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A Work of Heart: The 14th Factory By Artist Simon Birch

Herculean in scale, ambition, and effort, visionary artist Simon Birch’s immersive multimedia art project The 14th Factory is being brought back home to Hong Kong – four years after electrifying Los Angeles’ art world with the inaugural edition. Birch takes us behind the scenes of what he calls “a mind-blowing adventure for the people”.

October 5, 2021

The air is thick and sweltering on one of the last days of summer when I meet Simon Birch at his part-studio, part-gallery nestled on a quaint stretch of Soho. Donning a simple white tee and a focused demeanour, the celebrated British painter who has called Hong Kong home for almost a quarter of a century has been cooped up in this previously run-down garage for the past months. It’s here, within these concrete white walls flanked by several of his famous oil paintings, that Birch and his team are buried knee-deep – “running around, doing meetings, writing proposals” – in planning what he considers to be the most significant project in his life. 

Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

We’re talking about the upcoming Hong Kong iteration of The 14th Factory, slated to raise its curtains this December and running for approximately six months. The large-scale, multimedia immersive art experience that encompasses paintings, videos, installations, sculptures, soundscapes, and storytelling debuted in 2017 in a 150,000sqft Los Angeles warehouse. Running as a non-profit sans any major PR, gallery, corporate, or sponsor backing – Simon sold his belongings to fund the project – it saw its five-month-long run feted by art critics and 100,000 visitors including Jared Leto, Usher, and Will.i.am. Various works have since been sold to private collectors and LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). 

Clear Air Turbulence by Simon Birch; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

Yet to say that this sophomore edition of The 14th Factory – its name pays tribute to the 13th factory district in southern Guangdong, a once-prominent trading hub around the mid-19th century – carries far greater gravitas for the visionary artist would be an understatement. “The first show was supposed to be here,” recalls Birch, adding that the plan was ultimately scrapped due to a lack of space. “I’ve lived here since 1997. We always wanted to do it here first.” Promised to be grander at 250,000sqft and more sophisticated than the Los Angeles “prototype”, the Hong Kong exhibition is a culmination of the artist’s two-decade journey in this bustling metropolis. 

Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown by Simon Birch and Paul Kember; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

“I’ve done many projects over many years that were all smaller versions of The 14th Factory,” says Birch, who’s behind some of the city’s most boundary-pushing conceptual exhibitions to date, like his Daydreaming With… The Hong Kong Edition (2012) and the 20,000sqft Hope & Glory: A Conceptual Circus (2010), the largest Hong Kong had seen at the time. “Over 20 years, I’ve done dozens of multimedia installations and collaborations with artists from around the world that became bigger and bigger,” says the artist. “It’s super-exciting. The scale of [the Hong Kong show] is so big and there’s so much space. It’s really going to be an adventure for people.” 

A crown in the Hypercaine room by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan, and Jacob Blitzer; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

That adventure, envisioned as a bona fide “hero’s story” by Birch, a self-proclaimed science-fiction buff, follows a similar monomyth narrative often seen in the best of the genre’s films and books. “It’s the idea of the audience being an explorer on a journey,” he says. “You are Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy in the Land of Oz, Luke Skywalker running around the galaxy. Just like a movie, you’ll feel that same rise and fall and hope and fear as you wander through the exhibition.” And perhaps just like any transformative journey, the hero never comes out of it quite the same. 

The Barmecide Feast, a replica of a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Simon Birch and KplusK associates; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

Spanning 16 individual sectors interconnected like a jigsaw, through which the audience is led from room to room and scene to scene in a predetermined order, the show features some 50 heavy-hitting artists, architects, filmmakers, and composers including the likes of Wing Shya, Zaha Hadid Architects, Stanley Wong, Movana Chen, Luna Ikuta, and of course Birch himself. Visitors are encouraged to be active participants – whether it’s jumping on the grass, playing on the swings, or traversing under, around, and through the installations. “You are inside the art; you are moving through it,” says Birch. “It’s very different from what you would experience in an art museum.” 

Consisting entirely of commissioned works, half will be “edited and expanded on” from Los Angeles, while the other half will be world-premiere pieces with a focus on local artists. Guests can expect an impressive replica of the neo-classical hotel room in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s symbolic of the finale of the protagonist’s journey; Clear Air Turbulence, an outdoor sculptural installation of abandoned airplane fins and wings that ominously tower over a pool of dark water; and the Instagram-favourite The Crusher, with 300 pitchforks hanging from the ceiling.  

The Marvel by Simon Birch; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

Echoing his own explorative artistry that’s informed by rich and eclectic influences across spectrums and mediums, Birch’s show is coloured with everything from pop-cultural references to Chinese history, and from punk rock to science-fiction cinema, resulting in a collision of paradoxes – beauty and horror, border and borderless, future and past, stillness and movement – that all at once provoke the imagination and senses. 

Conceiving the show hasn’t been without obstacles. On top of a string of strenuous undertakings such as raising funds (“That alone took three years – and we probably heard a thousand no’s”), dealing with permits, legal issues, and complicated accounting, part of the challenge comes from the metamorphosis that is to overtake the show’s venue, Kowloon Godown. The historic yet undeniably rustic dockside warehouse is located steps away from the former airport’s runway, and is scheduled to be torn down in two years to be replaced by sparkling residential complexes. 

Crawling from the Wreckage by Simon Birch; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

A week prior to our interview, Birch and I toured the exhibition site, which spans an entire floor, plus a sprawling outdoor area looking out to the waters. “It will be quite a transformation,” admits Birch. “You’re working with a building that’s not made for an art exhibition. Yet we chose this building as much as it chose us. [The show] is like an activation at the end of its life.” Construction of the exhibition is already underway off-site in Shenzhen, while the rest will be flown in from the US, all to be assembled swiftly. Birch is also putting together a “super team” that will oversee the exhibition’s food and beverage, events, and retail side of things. 

A Freakshow sculpture by Simon Birch; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

If there’s anyone who’s built to confront obstacles with daredevil-ish gusto, it’s Birch. Grit runs deep in the celebrated artist born in “working-class northern England” who’s, quite unbelievably, self-taught. (“I just loved drawing as a kid; I wanted to draw Batman comics.”) After odd jobs as a delivery driver, bouncer, and factory worker, he came to Hong Kong as a construction worker for the Tsing Ma Bridge, drilling holes by day and painting frantically by night. “I didn’t know it could be something other than a passion. The first time I sold a painting, which was in 2003, I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing to me,” recalls Birch, breaking into a smile. “But as soon as that door opened a little, I pushed through and have been running ever since. I just wanted to paint more and meet more artists. I’m trying to open more doors and do something with the opportunity.” 

That breadth of life experiences evidently set the stage for a maverick who continues to revolutionise what it means to be an artist. “I think the fact that I don’t have a traditional art background is probably why I never saw any limits to what I could do,” says Birch. “Each brushstroke is a self-portrait made up of your entire life experience. My life experience has been quite complicated. I’ve been in love, I’ve nearly died [he survived an aggressive brain cancer, when doctors gave him six months to live], I’ve lost my dearest friends, I’ve surfed in huge dark oceans in Hawaii, I’ve jumped off mountains in North America. I’ve done some really crazy things in my life. That is all information that feeds into my work.” 

This Brutal House by Simon Birch; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

Beyond the paintbrush, it’s also perhaps the revolutionary and visionary in Birch that will be his legacy. While his internationally acclaimed paintings are defined by more emotive and dramatically beautiful aesthetics, his large-scale endeavours such as The 14th Factory take it a step further. They’re rooted in a collaborative spirit and a far-ranging, almost advocative mission to champion the underdogs and outliers of the art world – a role that Birch himself, despite his success, still feels tied to. 

The 14th Factory is a model of how you present and produce art when everything’s been done – when big galleries, fairs, and presentations don’t really fit me or the other artists,” says an impassioned Birch, who emphasises the lack of gallery and museum control, and shares the show’s authorship and profits with the artists involved. “There’s sometimes hierarchy and power involved in the art world. Some artists never get their opportunity to show at a good gallery or overseas. That’s been my experience, too, and it can be very frustrating. I never had those opportunities, so I made my own project! [laughs] And I invited people who are equally frustrated.” 

Garlands by Simon Birch, Lily Kwong, and KplusK associates; Photo: Simon Birch and The 14th Factory

Looking ahead, Birch has his horizons set beyond the city’s shores. He envisions that the New York edition will open in mid-2022, around the same time as the Hong Kong show wraps up. He has also secured locations for the subsequent London and Beijing shows, which will each take on a unique identity with local artists.  

Most of all, Birch hopes to take The 14th Factory as far and wide as the world will let him – especially at a vital and urgent time in history. “Art can sometimes be inaccessible,” he says. “In a world that’s currently almost totally cut off, what we do is the opposite: we create an environment that’s open and diverse. I think people could really use some inspiration and escape. It’s an example of inclusiveness, I suppose, and kindness and love. It’s roughly what it all means.” But for now, with less than two months to go until his homecoming, tensions are high – and the creator is full of anticipation. “It’s a real evolution. This should be the best show I’ve ever done.” 

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