The exhibit on an undistinguished stretch of Avenue 19 occupies three acres of the former Van de Kamp Bakery, which has now been filled with paintings, sculptures, films on screens the size of murals, and interactive rooms. The exhibits are also laced with numerous homages: Wagner’s operas, the novels of Chuck Palahniuk and Lewis Carroll, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Simon Birch is a former construction worker who, along with about 20 colleagues, has built a metaphorical “hero’s journey” through a maze of rooms, which he says are structured to create a sense of history — both personal and global — and especially focused on the collisions between East and West, and life and death. This interview with him has been edited and condensed.
TOM ZOELLNER: You had to go through a fiction with the city in order to get permits?
SIMON BIRCH: To build a museum-scale project independently with no sponsorship and no backing: all these things are first. The story is absolutely radical and disruptive. To exist outside the established art world with no gallery, institutional or patron support on 150,000 square feet, that’s bigger than MOMA. To do this independently is, in some ways, dangerous. I’ve had people slam doors in my face — especially from the art world — and I don’t take it personally, but there is a threat to what one does on this scale. Not if it’s rubbish, but it seems as if it’s actually quite good and people quite like it. That’s a flag in the ground saying, “Why are you waiting for the art world to discover your work. Why don’t you build your own fucking MOMA?” That’s all I’ve done. I’ve built my art museum because I got sick of waiting. If you’re going to put your neck out on this scale, get ready for a fight.
You moved to Hong Kong during 1997? Was that by design or accident?
Accident. I had made a mess of my life as a kid, grew up in a poor neighborhood, no education or opportunity. I had a friend who lived in Hong Kong who said, “Why don’t you just come here and crash on the sofa,” which I did. It was still a British colony, which meant I could work legally. I started working construction and for the company doing the Tsing Ma Bridge that connects the airport. I had come from a hooligan background in this dying industrial landlocked place to a dynamic city, like Blade Runner. It had an impact on me in terms of drama, theater, scale, compression, metropolis, speed, and it’s bled into my work ever since.
There’s a plain-spokenness and democratic quality to this exhibit.
It’s intimate and from my heart. The project is unavoidably connected; every element threads to other elements. It was designed five years ago on a series of mind maps. There’s copying of music and art; all these tangents of my direct experience. When you start to think of cycles in your own life: rise and fall and expand and contract, you love and you’re fearful and you’re confident and then insecure, you start to realize that your own life is a microcosm of civilization at large. In my personal history, I nearly died. I’m a cancer survivor. But I went from the worst catastrophe to the most beautiful transformation. So it took being close to death for me to think about being a better human being, because I was probably a bit of a dick before. And it took the collapse of the British Empire to bring liberty to those who were oppressed. It’s a common story. My influences involved science fiction and punk rock, and through those I stumbled across Joseph Campbell, and the original ignition point. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and understanding how virus and violence and technology affects how human beings expand and contract, succeed and fail.
What about the Ferrari?
It was a sacrifice, my vintage Ferrari. It was about taking something of perceived value and destroying it to make something more valuable. Now it’s art, and it is now shared.
This was your own car?
It was literally my last material possession. Putting together this project meant I had to liquidate all my assets. The Ferrari was the last thing I owned, and it was necessary to sacrifice it to demonstrate my commitment to this project.
Did you put a brick on the accelerator?
Originally I was just going to drive it and crash it, but clearly you only have one shot to get this right. So I hired a stunt guy who has crashed a lot of cars, and he knew how to prep the car and drive it and accelerate to a certain speed, turn a wheel, hit a button that set off a charge in the back that forced it to flip. This was a well-choreographed shoot.
How many cameras on it?
About 15 cameras: inside the car, outside drones, high speed. The shoot was more expensive than the car. That Ferrari was a piece of shit. Broke down all the time. I think I pushed it more than drove it, so it was no great sacrifice, to be honest. But it looks quite dramatic. There you go: hero-myth structure. Sacrifice. Each piece of that project is a piece of the journey. You’re down the rabbit hole into wonderland.
It reminded me of that J. G. Ballard novel, Crash.
I haven’t read it.
This is a novel where the characters are so morally empty they can attain sexual release only through crashing their cars.
Is there something mildly pornographic about it?
There was nothing sexual about it, at least for me. It was a bit immature. It’s a boy’s toy and you’re smashing it up, it’s a bit jackass. It was intentional to destroy it, to cut it up and transform it into smaller objects. The other element of it was this was sort of me turning my back on consumerism, and things that I was more excited about when I was poor. I wanted cars and toys, and luxury, and when you get these things, they’re really empty.
I thought the more pornographic or homoerotic piece is the fight, because all the guys, all the factory workers in the fight: 300 Chinese guys, all bare chested, so they are identical in a way. The fight is slowed down and they are embracing at times. It’s kind of a romantic piece, actually, even though it’s violent.
In the piece “Tannhauser,” you’re referring to a Wagner opera that involves a trip to a fantastic land.
I’m not particularly a fan of Wagner, but the other place Tannhauser appears is at the end of Blade Runner. I realized there was a thread between the hero structure of the opera: the rising up with the angels, the redemption.
The effect is that of a glass elevator, or a person committing suicide.
The negative of suicide, yes. Transformation again.
I was also reminded of the films of Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi especially. Films that depict the blankness of urban facades.
Well, that’s interesting. Science fiction is a big influence on me. But I like films like The Thin Red Line, things that have a certain pace and melancholy and vulnerability and fear. There Will Be Blood: I watch that film a lot. That pace and composition.
Even as the relentlessness of the Hong Kong skyline spools past, you can still catch little flecks of humanity. People in their apartments.
The planes in Hong Kong used to fly into an airport called Kai Tak, which was inside the city, and when you flew in you would see into people’s apartments. It was a remarkable experience. Of course the view for the apartment dwellers was the tails whizzing past your window, much as they are in “Clear Air Turbulence” out here.
Did the guy who you bought these from know what you were doing?
He didn’t really give a shit. He was amused. I had a whole story and that gave us some freedom to run around the airplane graveyard unobstructed. It’s not generally accessible to the public.
You got a volume discount?
Yeah, we got about 30 tails for about 30 grand. It worked out alright.
Spoken like a former construction guy.
Trust me, I barter the fuck out of whatever I can. I can swap a drawing for a sculpture. We hustle everybody for a deal. But people understand that we’re a nonprofit.
Is your name on the 2001 exhibition?
It was my conception to do it. But my friend Paul Kember, and his team of architects, they generated the drawings for the room. Kubrick had destroyed all his blueprints. But Paul found it very easy to reconstruct the room because serendipitously his uncle was actually Stanley Kubrick’s set designer and draftsman. It was complete coincidence. Tony Graysmark is now in his early 80s. He worked on it in England and then relocated it to Los Angeles.
Is it considered “art” to do an exact recreation of the room? Sort of like Borges’s map that completely covers the world?
Originally, the room was supposed to be hidden and a secret. But that didn’t work out. Now everyone sees it, goes in, and gets a selfie. I am well aware as the cheap trick it could be perceived to be: the Instagram-friendly moment of the show. But for me, the room wasn’t supposed to be a copy; it was bright floor hidden inside a black sculpture. It’s actually a fake room that, in the film, was a fake room created by an alien force for a guy to live out his life as a construct. The idea of transformation — just as we’ve taken this derelict factory and transformed it — is what actually makes the room very powerful as a copy and doesn’t make it a cheap trick. I stand by it as a brilliant piece of conceptual artwork. It’s not perfect: the paintings are a reinterpretation by a Chinese-Canadian artist named Dominique Fung. The 2001 room has a lot of gravity behind it if you understand the layers of concept that are not only in the original room but also the idea of copying the room and why it’s buried inside a black sculpture.
Why didn’t you prep your viewer with gallery notes that explained the high-register themes of 2001?
We haven’t had the opportunity financially to do a catalog with proper explanations or some kind of wall that explains it, but you have to understand this project has been developed conceptually over the last five years and things have been moved, changed, and excluded. It was a considered decision to rebuild the room not as a trick or novelty. My concern was: Are we doing something here that is cliché or silly? Having it in a cave was absolutely important and a stark contrast to the fractured sculpture around it.