The entire artistic oeuvre of Tehching Hsieh consists of six performances, which the artist defines as his ‘lifeworks’. Hsieh carried out these performances with extreme rigour, establishing a set of rules and conditions and then adhering to them for an extended period of time—the first five of his performances lasted for one year and the sixth lasted for thirteen years. He adopted the aesthetics of administrative function, often incorporating elements like legal documents to emphasise the constraints he placed on his art and his life.
The first of Hsieh’s year-long performances, One Year Performance 1978–1979, demonstrates his interest in durational time, agency, and representation. In this work, which is also known as Cage Piece, the artist spent an entire year inside a prison cell, measuring 3.5 x 2.7 x 2.4 metres, in his New York studio. This self-imposed solitary confinement involved limited communication with the outside world and required the help of a friend who brought the artist food and clothing and removed his biological waste. Hsieh’s confinement obliquely addresses the alienation inherent in the immigrant experience and his own illegal status in the United States at the time. Cage Piece exists today as a declaration of the intent and rules of the performance, an announcement poster with dates for audience members to visit, and photographic documentation—including a photograph showing the scratches Hsieh made on one of the walls of the cell to mark time. In addition to snapshots portraying Hsieh’s life inside the cell, a series of daily photographic portraits reminiscent of police mugshots or governmental identification index the time elapsed over the year. Through the act of voluntary imprisonment and restriction, the piece creates paradoxes of action and inaction and raises fundamental questions of existence and of the nature of freedom.