On the move
The spectacular, panoramic East Lamma Channel view seen from Simon Birch's Ap Lei Chau studio reflects some of the raw physicality evident in his new exhibition of figurative paintings, Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood, which is opening on Thursday at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.
'The marriage of arts and science is a beautiful tradition dating back to the Renaissance. All this new work is a study of the flesh and about movement,' says the painter.
Birch's huge canvases will fill the museum's two ground-floor spaces. A figurative artist who has lived in Hong Kong since 1997, his new work shows a looser style using flat planes of paint spread with a palette knife to create strong gestural movement across the canvas. He captures the fluidity of motion by working with models whom he photographs. 'There is a sense of ambiguity,' he says. 'I am depicting the duality of the horrific and beautiful. These floating figures are either falling or flying. It is a snapshot in time; the flying could actually be during a moment of violence.'
Displaying a freer, more confident painting hand or as he says a 'more liberal expressionism', Birch's work also toys with abstraction with splashes of paint across many of the paintings. 'I like the push and pull of abstraction and it makes the depicted figure bounce between frailty and abstracted distortion.'
Birch himself has had a similar push-and-pull life over the past three years, including a remarkable recovery from a life-threatening illness plus praise and criticism from a divided arts community, about his ambitious self-organised Hope and Glory exhibition visited by thousands of people last year.
The urge to do similar large independent projects led to his breaking away from 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, which previously represented his work, and the 41-year-old now markets his art and organises large group exhibitions.
The Briton's hard work and self-confidence is legendary, but this new venture coincides with a personal change in priorities. 'I previously wanted fame and to make money, but there is more clarity now. The most important ability is to let things go,' he says. 'I just want to be an artist. Just do art and share it with the world. I know it sounds soft, but I see how art affects people.'
Many of the exhibition paintings include images of stencilled stars and crowns: 'They are symbols of power. They represent how they all fail us.' It is an angle of Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood that is not immediately obvious. ''They' are politicians, those in power,' Birch explains. 'Yes - they fail us. The world is a mess. The trajectory of humanity is now all in the name of 'progress'. It's wasteful and only about concrete and money.'
Hope and Glory conveyed a similar message. According to the artist, 'hope' related to the beauty, love and empathy embodied in progress, but 'glory' echoed the colonial ethos of the spread of empire which entailed violence and the destruction of other cultures.
'We should care for nature and the environment. The hippy ethics of the 1960s had it right, but we have now turned to be a huge democratic empire,' says Birch.
The realism of living in an increasingly complex world has not stopped Birch believing in the power of art to convey messages for change. 'I have a doggedness, a drive to get on with it, to not give up. I was passionate about the Hope and Glory project and found a way of doing it. The same with this exhibition, the museum is a pop-up exhibition venue, and I will fit out the spaces first and invite a range of people to come. Sales of my own work will fund other projects.'
A modified version of Hope and Glory recently opened in Beijing and one of the first projects that Future Industries, Birch's new management and exhibition company, will organise is 100 filmed vignettes - of things such as the sea or a sunset, for example - by 100 filmmakers to be mounted as a multi-media experiential installation. The finished work should project a metaphor of the universal human experience.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo recently included Birch in Transformation, a group show of invited overseas artists This was an eye-opening experience for him as he experienced top museum-quality exhibition planning and execution for the first time. He exhibited a modified video of a prowling tiger first seen in a retrospective on late sculptor Antonio Mak Hin-yeung organised by the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2008.
The tiger was a motif frequently used in Mak's own sculptural work, but Birch's tiger could be Birch himself. Despite living a quieter, more sustainable, less wasteful life, this determined artist, with great irony, optimistically growls about the world: 'We are so far gone!'
Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood, Thu-June 19, Museum of Medical Sciences, 2 Caine Lane, Mid-Levels