British-born, Hong Kong-based Simon Birch, who has been awarded the prestigious Louis Vuitton Asian Art Prize and the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, and whose work has encompassed sculpture, painting, photography, performance, video and large-scale multi-media installation projections – often guiding the viewer through narrative sequences – plumbs his own psychological depths only to discover what makes him love work and life.
What historical art figure would you like to have lunch with and why? Caravaggio…drunken adventures, brawling, insulting the beast, the guy carried a sword and cut some guys balls off..all while painting some of the most brilliant works in human history….would be a colorful lunch.
What did you purchase with the proceeds from your first sale? A 1980 Ferrari Mondial. Sounds extravagant but was barely running and only cost about $10k. I eventually rolled it on purpose for a video installation for my project in LA, The 14th Factory. The stunt team, cameras, lighting, etc, was far more expensive than the car. The car became a video installation and 300 sculptures cut from the wreckage, and a photography work by Stanley Wong. Far more valuable than the original car and also shared as art for all.
What words or phrases do you overuse? That’s what she said!
How do you know when a work is finished? No work is ever finished, it’s just a stepping stone that brings you closer and closer to making something decent, I hope. Still working towards making good art. As one progresses, you learn, and realise how little you know, and how you lean on all of art history, consciously or not, especially painting but now, more so for me, concept driven work. So you feel at once excited to create something new, and defeated because it’s all been done. One of my first impactful criticisms was that my work is stylized and derivative. I agree but then what isn’t? Working on it. But also making the art I am compelled to make, while being more and more self, and historically, aware.
When and where were you happiest? Strangely, one of my happiest times was when I was closest to death. Something about clarity of mission. I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but woke up the next day knowing I could crush it and received overwhelming and rapid support. I invited anyone I thought was a real friend to dinner to announce my situation (yes, all about me!) and asked for help. Only 1 of those 20 people walked away. Seeing all these people help with research, shopping and delivering supplies, taking me to hospital, working together on a survival plan….though it was life or death, it showed me who my real friends are, then and forever since. I’m happy to have passed on my process, network, advice, to many people ever since and ever more.
What is your most treasured possession? I possess nothing, so it’s not so relevant. Maybe my answer, cliche as it is, friends and memories. I’ve had a very rich life to be grateful for, but also lost so much over many years, had to sacrifice so much to try to achieve my goals – apartment, cars, artworks, vacations, all gone….in pursuit of something truly great. My new project, that is still very much in the balance.
Where is your ideal escape destination? Oh, that’s easy, escape to see my godson in Australia, my goddaughter in Denmark, my mum in London and a few other jokers along the way.
What’s the worst survival job you’ve ever had? I was a bouncer at a rough club in the Midlands in the late 80’s. Seeing blood many nights, and occasionally my own, was a clear message to get away from that environment. Even my brother got stabbed, lost 5 pints of blood and should have died. He’s fine now. Other friends, not fine. Second place was working in a factory on the production line, same thing every day, just awful. Bring on the robots.
What TV series from your youth best describes your approach to life? We were poor, so TV access was rare. I’d say more influential was my addiction to comic books. The Dark Knight, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Sandman….outsider heroes. All of those influences have made me try to be and do good and also obsess about drawing and painting the human figure.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? A lot of things! But all the things I would change are repercussions from my upbringing, and if I could change that, I would have gotten decent education, mentorship and opportunity.
What is your most treasured memory? Too many. Hiking through Iceland. Surfing waves of consequence with my BFF. Freediving to the darkest depths. Making a good painting. Falling in love. Maybe one of the nicest was, after recovering, helping a friend who was desperately ill, and seeing him survive. I still claim I saved his life when we bump into each other but the truth is, it was all him.
What makes you smile? Grease, the movie. Queen at Live Aid, Bill Hicks, David Cross, Prince, School of Rock, Ricky Gervais, Fawlty Towers, Public Enemy, Star Wars….and a million other movies and TV shows….my dog Frankenstein, all my friends constantly mocking me.
What makes you cry? Everything. The more you know, the more empathy and clarity you have, the more you realize there are endless real-world problems that could be so easily fixed. But we are far from utopia and corporations, media and governments have all the power and seem corruptly intertwined.
What is your go-to drink when you toast to a sale? Old Fashioned. Sale or not.
After an all-nighter, what’s your breakfast of champions? I don’t do all-nighters, too old for that, we are all into Brazilian Jiu jitsu, so we eat well, rest, which works for mind and body. Plus my current project is all absorbing so there’s no days off.
Who inspires you? Boyan Slat.
What’s your best quality? Maybe rushing into the fray to help a stranger. Quite recklessly but it’s been a recurring thing in my life, being confronted with an urgent crisis in the street and just diving in.
What’s your biggest flaw? Maybe same as previous question.
What is your current state of mind? Utterly stressed. My last project was The 14th Factory in Los Angeles. I nearly went bankrupt, and ended up in hospital afterwards from exhaustion. It was well loved, so I’ve been encouraged to develop the next one ever since. I was close to delivering project 2 in London then COVID hit.
I retreated to Hong Kong and looked at space here and went through many ups and downs. Now I have a huge site, 250,000 square feet, and have raised some capital but not enough. Even with an exceptional team and concept, I’m struggling to find the final funding to make it happen. As I write this it may all come together in the next two weeks, or it’s canceled and I have to start from zero yet again.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? My ability to use the phrase, ‘That’s what she said,’ in every conversation.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be? Oh, I think once was enough on this mortal coil.
William Turner Gallery, in collaboration with GuY Hector (The Art House Global), presents Simon Birch’s exhibition, IGNITE 14: Recent Paintings, through October 1, 2022.
Cover image: the artist in his studio, photo by Brian Downes.