project: Hsieh and the artist Linda Montano tied themselves to each other for a year with an eight-foot rope, the two of them never touching. In Activities of Daily Living, Chen describes their arduous negotiations over the total lack of privacy, fighting about what to do and when, until they settled into a truce made mostly of grunts and gestures.
“The project made Montano think of meditation retreats,” Chen writes. “The project made the Artist think of his three years of compulsory military service in Taiwan.”
Though I’ve done many meditation retreats and have never served in the military, this makes total sense to me. The difference in Montano’s and Hsieh’s reflections points to what is so unsettling about Hsieh’s work: they trouble our ideas of freedom.
At one point in the novel, Alice discusses a sociologist’s analysis of “total institutions”—“nursing homes, orphanages, convents, internment camps, homeless shelters, prisons, ICE detention centers, refugee camps, rehab centers, Foxconn, Guantánamo.” Each shares certain characteristics: activities are communal and mandatory, the days are tightly scheduled, the activities point towards the institution’s goal. Lastly, “each is a natural experiment on what can be done to the self.”
The list struck me because of how well it describes life at the Zen temple. All the residents follow the same, tightly scheduled days, all the communal activity serves the temple. And ultimately, the training unravels the ‘self’—makes us recognize that we are not individual, separate actors, but deeply interconnected with each other, with all beings.
I was not physically tied to anyone at the temple, but the intensive communal living sometimes made it feel that way. We were bound by ritual, by shared space and meals, by the rhythm of each other’s bodies. For a couple weeks, I had my own bedroom, and returning there at the end of each night was a shock, as if I were a single boat that suddenly cast out from its communal marina.
I sometimes asked myself, as I think everyone does at least once, whether I was being trained towards liberation, or if I’d entered a new sort of prison. And the only difference between the former and the latter is that I was allowed to ask the question—we were united not by fear and punishment but by dedication. This meant, on one level, opening ourselves to a profound trust in each other; in the everyday, it meant having a thousand conversations (like Montano and Hsieh’s) about the minutiae of who would shovel the driveway and take in the mail, about where to place our teacups at the end of each day. And the longer I lived at the Zen temple, the more I saw these as two sides of one complete life.
One thing Hsieh and Montano shared was that once the year was done, and despite the unpleasantness of the project, a melancholy took them over—Montano, prompted by a reporter, uses the word ‘bereft.’
I know that bereft feeling, having left the temple. No matter how difficult the Zen practice was, it gave life a shape, a purpose. The schedule, once I’d grown accustomed to it, made life easy. I didn’t have to do the hard, anxiety-ridden work of choosing what to do each day, each hour. It was a rhythm I could rest within, a groove cut by thousands of years of people living this way in monasteries all over the world, telling us, like Hsieh’s work does, that it was possible.
Hsieh’s work is about isolation, and yet his projects would have been impossible without the help of others. The year he spent in a cage, his friend Cheng Wei Kuong came every day to feed him and to empty his waste (“good friend!” people often exclaim when I mention this fact). Hsieh’s Outdoor Piece required an informal network of people to check on him, even, at one point, a lawyer.
For all the time Alice spends alone and in her head, The Project, the novel, is ultimately about connection. It’s about what she can and can’t do for The Father, about her failures to help her friends, one of who might face deportation, another who faces homelessness (both problems that Hsieh faced). It’s about forming a deep connection to Hsieh based on something more intimate than the couple times she encounters him in person.
The Father eventually needs round-the-clock help from caregivers. The caregivers text Alice daily reports, detailing the Father’s activities by the hour. But for Alice, “Like the Artist’s punch cards, cassette tapes, and maps, the reports authenticated events in time but were otherwise frustratingly opaque, delivering none of the information she actually wanted: What was the Father thinking? Was he ever happy? What did he live for, or was he beyond such thoughts?”
The opacity of Hsieh’s projects, of the Father’s mental decline, only highlight what is always true: we are unknowable to each other.
Most of our days at the Zen temple were spent in silence. During work periods, we had to communicate things like, please dice ten onions, and the ceremony begins at 7:15. But we were encouraged not to ask things like, “How are you doing?” Once I became accustomed to not asking for or offering habitual reassurances like, “I’m good!”, a powerful stillness arose, an intimacy and trust that went beyond words and, to me, brought us closer than any conversation could. We became honest about our mutual mysteriousness.
That is, even as we need projects, novels, to point us towards life, the experience of life is beyond them.
“When life is reduced to its minimum, time emerges,” Hsieh said of his Time Clock Piece. Elsewhere, he said, “To me, we all have time, and we fill it with content.”
I believe this is why Hsieh’s work feels dizzying, even terrifying. He cuts straight to the simple yet absurd truth that we’re all just passing time, that we will all die. To the busy person, Hsieh’s performances are the ultimate waste of time. Hsieh offers his response: his projects are no more or less a waste than anyone else’s, the performances just force us to see time differently.
Alice fights this in her project: time seems to slip away as she tries to finish it. Over two years pass in the course of the novel, and untold years before that assembling the research for it. The novel’s wandering, elliptical passages seem to bend time into circles; Alice finds strands she can pick up and trace back and forth, inviting in scores of long-passed artists and theorists to make sense of her days.
Only at the end of Activities of Daily Living does Alice admit to the finite nature of The Project: “The Project had given all that was happening in [the Father’s] life—my life—a shape, a form. But life already has a form: death supplies it.” Hsieh’s work challenges us because it points us to the timeline of life, and that timeline points us to death.
On January 1, 2000, Hsieh emerged from a project in which he spent thirteen years making art secretly. He organized a public event at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan and revealed to a large audience what his artwork had consisted of: “I kept myself alive.” Then he announced he would no longer be making art. It’s an impish punch line to a career full of unsettling jokes. But the real punch line is supplied by life itself: Hsieh is still alive, Alice’s Project is done, and time is still passing.