For his first “action,” the now legendary Jump Piece (1973), he flung himself off an approximately 15-foot-high second-floor window onto concrete, shocking the local community—and breaking both of his ankles. He photographed the piece with his newly purchased Super 8 camera, establishing the practice of documenting his own work, which he would continue meticulously throughout his career.
Though eager to build his artistic practice, Hsieh felt limited by the conservative political atmosphere in Taiwan and, like many artists of the time, looked to New York City as the “art center of the world.” But it was difficult to secure a visa at the time, so in 1974 he took an unconventional route and trained as a sailor to join an oil tanker headed for the U.S.
He jumped ship near a port in Philadelphia and hailed a cab to New York City, where he has lived and worked ever since (including a period of 14 years without a green card, until he was granted amnesty in 1988). Determined to succeed as an artist, Hsieh quickly learned the harsh realities of life as an illegal immigrant and, experiencing culture shock and unable to speak English, supported himself with dishwashing and cleaning work in restaurants. To avoid running into the police, he skipped public transportation altogether, and remained almost unaware of the bustling downtown arts scene of the 1970s and ’80s.
Given the circumstances, it’s no surprise that his work was also suffering. “I was eager to do art but had no ideas to do any work,” he said
. “It was frustrating. I had a studio in Tribeca and I walked back and forth doing my thinking every day after work.”
Then, finally, he had a breakthrough idea, one that would form the foundation of his practice. “One day all of a sudden I thought: what else do I look for?” he once recounted
. “I don’t need to go out to find art, I am already in my work.”