I recently directed a show with Level One Drama & Theatre students at University of Lincoln inspired by the theme of time and artists like Tehching Hsieh, John Cage and Samuel Beckett. Here is the programme note:
At the end of his 13-year performance in 1999, after 13 years of never committing paint to canvas or making artwork in any way, the artist Tehching Hsieh, who inspired our show, said ‘I, Tehching Hsieh, have survived’. We feel this way too, on a much smaller scale, after spending 13 weeks together making a performance about time. We have listened to Christine and The Queens and talked about Time’s Up. We have watched John Cage’s Water Walk (1960), Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), Marina Abramovic’s durational work and asked how artists exist in time. We were inspired by Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece) in which he took a picture of himself ‘clocking on’ every hour for a year. The resulting footage is shown as a 7-minute film at Tate Modern. His overalls are displayed in a glass cabinet. His punched timecards are on the wall. His film flickers through the year.
As you watch the film the overriding sense is of time passing, as his hair grows, his stance weakens and his eyes turn red – apparently he started bleeding from the eyes towards the end of the year due to the inherent relentlessness of his task. Again, he survived to tell the tale. I visited the Tate to see the piece again before this show and I had forgotten the deafening sound of the 8mm film, reel to reel, spooling time onto the wall, spilling his blood. Adrian Heathfield talks about Tehching Hsieh’s work as revealing the ‘no-when’ – the space in between stills in the film where an hour has passed but we only see 1/24th of a second. It is a liminal moment trapped within the celluloid.
For Beckett, time travelled more slowly and his plays explore what it is to age, to grow old and become locked in memories – we played with Come and Go (1966) but only its title, and the way we hold hands, remains in our performance. For Cage, his time codes are his scores and ‘everything we do is music’ so 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence becomes an orchestra of coughs and beeps of stopwatches and mobile phones. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is here too. And Zbigniew Rybczyński’s Tango (1980). And other films that speak of time. And time lapse footage from the MACE Archive that has never been seen before. Of a busy street. A clock ticking too fast for reality.
Some of the text we wrote ourselves and some is taken from time-based sources. Some of the images we found in films and paintings. The techniques we used are at play in the work of theatre companies exploring time: Frantic Assembly’s Tender Duets, Forced Entertainment’s improvisations, Reckless Sleepers’ scores and Still House’s tableaux. Goat Island, the Chicago-based company once said, ‘we are standing here with time and the time it takes to stand here’. We felt this drive of seconds and minutes throughout our process, the four-hour workshops, the two-hour seminars. And now it manifests itself, literally, as a clock, counting down the seconds of a 45-minute performance.
Why make a show about time? As Tehching Hsieh said once in an interview, and in our show, ‘It is about being human, how we explain time, how we measure our existence’.