Jill Johnston in Art in America


Cultural critic, feminist theorist, memoirist and A.i.A. contributor Jill Johnston died on Nov. 18 at age 81. The feature “Tehching Hsieh: Art’s Willing Captive” [September 2001, pp. 140–143] is one of many essays she wrote on a wide range of avant-garde topics for A.i.A.. An obituary of Jill Johnson by A.i.A. Editor-at-Large Elizabeth C. Baker will appear in the November issue of the magazine.


Tehching Hsieh, the Taiwanese native who came to America as an illegal immigrant in 1974 at age 23, was for a period of time a potentate of performance art in New York. In a genre virtually defined by its bias for autobiographical source material, Hsieh made his life and performance works uniquely apposite to each other, in their way functionally synonymous. He didn’t just draw on his life. His life was the performance. There were four yearlong works, beginning in 1978, each one prefaced by a poster announcing his intentions, and describing several conditions that he intended to fulfill. Suppose a friend told you they were going to climb Mt. Everest, gave you times of departure and return, and restrictions laid down on the expedition. Hsieh had such a program, and his life performances were Everest-like. Nobody could imagine setting out to endure such hardships, certainly not for art’s sake.

For his first project, known formally as the Cage Piece, he built a cell in his loft in Brooklyn, then locked himself in it for one year, to the minute, having announced that he would talk to nobody, take nothing to read, no radio or TV, and no writing material’s for the year’s duration. An assistant, with whom he exchanged no words, appeared everyday to bring food and dispose of wastes. Hsieh’s simple yet rigorous documentation of the ordeal, carried out just as meticulously in his three succeeding yearlong events—proof of time spent and conditions observed—were recently on view in a kind of retrospective at Jack Tilton/Anna Kustera Gallery.