Lisa Chen is a Brooklyn-based artist born in Taiwan. She is writing a hybrid work about the performance artist Tehching Hsieh, time and the life of projects. Her publications include Mouth Kaya Press, (2007). Her work has been published in publications such as StoryQuarterly, Ninth Letter Online, Sonora Review, Seneca Review, and Catapult. Chen is a recipient of NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship Finalist in Nonfiction Literature, NYC (2017); Emerging Writers Fellowship, Center for Fiction, NYC (2015–2016); Blue Mountain Center Artist Residency, NY (2011, 2012); and Writing Award, The Association of Asian American Studies (2009). Chen holds a BA from University of California, Berkeley and an MFA from University of Iowa.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Author
“When life is reduced to its minimum, time emerges” is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, a hybrid work of hybrid work of memoir, biography and cultural criticism that explores the life and work of artist Tehching Hsieh.
When life is reduced to its minimum, time emerges
After Tehching Hsieh’s Time Clock Piece (1980-81)
- On April 1, 1980 at 7 p.m., you punched a time clock installed in your downtown loft. This marked the beginning of an art work in which you vowed to punch a clock on the hour, every hour, for 365 days. Do something for one week, two weeks, and it stalls at the level of performance. Do it for an entire year, you said, and art metabolizes into life.
- It takes only a few days to feel the damage of sleeplessness. The fog makes you irritable. Delirium seeps in like gas in a windowless room. As I write this, a federal judge has allowed torture victims to sue two psychologists behind the CIA’s interrogation program, whose “enhanced techniques” includes sleep deprivation. In Guantanamo, this torture method went by the code name Operation Sandman. Deprive a person of sleep and his immune system starts to crack, his brain turns to scrambled eggs. Sentences smear like wet paper. The person begins to babble, to hallucinate, guaranteeing that the collection of intelligence will be utterly unintelligible.
- After my father fell in his house, he lay there for nearly two days before he was found and taken to the hospital, where his obsession with time began. What time is it? he would ask, again and again. He had to have his cell phone within sight so he could consult the time. He became frantic if it disappeared in the folds of his bed sheets or slipped between the mattress and the steel frame of his hospital bed.
But why did it matter what bloody time it was? He had no place to be. Later we learned that losing sense of time is one of the first signs of dementia. Lose your sense of time and you lose yourself. When were you?
We learned a new word: sundowning. As the sun lowers in the afternoon, the demented person fades with it. He loses his grasp on time passing, yet feels its diurnal spin and is thrown off balance. At the hospital my father required an overnight “sitter” because he would wake up at two in the morning disoriented, and start screaming.
- The evening D train crossing the bridge from Chinatown to Atlantic station. A woman pressed against a window is bent over her lottery scratchers. Her skin is pale; she looks Russian, Polish, maybe, in her 50s. The hair closest to her scalp is silvering where the dye has loosened its hold. When she finishes with one sheet, she reaches into her handbag for another. Queen of Green. Triple Black Cherry. Bingo Doubler. Instant Frenzy. Set for Life. Little diversions, little fates, for the journey home.
- Inspired by you, I am starting a durational project. You are in it, and I am in it with you (Randy Newman). The beauty of the Project: anyone can conceive of one. Embark on one. Abandon one. The Project gives purpose and shape to what might otherwise be a stalled, monochrome life. The Project cannot be separated from ego: it wants more than to help others or help you live more honestly. The Project is permission to withdraw from the stream of everyday obligation and norms. I can’t stay; I have to work on my Project. The person committed to the Project is already living in the future, ruptured from others living in the present who are waiting for the future to happen (Boris Groys).
- Even before his fall, my father’s preoccupation with keeping time was growing. He carried a wristwatch as he shuffled from room to room. Without work (he was retired) and routines and places where he was expected, the skein of his days detached from others. He was a satellite orbiting earth, touching down for the occasional podiatrist appointment, a visit from a daughter.
When his bedside clock broke, he asked me for a replacement. Because of his bad hands, wind-up clocks wouldn’t do. I spent hours rooting through thrift stores on University Avenue for an old-fashioned digital clock with simple functions. I bought several clocks and wrote step-by-step operating instructions. But none of them worked, he complained, meaning he was broken.
- Myrtle Avenue empty of cars and people at 8 a.m. reminds me of “Early Sunday Morning.” Hopper’s genius was light: morning on a barren street, a block of afternoon sun across the floor of a rented room. He put the feeling of the hours into his paintings (Leonard Michaels). Hopper understood, as Henri Bergson did, that time existed long before we put them in clocks. Bergson explained his theory by describing sugar melting in water. The sugar dissolves in scientific, spatially conceived time, measured in seconds and minutes. But it also dissolves in what he called durée réelle, real duration—time as we actually feel and live it, with its own speed and rhythm. (I picture an Old World widow sweetening her tea through a sugar cube clenched in her teeth.) Fact: Bergson married a cousin of Marcel Proust’s. Michaels: What Hopper sees, Bergson means.
- In September when I began the Project, a woman pulled into parking lot of a Wawa convenience store in Newark to steal a nap. She cranked her seat back and kept the engine running for warmth. She never slept for very long. But this time a gas can over-turned in the cargo hold of her SUV and she died. She had been working three part-time shifts for Dunkin Donuts for $8.25/hr: mornings at a train station, overnights in Linden, weekends in Harrison, bagging crullers, mixing iced macchiatos, her schedule generated by a workforce efficiency algorithm that had her racing around the clock from shift to shift, snatching two to three hours of sleep in between.
The Times reporter tried to make this woman add up to more than her death. She was the daughter of Portuguese immigrants. Loved Michael Jackson. Dug into her change purse to buy a coffee for homeless men. She dreamed of being a beautician but could never scrape together the tuition for cosmetology school.
Of my father one could say: He was a Vietnam War veteran and woodworker who collected used cookbooks, analog cameras and firearms. He loved heirloom tomatoes and Johnny Walker. His favorite shows were Sons of Anarchy, NCIS, and The Walking Dead. He used to watch the same episodes over and over on Netflix, his memory frayed. Like a child’s favorite bedtime story, the foregone was comfort. If he didn’t finish, he already had.
In Remembrance of Things to Come, his film about the French photojournalist Denise Bellon, Chris Marker flashes through an archive of her pictures from the 1930s and 40s. World War I veterans, their faces disfigured on the battlefield; amateur parachuters, a failed coup against Franco; whores staring from the windows in Casablanca’s Bousbir quarter, where the French military ran the brothels. The photographs fanned out like Tarot cards, prophesizing the cataclysms of the 20th century. The imbrication is hypnotic: we watch the past decipher the future, post-war become pre-war.
I bring this up because inhabiting your work, your zone, produces an uncanny, parallel effect: the sensation of that everything I witness, everything I experience, is about time.
- People are curious about where you slept or how you kept warm when you lived outdoors for a year (1981-82), or how you coped mentally the year you locked yourself in a cage (1978-79). You answer these questions dutifully, but make it clear such questioning will get us no closer to the work. What you perform, Bergson means.
- After it became clear that my father wouldn’t be living alone anymore, I cleaned out his house to put it on the market. In a closet, I found a digital alarm clock in its original packaging. The clock could project the time on the ceiling, play a selection of “nature sounds”—ocean waves, tropical forest, rainstorm. The speaker quality was tinny, like AM car radio. But I liked cueing up the effects anyway. It was like listening to the sound of my father’s whimsy.
- You claimed not to have suffered while making Time Clock Piece. You said, I have pleasure to do the piece. Because you set the terms of your own labor, you weren’t actually on the clock. If that made you mad, then you were mad in the way a monk is mad if his faith is art.
- On YouTube one can see excerpts of the six-minute film you made of the year you punched the clock. Each photographic record translates to one second of film. The hands on the face of the punch clock appear to spin wildly around the dial like an out-of-control time machine. You were careful to stand on a mark each time so your body moves imperceptibly. Your hair sprouts, swirls. The creases and wrinkles in your gray khaki uniform shudder as though a parasite were crawling just under the surface of the cloth.
Some have pointed out how exhausted you look as the frames and months advance. Yet when I peer closely at the images, I don’t see it. I see the will of a man stitching himself into time. Only after the piece was completed did you feel depressed, you said. You said you felt this way after all your pieces ended, because it meant you were delivered back to the life of an ordinary man.