Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The gnomic Mr. Tehching Hsieh . . . who'll never get out of this world alive

(Image from The New York Times)

I learned of Tehching Hsieh (family name pronounced "shay") in yesterday's International Herald Tribune, but a fuller version of the article appeared several days ago (February 25, 2009) in the original source, The New York Times. Titled "A Caged Man Breaks Out at Last" and written by Deborah Sontag, it tells of this performance artist particularly given to dark, gnomic utterances:
"Because of this book I can die tomorrow."
But he means that in a good way, for the book, Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, is a 384-page, six-pound, large-format book written in collaboration with the London curator Adrian Heathfield and devoted to Hsieh's lifeworks . . . or at least to his 'performances'.

For me, Hsieh's most concretely mind-boggling 'performance' was his year spent punching a time clock hourly, using alarm clocks linked to amplifiers to wake himself each hour on the hour, finishing with 8,760 timecards. Reportedly, Hsieh felt like Camus's version of Sisyphus, repeating a futile task that, paradoxically, gave existentialist purpose and structure to his life. In his formulation:
"Wasting time is my concept of life."
Or more lugubriously expressed:
"Living is nothing but consuming time until you die."
And I had thought Sisyphus already dead and pushing that stone through Hades . . . or maybe Tartarus. But Hsieh himself has already been through hell, too. Beginning on July 4, 1983, he spent a year bound by an eight-foot rope to the feminist performance artist Linda Montano in a constant tug of war in which they often did not get along:
"I was more like a cobra, without feeling," he said. "She was more emotional."
Emoting more like a mongoose, I presume.

But given Mr. Tehching Hsieh's starkly existentialist view of life, let me bind him to someone a bit more existentially pleasant, the great country artist Hank Williams, and dedicate to Hsieh that marvelous song "I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive":
Now you're lookin' at a man that's gettin' kinda mad
I had a lot of luck but it's all been bad
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

My fishin' pole's broke, the creek is full of sand
My woman run away with another man
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

A distant uncle passed away and left me quite a batch
And I was livin' high until that fatal day
A lawyer proved I wasn't borned
I was only hatched.

Ev'rything's agin' me and it's got me down
If I jumped in the river I would prob'ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

These shabby shoes I'm wearin' all the time
Is full of holes and nails
And brother if I stepped on a worn-out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails.

I'm not gonna worry wrinkles in my brow
'Cause nothin's ever gonna be alright nohow
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

I could buy a Sunday suit and it would leave me broke
If it had two pair of pants I would burn the coat
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.

If it was rainin' gold I wouldn't stand a chance
I wouldn't have a pocket in my patched-up pants
No matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world alive.
Written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose, it expresses a more humorous existentialism than that of Mr. Hsieh, but of a sort for which he might nevertheless have some appreciation . . . even if only for dramatic irony in the fact that Williams died unexpectedly in 1953 soon after the song's release and just as it was reaching number one in the charts. (Mr. Fred Rose died a year later.)

If you haven't already, go and listen to Hank sing this song. You'll have to waste a minute or two watching somebody's hands put the record onto a turntable, but that's made up for by this version's lack of the two final stanzas. Even if you find this an utter waste of time, just recall Hsieh's wise words:
"Wasting time is my concept of life."
Make it yours, too . . . but only in the odd moments like this one.

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At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I wasted time, now time doth waste me."

This really amused a dark sort of way.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well . . . but let's not waste it as Richard II did.

Glad that you were amused.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hadn't come across "gnomic" in a long, long, long time, until just a few days ago. Now, would you know it, I've just encountered it again in your posting.

So long had I not encountered "gnomic" that I'd forgotten what it meant. But I remembered sufficiently that it had little to do with "gnome".

I consulted my rather old (more than 40 years old) Oxford English Dictionary which defines "gnomic" thus:

Of, consisting of, using, gnomes, sententious

I found this so totally confusing, that I consulted Google, which, for "gnomic", came up with:

Marked by aphorisms; aphoristic

This seemed much clearer, so much so that I feel I can confidently now toss off "gnomic" when next I speak with someone I wish to impress.

I've deduced from your posting that you've used "gnomic" as Google would have you do.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Lucinda, yes, I suppose that I have used it in the way Google led you to.

Like you, I always had trouble with this word -- that darned 'gnome' problem (and I wouldn't want to imply of Mr. Hsieh...).

But I finally got that straightened out somehow, and I am gratified to hear that my blog entry helped you in some way.

Thanks for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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