As art lovers from all around the world descend on Hong Kong for a month-long art binge, one Hong Kong artist is making waves abroad by bringing together a monumental collective show entitled The 14th Factory, housed within a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles.
This artist is none other than renowned Hong Kong painter Simon Birch, who, together with 17 international artists — including names Hongkongers should already be familiar with, such as photographer Wing Shya and artist Stanley Wong (anothermountainman) — worked together to create 14 large-scale installations. It’s an exploration of new ways for artists to collaborate in the wider international community between the east and west.
Weaving together unlikely elements from history, science fiction, punk rock, cinema and graphic novels, the exhibition promises to be a fully immersive experience. In the true sense of the word “surreal”, each installation is a dreamlike microcosm which you can step into and let your mind wander, with works ranging from a floor-to-ceiling installation of a crashing meteorite by Birch to a replica of a set piece from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Ahead of the opening this week, we spoke with Simon Birch to learn more about his vision for the show.
In a sentence, what is The 14th Factory all about?
14 installations were designed around a central narrative, built by an army of collaborators, spread over 100,000 square feet; it’s an experience beyond art.
What’s the story behind the exhibition title?
I’ve always been interested in history, I do a lot of reading and historical narratives have 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, the dynamics inherent in the the 13 Factories of Canton were of interest to me — 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 the old paradigms.
What brought you to Los Angeles to do the show? Why not Hong Kong, or elsewhere?
The concept has always been intended to be a kind of guerilla action where we would go in and transform and activate an under-utilised or static urban space. In its initial stages four years ago, the idea was to go in and create an intervention in an abandoned building in Hong Kong, but as the project grew internationally we were open to bringing it out into the world, wherever might seem a good fit. We were offered an amazing empty heritage building in New York that we tried to make work, but the environment and the situation just didn’t work out.
I have spent a lot of time in L.A. and have some really good mates here, a couple of them searched locations for me and when I saw this warehouse site in this ambiguous, transitional area of Lincoln Heights I just felt it was right. Los Angeles has a kind of open-mindedness and energy that makes sense for the project right now.
What was the artist selection process like?
There is a core group of artists in the show I have worked with before on several other of my projects, like Cang Xin and Li Wei from Beijing, Stanley Wong, Wing Shya, Eric Hu and KplusK from Hong Kong, Gary Gunn from New York and Doug Foster from the UK, among others. And for every project I also connect with other artists whose work resonates with me and invite them to participate: In this case, fabric artist Movana Chen from Hong Kong and Scott Carthy from the UK. We discuss and develop ideas and their presence becomes an integral part of the story.
Was it a conscious decision to have a strong Hong Kong presence at the exhibition?
Hong Kong has been my home for over 20 years, and I developed as an artist in Hong Kong; naturally many of my friends and collaborators are Hongkongers as well.
How is the immersive experience designed?
There is a narrative flow in the exhibition that parallels the idea of the hero’s journey, or the monomyth as the writer Joseph Campbell calls it. Each installation is a discrete work, or world in itself; but when taken as a total environment, particularly in this amazing space in L.A., it is exponentially more powerful. You also have the freedom to move in a different way through it, to backtrack, to linger.
In your statement, you mentioned a large part of the inspiration behind this show is inspired by the current political climate. How does The 14th Factory add to the global conversation on this theme?
It’s more of a question of a symbiotic relationship between the spirit of The 14th Factory — its themes, our overall mission is regards to art and community, and our working relationship with each other as a kind of international tribe of creatives — and the spirit of many people who are standing up to declare what values are important to them in their life today.
Do any of the works shown specifically point at any single event or place in terms of political commentary?
All of the works have a metaphorical narrative or symbols that are composed of different histories and civilisations, including invented ones such as the works with a sci-fi element, and ultimately they are comments on or reflections of the human condition. Perhaps the installation Garlands — featuring a prominent motif of blood-red poppies — has the most direct relationship to a particular history, as it alludes to the relationship between China and Britain, which is a relationship that has been both fractious and inspirational.
Have you fully departed from painting now? What interests you about using other media?
No, I constantly paint, painting is of primary importance for me — in a way, everything I do emanates from the paintings. In fact my work in other media has developed naturally from my painting; for example, I have been influenced to some degree by aspects of film in the way I build my canvases so my work in film flowed out from there.
You also mentioned that the works exhibited end up asking the question: “As civilisations have risen and fallen, are we now at the brink of collapse or the start of a wonderful new chapter?” Personally, do you have an answer to this? Are you hopeful or cynical for the future?
Change is good.
What do you hope people gain from the exhibition?
I have no expectation, but I hope people enjoy it.