I thought it might be fun to adopt an alter-ego. If it’s good enough for Grayson Perry it’s good enough for me. Not that I want to ponce about in a frock and an alice band on channel 4 (oh no wait, I’ve already done that) or charge £65 for a neck scarf (sad to report I haven’t done that) - but it would be useful to have a foil.
I’m not sure what I imagine the role of alter-ego to be. The worst version of me? Someone who yells racist slurs out of the car window at offence giving fellow motorists driving up your exhaust pipe when you’re trying to reverse park in Deptford? Obviously I’d never do that.
Or the best version of me? That’s trickier. First thought best thought. Tehching Hsieh. Ok, that’s that then - my alter-ego is cult hero and 59 year old Taiwanese performance artist living in Brooklyn with his wife Qinqin Li.
I have dodgy ankles from a performance piece I did in Taiwan in 1973 that involved jumping out of a second floor window and recording it on Super 8.
So what’s so great about that? So some nutter jumped out of a window when he was twenty-three, broke his ankles and called it art? So what?
So everything. There is nothing else.
Tehching Hsieh is famous for his one-year performances that took place in New York in the 80s. Each performance was prefaced with a statement.
On 30 September 1978 Hsieh wrote:
“I, Sam Hsieh, plan to do a one year performance piece, to begin on September 30, 1978.
I shall seal myself in my studio, in solitary confinement inside a cell-room measuring 11’6” x 9’8”.
I shall NOT converse, read, write, listen to the radio or watch television, until I unseal myself on September 29, 1979.
I shall have food everyday.
My friend, Cheng Wei Kuong, will facilitate this piece by taking charge of my food, clothing and refuse.”
If that doesn’t sound staggering it’s only because most of us, myself included of course, have so little idea as to how fantastically traumatic such an experience would be.
In 1981/2 Hsieh lived outside for a year. He did not go into a building, subway, train, car, airplane, ship, cave or tent for a full year. He had a sleeping bag only - in New York, which as we know, gets cold.
The point is he did these things not by accident, not in the course of life simply unfolding in the way that life does, but with self-awareness, consciously, as ‘art’. As performance art he was able to identify with what was happening to him and to witness it at the same time. That’s the difference between simply doing something and undertaking it as a piece of durational performance art in this way. He was able to see it. He employed positions of physical, emotional and mental extremes over sustained periods to investigate the notion of art and life as pure simultaneous processes. This is quite something. This is intellectual commitment to artistic practice second to none. This is passion with a capital ‘P’.
Having spent the last decade or so living in relative obscurity Hsieh has now released a book, so everyone’s talking about him again. Even Hans Ulrich Obrist calls him: “one of the great artists of our time. With immense courage, Tehching Hsieh revolutionised performance art.” And what Mr Obrist says goes, awight!?
So I’m wondering… when I’ve got an alter-ego will life be simpler? Will having an alter-ego help me to step back from the pain and the joy? To see them instead of always having to be them? I’m afraid to say the question that begins to emerge, to quote that immortal piece of cinematic history, Brian Johnson in The Breakfast Club (1985), is – “who am I?”
There’s wisdom in the strangest places:
“Saturday, March 24,1984. Shermer High School, Shermer, Illinois, 60062. Dear Mr. Vernon, We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. That's the way we saw each other at 7 o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.” (How overjoyed I was to spot the poster for that film in Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Cavemanman (2002) in Walking In My Mind.)
And why limit myself to one alter-ego? Forget who do you want to invite to a dinner party. Who do you want to be? Hell, who are you? When you see the holy light what’s it going to look like? The Dalai Lama? Robbie Williams? JJ Charlesworth? the bank manager? (oh come on) Lucrezia Borgia? Japan’s favourite poet? Yayoi Kusama? Dr Who? Maggie Thatcher? (oh my God) Thích Nhất Hạnh? Joseph Beuys? John and Edward? Josephine Baker? Ziggy Marley? (“I don’t condemn. I don’t convert.”) Albert Einstein? Tehching Hsieh? just plain me?…. or the whole lot … simultaneously?
I think I’ll name my alter-ego Ann-Lee after the Manga character Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno bought the rights to in 1999. A bit of attempting to free myself symbolically from my fixed position as product and to question the nature of identity and particularly my identity is just what I’m in the mood for.
What are we anyway? Are we all one? Are we all just the world manifesting? On a good day I think we probably are. On a bad day everyone else can go to hell. That’s what Ann Lee thinks anyway.