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. Science fiction is a big influence on me. To exist outside the established art world with no gallery, institutional or patron support on 150,000 square feet, that’s bigger than MOMA. Well, that’s interesting. SIMON BIRCH: To build a museum-scale project independently with no sponsorship and no backing: all these things are first. 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. My influences involved science fiction and punk rock, and through those I stumbled across Joseph Campbell, and the original ignition point. To do this independently is, in some ways, dangerous. He didn’t really give a shit. It had an impact on me in terms of drama, theater, scale, compression, metropolis, speed, and it’s bled into my work ever since. Did the guy who you bought these from know what you were doing? The effect is that of a glass elevator, or a person committing suicide. 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. 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. The story is absolutely radical and disruptive. It reminded me of that J. The name “The 14th Factory” is a reference to the 13 warehouses that formed the foreign trading zone of the Chinese city of Guangzhou. And it took the collapse of the British Empire to bring liberty to those who were oppressed. My concern was: Are we doing something here that is cliché or silly? Even as the relentlessness of the Hong Kong skyline spools past, you can still catch little flecks of humanity. If you’re going to put your neck out on this scale, get ready for a fight. 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. It’s kind of a romantic piece, actually, even though it’s violent. The viewer stands in the middle of a Hong Kong skyscape spooling both upward and downward; an effect of rising and falling through urban canyons, punctuated by a score from the musician Gary Gunn. The Ferrari was the last thing I owned, and it was necessary to sacrifice it to demonstrate my commitment to this project. 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. People in their apartments. That pace and composition. There’s copying of music and art; all these tangents of my direct 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. 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. I can swap a drawing for a sculpture. I am well aware as the cheap trick it could be perceived to be: the Instagram-friendly moment of the show. Having it in a cave was absolutely important and a stark contrast to the fractured sculpture around it. 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. We hustle everybody for a deal. It worked out alright. 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. ¤
Tom Zoellner is the politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. I’ve built my art museum because I got sick of waiting. MAY 30, 2017
WHEN THE BRITISH ARTIST Simon Birch sought permission from the city of Los Angeles to create an exhibit of art in an abandoned Lincoln Heights warehouse, he was stunned at the number of permits and inspections required. That Ferrari was a piece of shit. Each piece of that project is a piece of the journey. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Yeah, we got about 30 tails for about 30 grand. I realized there was a thread between the hero structure of the opera: the rising up with the angels, the redemption. But for me, the room wasn’t supposed to be a copy; it was bright floor hidden inside a black sculpture. Just the kinetics of endless violence. It was designed five years ago on a series of mind maps. In my personal history, I nearly died. I’m not particularly a fan of Wagner, but the other place Tannhauser appears is at the end of Blade Runner. It was a sacrifice, my vintage Ferrari. It was intentional to destroy it, to cut it up and transform it into smaller objects. 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. Trust me, I barter the fuck out of whatever I can. I think I pushed it more than drove it, so it was no great sacrifice, to be honest. Broke down all the time. This was a well-choreographed shoot. Sacrifice. It was a bit immature. It was a remarkable experience. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Why don’t you build your own fucking MOMA?” That’s all I’ve done. They appear to be in formation, traveling from unknown airports. You moved to Hong Kong during 1997? It was a considered decision to rebuild the room not as a trick or novelty. 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. G. It’s not generally accessible to the public. Is there something mildly pornographic about it? Ballard novel, Crash. Yeah, lovely. I haven’t read it. Was that by design or accident? But I like films like The Thin Red Line, things that have a certain pace and melancholy and vulnerability and fear. I had a whole story and that gave us some freedom to run around the airplane graveyard unobstructed. Pieces of the car are laid out like game trophies in a nearby gallery. 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. Time to die.”
In the piece “Tannhauser,” you’re referring to a Wagner opera that involves a trip to a fantastic land. But it looks quite dramatic. There Will Be Blood: I watch that film a lot. A group of 300 men fight each other in slow motion in an abandoned factory in Beijing. Why didn’t you prep your viewer with gallery notes that explained the high-register themes of 2001? You got a volume discount? The fins of aircraft rise from a pool of water like a forgotten armada. The negative of suicide, yes. I’m a cancer survivor. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. What turned out to be significantly easier was simply calling the entire thing a “film set” and making all the guests sign waivers allowing their permission to be extras in a documentary film. Sort of like Borges’s map that completely covers the world? There was nothing sexual about it, at least for me. Transformation again. A near-exact reconstruction of the creepy Louis XIV hotel room in which David Bowman, the hero of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” lives out the accelerated last moments of his life. What about the Ferrari? Putting together this project meant I had to liquidate all my assets. This room is tucked away inside a jagged black sculpture called “The Meteor.”
Is your name on the 2001 exhibition? Spoken like a former construction guy. ¤
TOM ZOELLNER: You had to go through a fiction with the city in order to get permits? This is the legal fiction behind The 14th Factory, one of the boldest and most visually arresting displays of art seen in Los Angeles in many years. The shoot was more expensive than the car. 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. He worked on it in England and then relocated it to Los Angeles. But people understand that we’re a nonprofit. Did you put a brick on the accelerator? 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. There appears to be no reason or ideology to their battle; no right or wrong. About 15 cameras: inside the car, outside drones, high speed. Is it considered “art” to do an exact recreation of the room? Now everyone sees it, goes in, and gets a selfie. 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 literally my last material possession. Not if it’s rubbish, but it seems as if it’s actually quite good and people quite like it. This was your own car? The title conjures a famous speech spoken by actor Rutger Hauer at the end of the movie Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. It’s a common story. There you go: hero-myth structure. You’re down the rabbit hole into wonderland. That’s a flag in the ground saying, “Why are you waiting for the art world to discover your work. I had made a mess of my life as a kid, grew up in a poor neighborhood, no education or opportunity. But that didn’t work out. Accident. It was complete coincidence. I stand by it as a brilliant piece of conceptual artwork. Films that depict the blankness of urban facades. It’s intimate and from my heart. How many cameras on it? But I went from the worst catastrophe to the most beautiful transformation. 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. This interview with him has been edited and condensed. A red Ferrari is shown crashing over and over again, in a disturbing parallel to action movies. The fight is slowed down and they are embracing at times. This is a novel where the characters are so morally empty they can attain sexual release only through crashing their cars. Originally, the room was supposed to be hidden and a secret. It was still a British colony, which meant I could work legally. Tony Graysmark is now in his early 80s. Kubrick had destroyed all his blueprints. It was about taking something of perceived value and destroying it to make something more valuable. I wanted cars and toys, and luxury, and when you get these things, they’re really empty. Now it’s art, and it is now shared. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and understanding how virus and violence and technology affects how human beings expand and contract, succeed and fail. It’s a boy’s toy and you’re smashing it up, it’s a bit jackass. I was also reminded of the films of Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi especially. He was amused. It was my conception to do it. There’s a plain-spokenness and democratic quality to this exhibit. The project is unavoidably connected; every element threads to other elements. Originally I was just going to drive it and crash it, but clearly you only have one shot to get this right. But Paul found it very easy to reconstruct the room because serendipitously his uncle was actually Stanley Kubrick’s set designer and draftsman. It’s not perfect: the paintings are a reinterpretation by a Chinese-Canadian artist named Dominique Fung. But my friend Paul Kember, and his team of architects, they generated the drawings for the room.