In a world where nothing is promised and everything hurts, Simon Birch takes his duty as an artist more seriously than ever. Though he speaks of the epic interdisciplinary exhibition he is currently presenting in Los Angeles in lofty mythological terms relating to a singular heroic journey, it is the sweep of humanity's collective historical experience that truly animates The 14th Factory.
Actually, it is both. A labyrinth of successive and simultaneous installations involving painting, drawing, sculpture, video, photography, performance, sound, music, and living land all inhabit the inherent visual spectacle of the adaptive reuse of a three-acre vintage industrial bakery complex on the fringe of Downtown. For Birch and his collaborators, the harrowing process of creation has been as heroic as the results themselves. But for Birch it is, above all, despite its high public profile, intensely personal.
British by birth, he had been living in Hong Kong when he formulated the specific idea that became The 14th Factory about five years ago, but the truth is he'd been working towards it for closer to 20, a painter who increasingly found himself going sculptural, cinematic and environmental. He almost died once, of cancer, and since then he's gotten more ambitious and impatient. "It's about the body, punk rock, and civilization," Birch says. "Borders and borderlessness—it's an uncomfortable way of living. The bodies thrashing around in my paintings, they seem to me to be moving," which moved him inevitably to explore video. In fact, two of the most beautiful works in the exhibition are the videos This Brutal House, which features an achingly slow-motion hip-hop dance move executed in large-scale hi-def sound-drenched single-channel projection, and The Inhumans, which is a dark room hosting a multi-screen choreographed martial arts fight scene evoking Raft of the Medusa and Blade Runner at the same time.
While it's the Instagram-breaking Barmecide Feast—glowing Kubrick room—and Crusher—hanging pitchforks—installations that grab all the social media headlines, the sprawling industrial bakery complex has a dozen more meaningful, quieter, nuanced, and monumental experiences to offer. Aside from the above-mentioned films there are several other immersive, dramatic video works, including an infamous one wherein Birch wrecks his own Ferrari on purpose, sacrificing it along with all the rest of his earthly wealth to this undertaking. But there are also quieter, more contemplative elements, such as a whispering chapel of folded ceramic flags, and the beguiling, witty, eccentric, fairytale vault of scores of crowns, appearing near the end as a heavenly promise of attainment. The whole property is linked together by an atmospheric, operatic soundtrack that is a work of art unto itself.
An outdoor reflecting pool sprouts a dense vertical array of airplane wings in the multifaceted installation, Clear Air Turbulence, referencing the obscure origins of the Chinese aviation industry and its ties to the LA region, as well as the futility of attempting to outdistance your fate. An interior grass-covered rolling hillock encourages a moment of shoes-off nostalgia. A great interior arcade displays a series of hypnotic, visceral, chromatic, distressed portrait paintings by Birch—which, for him, is the literal and allegorical heart of the entire matter. There's an immense meteoric sculpture, a sort of crashed shell which enshrouds the Kubrick room, and it is built of shapes culled from his paintings; laser-cut shards that migrated from paint to digital to tangible, piece by piece. "It is all interconnected in a borderless utopia," remarks Birch, "a conceptual environment moving from violence and threat, to hope and growth. Myself as an artist, I'm about taking enormous action, about thinking anything is possible, like creating a whole world." He keeps his private painting studio on site, and it's magical to think he's always in there somewhere, hidden away, painting, even now.
"When I drew it out," says Birch, "my studio was a crazy map of arrows and strings," that sounded like the lair of an obsessive detective; and essentially The 14th Factory is a 150,000 square foot version of what's inside his head at all times. When it came to assembling a team, he basically called everyone he'd ever met, and talked about what they could do. "Like making a movie, it was a 14-part progression, very much like a script that needed all these different skills to become realized. I issued a reckless call to adventure with no guarantee of acknowledgement or reward," and everyone was all in. The results are inclusive, as people come up to Birch and thank him, cry, hug, and tell him he's changed their lives. He hardly knows what to make of it. "Regular people say this made them want to do something with their lives! It's powerful though of course that's a different conversation than talk of the critics or the market. But maybe the true reward is this—the gift I've been able to pass on to others."
The 14th Factory is currently slated to stay open until June 31. Follow the project on Instagram for updates and inspiration.
The complete list of collaborators, which forms a global community of interdisciplinary artists from China, Hong Kong, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, include: Simon Birch, Cang Xin, Devin Liston, Dominique Fung, Doug Foster, Eric Hu, Gary Gunn, Gloria Yu, Li Wei, Lily Kwong, Movana Chen, Paul Kember, Penny Rimbaud, Peter Yuill, Prodip Leung, Sara Tse, Scott Carthy, Scott Sporleder, Stanley Wong, Wing Shya, Yang Zhicha, and Hong Kong‐based design firm KplusK, with Paul Kember as lead architect.