Dark Side Of Creative

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Simon Birch



the 14th factory

Dark Side Of Creative: Simon Birch's Uphill Journey

by Charlie Zhang
With his large-scale solo exhibitions spanning major world cities, having pioneered the growth of Hong Kong’s art community, Simon Birch has made a name for himself as a painter with a style like no other. These days, he's integrating film, installation, sculpture and performance into his works. They are but a reflection of his journey to becoming a painter.

Just a few years ago, Birch brought one of his most ambitious concepts to fruition. The 14th Factory, taking place in a regal 150,000-square-foot industrial warehouse nestled on the outskirts of L.A., was a formidable exhibition housing 20 artists Birch collaborated with. Visitors walked through 14 interlinked immersive spaces composed of video, installation, sculpture, painting and performance. The result was a critical success, generating buzz and coverage from top media outlets, like Vice, BBC and NPR, to name a few. While its success is evident, what most people don’t know is that creating the exhibition was a logistical nightmare. The project’s pay-off was nearly as big as its risk.

What we’ve discovered is that Birch has had a tough life before establishing himself as a renowned artist. The youngest of a working class family, Birch spent much of his youth moving across England, DJing and taking on several odd jobs to make ends meet. Though he’s made it as an artist, Birch, interestingly, never went to art school. The man is fully self-taught.

The reputation he now enjoys was built through years of perseverance and steadfast grit, but it’s these experiences that have largely informed the quality of his work and his ability to stay ahead of the curve. He’s a survivor first and foremost, and he has a wealth of advice for those considering to pursue or already pursuing the creative career.

Lifting the veil of the often-glamorized life of a creative, we sat down with Simon Birch to talk about his extensive career as an artist and how he got to where he is today.

What was your childhood like?

That's a really long story because I grew up in many different places and I come from a very working class background. No education. No money. My parents had me very young, and they tried to find work in different places. I moved to a lot of different schools. I spent my teenage years in the Midlands, which is kind of like middle-England, Birmingham, Leicester and Coventry. 

I left home when I was 16. When I was 17, I became a promoter and a DJ, and I was running around with people from different backgrounds. I did a really bad job of being a promoter, so I had a lot of odd jobs, but I really thought my future was in music and dance culture.

But I just kept messing everything up. I was always broke. I lived in an awful part of town with a lot of violence. So one day, I decided to leave, without any money. I kind of just lived out of a backpack for about a year and went to a lot of different places around Asia and Australia. I lived in Australia for a couple years and then got kicked out because I didn't have a work permit. Then, I ended up in Hong Kong in 1997. A week after I landed, I got a job in construction, working on the CIMA bridge.

Did you always know what you wanted to do? When did you realize you wanted to be a full-time artist?

No. When I was little, I was obsessed with comic books, escaping into the world of superheroes: ‘Batman,’ ‘Superman’ and ‘Spiderman.’ So I think I always hoped I would become a comic book artist, but because of my circumstances, there was no real opportunity to go to art school. It was just straight onto the streets, and it was survival.

I found music and I got really excited about that. I was always drawing, though, as a private hobby because where I grew up, it wasn't seen as cool. It was about being strong, tough, violent, because that's kind of what you had to do to survive. In Hong Kong, the construction job I had was kind of dangerous, working outside at that height on top of bridges and buildings. So if the weather was bad, you didn't have to work. That gave me a lot of free time.

I was DJing in Hong Kong, but I was also trying to do more painting. It really was just a hobby, but of course, I made friends and people saw my work and said, "you know you're a really good artist. Why are you working in construction?” I didn't think you could make money on art. I had the idea to save up some money and go to art school in London, but I never got in anywhere because I didn't have the kind of CV that you would need. So I just thought, “why not just do some exhibitions myself?”

I would find any kind of free space that I could think of for painting. It could be on the wall of the bar, or like a club where you could just apply to get on the waiting list where they give you one week to hang your paintings up. I did lots of little things like that. I didn't sell anything, but it really encouraged me and I was quite happy. I just suddenly thought, "this is me. I'm an artist. I should be a painter." I just pursued it more aggressively. And strangely, I got put out of my job because the government stopped the kind of work that we did because it was too dangerous.

So I lost my day job. And then when I was DJing, the government banned the parties. So I lost two jobs within just six months. I had a bit of money saved up, but no job. I just decided to really push harder to be an artist and try to find a gallery. Ironically, of course, no one would show my work. No gallery would give me an opportunity to make it. At the time, what was popular was Chinese contemporary artists, not some white guy you never heard of.

So that was a big hurdle for me in a lot of galleries. Maybe they just didn't like my work, but it put me off. I found a way of using my connections from DJing to do an exhibition in a new bar that was opening. Then I just invited all the rave kids, all the hairdressers, all the different kids. The owner of the bar invited his friends who were rich kids and sold the work. Also, that was kind of the tipping point. Fortunately, soon after that I met a very good gallery called 10 Chancery Lane Gallery which just appeared.

Then they said, “well you are hot right now. People are talking about you. We will let you do an exhibition. We'll support you.” Then my career just went up quickly. After that, people saw me as credible and started queuing up to buy my art. My figurative paintings and portraits were getting attention. Everyone suddenly came to me because they wanted to be painted. So I ended up with a very long waitlist and I just kept working and it all worked out.

The life of a creative is often glamorized, but what are some of the dark sides of it?

People have this perception of me because I had some early success, I’m in the press and I get invited to all these expensive parties. The reality is I've never had a salary. I've never had enough money to really have a stable life. You don't ever save any money because you'd have to make some money on one exhibition and then wait a year for the next one. I would spend money trying to do projects that were more experimental where there’s no revenue or profit.

I always ended up funding all this stuff myself just thinking it'll work out fine. And, of course, it doesn't. Still to this day, the reality of being an artist is you're totally insecure. It’s very difficult to build any kind of stable life. Most artists need a day job, and most day jobs kind of kill your creativity. That is the reality of my life as an artist and pretty much every artist who I’ve ever met. Trust me, there's been many times where it's been zero in the bank account and I've asked myself, “what am I going to do?”

There are periods where you do great and periods where you’re forgotten. I did a big show a few years ago in Los Angeles. It was a massive 150,000 square-foot project in L.A. That was all my money. No sponsorships. It nearly bankrupted me. But the show was fantastic. People loved it. Since then I've been trying to do the follow-up project. I've spent 50 years making paintings and you still feel like you're trying to get started. I'm still terrified about what's going to happen next week or next month: "how am I gonna pay rent?" For me, the only secret to my success is persistence.

Please tell us about some of the fears associated with being an artist and how it affects your work.

I think every artist wonders whether they can survive doing what they do. Those fears and insecurities kill your creativity. You work well when you feel that you're working for a reason. People want to see your work and want you to make more work. There's a difference between being in fear and being desperately insecure and depressed. It's different when you've got a deadline for a show. You're panicking because you're trying to make time to produce the work, but that's a good problem to have. It's when you don't have that that's the killer — you're in limbo where you don't know when the next exhibition is happening or if someone's going to fund you or buy anything.

Would you tell us about a time in your career as a painter where you made a decision that wasn't great?

I made a huge choice to move into larger, more ambitious installation work, collaborating with artists from all over the world. It's been a really hard thing to do because you need money and space. I'm doing things that really are outside of the traditional art world. It takes a lot of time and energy. You're no longer just a painter, you're also an entrepreneur, a manager and a human resource director. I'm doing something that no one's ever really done before. It's pretty radical stuff. If I succeed in keeping that going, that'll be the most important thing I’ve done so far, but it's been really tough. We'll see.

It's always good to push past comforts.

A lot of these choices were made because I wanted to do exhibitions in other countries, like a show in London or New York, but it never happened. One of the reasons I started getting involved in creating my own projects is because I realized no one was going to do it for me. No one was going to offer me a show, so I decided to create my own shows. My own platform. I found those spaces and I had enough support here from collectors that I thought, "I can put this thing together." I'm still in the middle of trying to progress the entire concept.

Everyone is such a multi-hyphenate these days. How do you feel about that?

I like the polymath, the multi-disciplinary. I think if you're a musician and you used to be a soldier, you're probably a pretty interesting musician because you've had life experience that most people haven't had. I think if you go to art school and then you paint and get picked up by, for example, Gatorade that's interesting. What do you know about the world? Life. Loss. Fear. You know? I like people who are actually more diverse, like if you're a filmmaker and you do a bit of architecture and some illustration and some fashion design. I think specializing is not for everybody. For some people, for sure, but I mean it all depends on the quality of the output. I think it's great to really try different things, which leads you to better creations because you have more information and more experience.

What advice would you give to younger artists or entrepreneurs trying to start out on their own?

My first advice: don't be an artist because you're setting yourself up for a lifetime of pain. But if you're going to be an artist anyway, the advice is, yes, be an artist, but get a day job as well. Get a day job and get some education in business, self-marketing, PR or some other university stuff. If you're really lucky, if you get discovered, if you're THAT good, be an artist. Most artists, however, are not that good. So you better learn all the other skill sets. We need to pay rent and survive. That's generally the advice. Go ahead and be an artist, but make sure you're thinking about how you're actually going to pay rent.

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