Your Questions, Their Answers: Q&A with Simon Birch (Part 3)

Simon Birch, Tumbling and freezing while a thin shell of air molecules expanded around the body, like an image of departing life, 2015. Oil on canvas.

How do the paintings fit in? Who influences you as an artist?
Painting is of primary importance for me. In a way, everything I do emanates from the paintings, and my work in other media has developed naturally from my paintings. For example, I have been influenced to some degree by aspects of film in the way I built my canvases, so my work in film flowed out from there. The inherent tension throughout the exhibition is easily recognized and reflected in the twisting bodies in the paintings.

As for influences, I think I am a sponge for experiences whether it is absorbing the latest Grime music, losing it in clubs with Skepta and Stormzy blaring out of speakers, or fighting through mud in a Spartan race in Taiwan. I am perhaps a conduit for those experiences, gestating and transforming them into paint, steel and wood and film.

These influences are apparent throughout the project in textures, sounds, colours, scale and materials. Punk rockers, science fiction, nature, violence, technology – they are all in there. A lifetime of love, loss, fear, pain, hope, history, film, music – all digested and regurgitated.


Why the title The 14th Factory?
I’ve always been interested in history. I do a lot of reading and research and historical narratives have always been part of my past works. I am particularly interested in the way one’s personal history is a microcosm of larger human history. As an expat British artist and a Hong Kong citizen, I was interested in the dynamics inherent in the Thirteen Factories of Canton – with their history as a site of trade, production and interface, and then their demise in the wake of the mess made by the British with the opium trade and Opium War. With The 14th Factory, we are seeking to create a new, multi-cultural space of connection and creative production that moves beyond the old boundaries and paradigms.

Simon Birch and KplusK Associates, The Barmecide Feast, 2017.
Wood, steel, acrylic, light, furniture, objets d’art, 2016.

What is The Meteor?
An enormous sculpture in the abstract form of a crashed meteor stretches from floor to ceiling, big enough to enter. Its cool, dark surfaces give it the feel of some kind of hybrid spacecraft. The jigsaw-like shards that compose the structure, like pieces salvaged from a collision, are actually visual extractions from figurative paintings. A dull, low noise fades in and out, as if the object were about to levitate at any moment. The Meteor is a visualization of the state of civilization right now: collapsing so slowly it seems like a freeze-frame explosion, both horrific and beautiful. This is the point of entry into the new world, but also the point of refusal or acceptance.

The title of this work is in part a nod to the British psychobilly band The Meteors; and its form was inspired by a cybernetic organism in Frank Miller’s dystopian comic book Ronin.


The Kubrick room?
Your comfort is your prison. Titled The Barmecide Feast, in reference to the story from Arabian Nights, The Stanley Kubrick room was originally an empty white cube in juxtaposition to the large, black, chaotic looking mass that surrounds it – emphasizing tension between the works – order/chaos and violence/beauty. The piece named The Meteor was designed first through a complicated architectural process, using the body as a source for the composition. The larger work harbored this bright, sterile interior that was in part inspired by the room at the end of the Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey. When I looked into Kubrick more thoroughly, we found that all the drawings, models and the set itself had all been destroyed. It pushed us to re-interpret that room more literally, but what really added to it was when we commissioned Hong Kong based architects KplusK to re-design the piece, using the film itself as a reference point, we were amazed to discover the principals at KplusK, Paul and Johnny Kember, were grandsons and nephews of the chief draftsmen and set builders for Kubrick on that movie when it was shot back in 1968. That coincidence pushed us to further commit to a full representation of the room from the film. Though we planned to make the room inaccessible, we had so many people eager to explore inside it that we eventually submitted and allowed audience in. To our surprise, people line up for an hour to get in to experience it and take their pictures within it! An unexpected outcome as it is, that surface interaction doesn’t quite sum up the entire experience of the greater project, but it does encourage many more people to come and further interact with the exhibition – like how a trailer draws people to watch a film – and that is a positive result for us.

Simon Birch, The Inevitable, 2015. Six-channel video.

What are the plane tails?
A monumental installation of airplane tails and wings, salvaged from an airplane junkyard in the Mojave Desert, Clear Air Turbulence has taken over an outdoor courtyard space. The airplane parts appear to be sinking into, or possibly emerging from, a lake of dark water. The tails have been scrubbed and polished on one side, while the other side is left in the original condition, with faint logos and serial numbers barely visible. They are like dinosaur bones, or strange memorial stelae. Standing at different heights but pointing in the same direction, the formation of the plane parts alludes to the points of a crown.

The title of this work was inspired by the pirate spaceship of the same name in Lain M. Banks’ classic sci-fi novel, Consider Phlebas.


The Ferrari rooms?
Transformation is key to the project and this piece, The Inevitable probably represents that most obviously. I bought it at a time when I needed that object. Coming from a working class background, one learned that such objects meant success, freedom or happiness. I have since un-learned this, probably partially as a result of being diagnosed with cancer and being given six months to live back in 2008. Such an event does tend to give one clarity – I’ve been interested in altruism more since then and have been involved with philanthropic work.

So, one could suggest I have myself been transformed. It felt necessary to take this last remaining material possession and destroy it, beautifully shot by Eric Hu. The value is ascribed and not actual, the car has little inherent value, although I understand the arguments against that (technology, innovation, mining, transport, design, etc). But in my opinion, that is subjective and to destroy the vehicle, upcycle it into film, photographs and objects that are then shared, makes it far more valuable to far more people than to only myself and its creators in its original form.

The ego was in the purchase, counteracted in its destruction.

For me, the work it is about hope, innovation, creation and new ways of looking at how we move forward.


The fight film?
The Inhumans was shot in Beijing, with 300 factory workers, bare-chested, in a factory space not dissimilar to the LA venue. The film is shot at high speed by renowned photographer Wing Shya. It was a very cold day so it was a tough day, but we had martial arts coaches prep everyone in advance so it was efficient.

The title is taken from a superhero comic book about a group of outsider heroes, or anti-heroes. The leader is a king who never speaks as his voice could crush a planet.

Simon Birch and Wing Shya, Inhumans2016.
Fight choreography by Hao Yibo. 6-channel video, 2016

Simon Birch and Gloria Yu, Hypercaine, 2016.
Brass, nylon, gold plate, marble, wood, stone, metal.

Gloria Yu, I am, I am, I am, 2017. Chinese herbs, paint.


The crowns?
There were over a hundred designs for the crowns in the work Hypercaine – we realized around half so far. They became more and more abstract over time, starting from simple, formal sketches, then transforming to more mask-like and restrictive ones. The development of these designs happened over some years – they are then narrowed down to a final selection, executed through a complicated digital 3D design process, printed in parts and welded together. Some are gold plated brass, some are nylon, and some are formal shapes made from marble, wood, steel, granite and all kinds of materials. There also a series created by Gloria Yu titled I am, I am, I am, made from Chinese herbs and ingredients and coated with a layer of white paint.


Which room held the most difficulty and what has been the greatest challenge of this project?
Technically, crashing the Ferrari was a huge undertaking as we had only one chance to get it right. It is also the most expensive shoot of the show, far more than the cost of the car.

One of the biggest challenge is also the financial aspect of the show. I had to keep the show alive by using my savings and borrowing from some very supportive friends. It has not been the most comfortable experience and despite the anecdotes one hears about commitment and failure leading to success, it has truly been one of the most difficult period of my life. The vision of the project, however, has kept us going!


What’s next?
We are just getting started. The is the best we could do with limited resources and having to balance being an entrepreneur, our own manager and agent on top of being artists. With success in LA, we hope to use this as a proof of concept and attract the necessary support in terms of organizational structure and representation to move us forward on the logistical end so we can focus on art making. If that is possible and all our energies were focused on the content rather than finding resources to realize it and communicate it, well, then you’ll see even better installments of the project in other cities we bring it to – London, NYC, Berlin, Shanghai…  and who knows where else.