THE ART OF SIMON BIRCH

THE ART OF SIMON BIRCH
interview / liz rice mccray

Simon Birch is a UK-born artist who is a permanent resident of Hong Kong, China. Birch is known for his large kinetic figurative oil paintings. Recently Birch has ventured into film and installation work, and site-specific multimedia projects. These large multimedia projects integrate paintings with film, sculpture, installation and performance housed in specifically configured spaces. Birch is the conceptual force behind The 14th Factory – a monumental, multiple-media, socially engaged art and documentary experience. Birch worked collaboratively and individually on every aspect of the project and is the founder of The 14th Factory Foundation. Birch’s work has been featured and reviewed in many international publications, including Artforum, The Guardian, The International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times. To see more of Simon Birch art go to simon-birch.com and the14thfactory.com

We are always curious where people are at the present time that we interview them; will you describe where you are right now? This way everyone reading along can imagine the setting.
Sitting in the offices of my current project, The 14th Factory. It’s a rundown, 100-year-old building, 150,000 square feet in Lincoln Heights, the oldest neighborhood of Los Angeles. The office looks like it hasn’t been used since the ‘60s and it’s hot as hell in the middle of the summer with no air conditioning. So, having finally opened the show in March, after a five-year struggle, having achieved great success, it’s time to close it up and start working on the next one.

Thank you for the visual, sounds like a cool building. Will you please introduce yourself to our reader, a little synopsis if you will?
I’m Simon Birch, born in England on the South Coast, part Polish, part Armenian, moved around a lot, grew up in Leicester mainly. I have been living in Hong Kong the last 20 years where I developed my life as an artist, painting portraits and the figure initially and then experimenting more in installation, film, performance, and collaborative works. It is also in HK that I started creating my own independent projects, which have become larger and larger. The 14th Factory is the most ambitious one to date.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood?
There is nothing much to tell.

How did you end up in Hong Kong?
In a way I made a mess of my life in UK. I got myself into some trouble so I ran away at 20 to Hong Kong, which was then still a British colony, an easy option as one didn’t require a work permit. And it was easy to get work, which for me was as a laborer with a construction company in 1997, the year Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese after a 100-year lease signed on the back of the opium wars, which started in a tiny enclave in Southern China called The 13 Factories.

Do you speak Chinese?
Not great but some Cantonese.

You are a creative initiator of The 14th Factory project, working collaboratively and individually on every aspect of the project. Will please tell us about The 14th Factory project?
As an artist, one becomes a filter and reactor and then a visual communicator, absorbing and interpreting and responding to the world one inhabits. My observation is: the social contract of existence of globalization and population expansion has taken us to a precarious point where we are at risk of collapse, whether it is environmental or political. It may be too late but we have been on the brink before. Connection and communication of ideas online has had little effect and, if anything, borders are re-enforced and we have become more disconnected than ever before.

The 14th Factory is a microcosm of a solution, or at least my incubating conceptual idea of one. It is an action – arriving in a community outside of the main Los Angeles tourist map, bringing a group of multi-disciplinary artists together to collaborate, re-activating an abandoned space, and then having it be accessed and shared and enjoyed by a diverse demographic outside of the established paradigm of art presentation. To me, that’s action whose result is ultimately shared by a greater community.

The 14th Factory explores an inherent tension between our need for borders, and dreams of living in a borderless world. It’s a theme that is at once universal but also highly topical. Today, wherever we happen to live in the world, we’re experiencing the painful breakdown of borders – with globalization, unemployment, mass migration – but we’re also witnessing resurgent nationalism and the violent re-imposition of borders, with the building of walls and the securitization of frontiers.

The title of the project The 14th Factory speaks to this theme in different ways. It alludes on one level to the Thirteen Factories of Canton (today’s Guangzhou) in Southern China. This was a zone on the outskirts of the port-city where, through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, foreigners were permitted to trade for part of the year. Of course, the object of this trade was ultimately the opening up of China – imagined as a breaking down of borders in the name of free trade. Britain, and other powers, would go to war with the Qing Empire to ensure that it opened up. The Thirteen Factories becomes an emblem in this project of a contradictory impetus for lockdown and global expansion. Globalization, embedded in a one-world vision, is often the result of violent intersections. The project explores this tension between the border and the borderless.

Today, in an increasingly post-industrial world, the word ‘factory’ is almost archaic. The 14th Factory speaks to the implications of this post-industrial world – a closing down, or obsolesce of one model of production that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s not a coincidence that the project is housed in an old commercial space in Lincoln Heights. The setting is part of its content.

The project invites you to think about different scales of border-making: the nation-state as a powerful container that draws lines around places; the borders that cities produce as they grow – enclaves of wealth and pockets of poverty as well as meaning-making itself as a practice that involves taking the world and then framing it to make it intelligible. We cut our experience of the world up in language to make it understandable.

The scope of your work is so impressive. What are some of your favorite materials to work with?
Humans and paint.

Kind of a cliché artist interview question here, but where do you draw inspiration from?
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 my project and work in textures, sounds, colors, scale and materials. Punk rockers, science fiction, nature, violence, technology… it’s all in there. Lifetime of love, loss, fear, pain, hope, history, film, music… all digested and regurgitated.

Like much of your work, your portfolio is massive. Is there a project/installation that sticks out in your memory as pivotal to launching your career as a world-renowned artist?
I’m still waiting for that to happen. I haven’t been launched as anything as far as I can see. When a project becomes pivotal and launches me, I’ll let you know.

As an outsider The 14th Factory seems pretty pivotal… What kind of art do you like? Do you collect anything in particular?
I like the work of other 14th Factory collaborating artists and I have some work from them (who are also my friends) through trade.

But I barely collect anything and to be honest I have so little now in my life of material value. I have become accustomed with owning and acquiring nothing, and the idea of collecting something that has little function in my process of trying to do something meaningful with my work seems pointless. All my resources for the last five years have gone into The 14th Factory. With no sponsor, gallery or other financial support, I supported it myself and with the help of friends.

Any bits of wisdom you could impart to artists who are just getting started?
Quit, unless you’re ready for a long journey of insecurity and rejection.

What are you really into right now, art-related or otherwise?
Exercise, rest and nutrition.

Not to be depressing, but when it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
I don’t care about being remembered. I just care about making an impact while I am here.

Ok, very last question: where can people check out more of your art?
For now, it is online at Simon-birch.com and The14thfactory.com. Hopefully we will open the new project in London next year and then there will be a new set of work to see.