As soon as I heard about Lisa Hsiao Chen’s novel Activities of Daily Living, I wanted something from it. I had been searching Publishers Marketplace for “art criticism,” curious about what was coming down the publishing pipeline, when news of Chen’s then-forthcoming book emerged. It is about a writer and video editor named Alice who lives in New York, though she had grown up in California after moving from Taipei as a child. She is working on what she calls “The Project”—researching the Taiwanese American artist Tehching Hsieh’s radical experiments with art, time, and life—while also caring for her father as he experiences the effects of dementia. Chen’s book hadn’t even been published, and I already wanted it to help me think about how to write about art that blurred into life, and how to do so in a way that acknowledged how this kind of art affected me as a writer. How does a writer put across how Hsieh’s art vibrates on those higher, more elusive frequencies? So often, the writing about Hsieh in academic texts and art magazines dwells on numbers—the eight-foot rope tying him to Linda Montana for a year, the exact dates projects ended and began, the number of times he punched the clock. While such logistics are meant to quantify the work’s intensity, they sometimes overshadow the way its very real extremes put the difficulties of living into perspective.
When I finally got my hands on Activities of Daily Living, it gave me exactly what I wanted and more. Alice’s project spirals beyond researching and writing about Hsieh, becoming about the very nature of “projects,” interrogating the roles they play in the lives and work of artists and writers. “The Project” thus becomes a frame for the baffling complexities of the life Alice is living while also opening up space for imagining what else is possible. Impressively, Chen’s writing manages to be about complexity without being difficult to read. The sentences unfurl at an easeful, intentional pace. We feel swept up in Alice’s life and thoughts, as she is swept up in Hsieh’s work: “The Artist once described his durational works as a form of art that he could live, think freely and pass time within,” Chen writes. “Alice, too, had wanted a project she could be within. The more she immersed herself in the Artist’s work, the more she found herself inhabiting his zone.”
I had already learned so much from reading Activities of Daily Living, but I learned more from talking to Chen about the process of writing it. “I wanted meaning to accumulate for the reader the way it accumulates in life,” she tells me.
We began our email conversation right after I’d been to Documenta 15 in Kassel, Germany, where multiple artists were blurring life into art.
Catherine G. Wagley: It has been interesting starting your book again after seeing Documenta—which is, in a way, imagined as one big project meant to remain in process—and being part of conversations about resources, and how they are distributed, and what makes projects possible. One artist who had work in Documenta, a show consisting entirely of collectives this year, told me that his collective used their funds to build a little apartment in their exhibition space, so that artists could afford to stay easily while they worked.
Lisa Hsiao Chen: Oh man, Documenta. See everything for me. After reading Siddhartha Mitter’s piece about it in the New York Times, I’d been idly daydreaming about going, but we have a sick cat right now so I don’t think it’s going to happen. Probably it wasn’t going to happen anyway.
I’m so curious that you zoomed in on the process aspect of what you’re seeing there on the ground in Kassel. From afar (and apart from the controversies that have unfortunately dominated the coverage), the emphasis has been on the collective aspect—artworks being mounted collaboratively by groups of artists. But I imagine when you’re there in real time, you get to witness the dynamism of the making and remaking of the projects themselves, including the building and occupying of literal live/work spaces! You’re reminding me of something I saw at the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi some years ago. On the grounds of the museum there’s a small outdoor complex of traditional rural dwellings representative of different regions in India. I opened the door to one of the structures to look inside and came across two men sleeping on a cot. They had removed their shoes and lined them up neatly on the floor. Their presence there had restored the hut from a museum relic to its original function as a legit shelter.
Yes! That’s the kind of work I was thinking about when I reread that part super early on in your book about how artist Tehching Hsieh arrives in New York and doesn’t make art but washes dishes on twelve-hour shifts because “it’s all he can do to keep himself alive,” and then begins filming his nightly routine (a project that is possible within his circumstances). The book starts with a reflection on projects themselves and also with Hsieh’s relationship to them, and I am wondering: Which came first for you as this book began to take shape, the idea of a project or the artist? Or, more straightforwardly, how did you become interested in writing about Hsieh?
I would say years before the novel took shape, I had been thinking about Hsieh and thinking vaguely that I would like to write about him someday and in some way. Emphasis on “vague” because, at the time, I wasn’t doing so-called creative writing of any kind. In 2014, I quit my longtime nine-to-five job and began freelancing to clear more headspace for my writing. This was at the nudging of my partner who, among his many wonderful, singular qualities, also had health insurance. The first thing I tried to write wasn’t about Hsieh; it was inspired by my preoccupation with Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, benshi (performers who delivered live narration during the silent-film era in Japan), and obsolescence. After so many years of office life, the whole idea of inhabiting my own “project” still felt weird to me, like a new pair of pants with zippers and buttons I wasn’t used to. The other weird and awkward thing that was happening was I was trying to shift from my original mode, poetry, to fiction. I didn’t know how to write it. I eventually wrote myself into a wall.
In other words, I had in mind that I would complete a manuscript. But the process—the actual writing of it—was a shit show. So, I found myself returning to Hsieh and his monumental commitment to executing his performance pieces. I love the transparency and mystery of his projects. What he set out to do––lock himself in a cage for a year, for example––was transparently simple and spelled out. The mystery was what actually happened to him during the long duration of his projects, which is also the project, and which is the material of life itself: time passing. By then I had gotten a residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (the residency is fictionalized in the novel) and was, for the first time in my life, surrounded by artists and their projects. The idea of the “project,” particularly how it functions as a commodity and fetish in the art world, also came roaring to the surface. Of course, the other thing that had come to the surface was the passing of time in my own life, specifically the gradual diminishment and decline of my real-life dad, the catalyst for another strand in the novel.
Ah, it is so interesting that Hsieh, and his approach to working, helped you write—or find a form for your writing-slash-project. One of the things I loved about your book was the pacing of it, the way the time of reading passed. I wouldn’t call the book a quick read, or a slow one! Instead, I felt like you were inviting me along at a pace that met the narrative where it was at. And your treatment of the “transparency and mystery”—words that, now that you’ve used them, feel very well suited—of Hsieh’s work and also maybe the other parts of Alice’s life, helped with that pacing. Did approximating the transparency and mystery in Hsieh’s projects help you get at the other things this novel traverses, like the opacities and clarities of Alice’s relationship with her father, or her relationship to work?
Your question is making me think on Outdoor Piece, where Hsieh vowed to spend a year entirely outdoors, and how people would’ve seen him sleeping in doorways and hanging out in the streets of lower Manhattan during that time. He was transparently right in front of them but his purpose was a mystery to most.
While at the same time Alice is immersing herself in Hsieh’s performances, which involves thinking deeply on the nature of time and specifically the mystery of those lost hours he put into his performances (lost to the viewing public, not to Hsieh), she’s also living her own life, her own hours. Those days and hours become alchemized into her own project. So I guess you could say that’s one of the “moves” in the novel. Hsieh’s work forces you to break down the line between art and life because he gave his life and body over to his performances.
And yet you could say the book is less about art than it is about how we balance or don’t balance the different kinds of work we do in our lives—the “day job”; the “project” (or the work that feeds our intellect and soul in a different way); and the work of caregiving for family members. The day job is often our public face to the world. The project can feel ridiculous and even shameful because no one gives a shit, and it is terrifying to make something from primordial glop. But the risk of failure is essential, and mystery is essential. Once Alice’s father requires professional care because of his dementia and declining health, the world of institutional caregiving opens up to Alice and her sister. It’s a hidden world, a mysterious underworld in many ways, because it’s shut away from our busy world. It’s a sad, intensely mortal place but with small graces. It is hard work.
By consigning her father’s care to professionals, Alice creates more distance between them, even as the arc of his life comes into greater focus, including the bond they share as people with projects. (His was a passion for making handcrafted Chinese furniture.) The novel tries to show these messes and contradictions.
Just now, in looking up how you treat Outdoor Piece in the novel, I landed on that trio of chapters in the latter third, where Alice goes from looking at a picture of Hsieh in a catalogue, to thinking about a sculpture by Donald Lipski (which Hsieh is sitting on in the photo), to pondering the construction of the World Trade Center amidst a moment of economic precarity in New York. And then we are with Alice as she learns via speakerphone that the Father has only six months to a year to live and considers hospice facilities, and then Alice is on a ferry to Venice during the Biennale, because Hsieh is representing Taiwan. These worlds and realities, which feel more like they are deliriously overlapping than contradictory, all blur together. I think form questions can be boring sometimes, but in writing art criticism, it is often so difficult to get at that blurriness (the way mortality, mind-wandering, and so much more interrupt or alter the work, and your perception of art). Once you knew you were writing a novel, did it become easier to more fully get at these “messes and contradictions”?
I recently read an essay by the writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez where he describes the task of the novelist as finding a form that allows the novel to think for itself, to go where the novelist may not have wanted to go, or to places they didn’t know existed. I do think there’s something baggy and expansive about novels—at least the kind that most fascinate me—that make them formally open to reflecting the mess of living. Poetry can do that, too, but it is not obliged to put one foot in front of the other and move through space and time the ways novels typically are.
I love essays and criticism because they give me the thrill of watching someone perform thinking. Clarity is essential, and I agree, it seems like there’s a limit to blurriness or prismatic thinking in those forms, at least in short form. I think that’s why Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City was such an important book for me, because of how she touches down thematically across artists and their art while grounding herself in the texture of life. But it’s true, I chose to write a novel. I wanted meaning to accumulate for the reader the way it accumulates in life, if you pay it a certain kind of attention, which working on a “project” can sometimes do, but is not the only way.
It’s funny, talking about clarity and accumulation of meaning. I was syllabus-planning over the weekend—I wanted the first class, before we dive into some more canonical, academic stuff, to be about the use of ideas in a really pragmatic way. Like, how do we live as artists/writers/practitioners? And do ideas help us? Your book was on my desk while I was thinking about this, open to that chapter about Venice—in which Alice navigates the day job, the caretaking, puts the Venice trip on her credit card, and thinks about gentrification and privilege, and then tries to read Deleuze.
On the very last page of your novel, the narrator asks, “Will there be another project?” And it seems like the question is referring to Alice. Why is it so hard, impossible almost, to imagine that there wouldn’t be?
Do ideas help us? Christ, I hope so. I have a lot of half-baked ideas for future projects. Not every idea takes flight, but to keep firing ideas, to have friends in life to goof and riff ideas with, feels to me like a mode of pragmatic survival, a kind of fuel.
Fans of Chris Marker may hear in the last line in the novel an echo of the last line in Sans Soleil, a film I love so much. What guides us through the ever-shifting images and locations in the film is a female voice reading aloud the letters from her friend, a world-traveling (fictional) cameraman named Sandor Krasna. It’s his words we hear throughout the film until the last line, when hers break through: “Will there be a last letter?”
I wanted that similar sensation of a rupture in time, narration, address. The question is a question Alice asks herself, but it’s also directed at the reader on some level. My fear is that it’s all too easy to imagine that there wouldn’t be another project. Maybe Hsieh’s endgame as an artist offers a path out of this abiding fear.