Simon Birch, 17 years in Hong Kong, is taking his talents elsewhere because of red tape over exhibition spaces

Simon Birch, fed up with Hong Kong's red tape, has taken his latest project to New York, writes Enid Tsui

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 4:11pm

Simon Birch is disappointed with Hong Kong. His home since 1997 is no longer a place where he can make art and he has had enough.

"Well, I am planning to leave because Hong Kong sucks. The government has no vision. It has become more and more rigid. I've been pushing very hard on a number of projects and they've all been met with disappointment," he says.

I wouldn't be here if not for Hong Kong. Hong Kong made me and I'll always for grateful for that. But now, the city is a nightmare
Simon birch 

Hong Kong has never been known for its nurturing environment for artists, but it seems contrarian to pack up this minute. After all, he endured - and thrived, in fact - during all those years when local visual artists were as visible as Lion Rock on a polluted day. Wouldn't he want to hang around for the unprecedented boom that is supposedly turning this city into Asia's art hub?

It is possible that when the multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District is built, it will "magically" transform Hong Kong - but Birch is not holding his breath.

The artist remembers the bright-eyed lad who came here from Britain and found a land of opportunity. Like many before him, he came because of work: as a DJ and a builder, including a small role in the construction of the Tsing Ma Bridge. He had left home when he was about 17, shortly after his parents divorced, and was used to scraping a living.

Hong Kong was in the midst of a historic transformation from British colony to Chinese territory. Birch found the city welcoming, with a "fluid" environment where everything was possible. But fast-forward a decade or so and he realised that wasn't really the case.

His 2010 "Hope and Glory - a Conceptual Circus" is still talked about as a landmark event in Hong Kong's contemporary art. Visitors entered the dimly lit ArtisTree, the art space owned by Swire Properties now set for redevelopment, and were transported to a futuristic world where different installations addressed the creation of personal and world history. The epic show was not just an artistic triumph, but a personal one. In 2008, Birch was diagnosed with lymphoma and was told that he could die in a matter of months. Today, he feels fit and goes to the gym regularly. What brings him down, he says, is how difficult it has become to stage a show of the scope and size of "Hope and Glory" in Hong Kong.

His current project is titled "The 14th Factory", after the 13 "hongs" of Guangzhou in the 19th century. Birch wants to stage it in Hong Kong because the theme is inspired by local history. But he can't find the space although "we do have space here. There are all these empty buildings that the government owns. They just never let us use it. It's bureaucracy".

And so he is launching "The 14th Factory" in an old post office opposite Penn Station in Manhattan. The New York administration's attitude could not be more different, he says. "The government is open. The space I'm using is owned by the government. It's a quarter of a million square feet of space they have given to me for free. It would never have happened in Hong Kong."

What the American city offers is more than just space but something more emotional, Birch says. "You are encouraged, you are welcomed. One feels very motivated. It's positive and engaging. Hong Kong is the exact opposite," he says.

He names other project ideas that have hit the bureaucratic brick wall here. A year ago, he convinced Foster + Partners to help build a temporary art museum on the site of the future M+ in the West Kowloon Cultural District. "I had Norman [Foster] on board but they wouldn't let us access the land," the artist says.

And then there was the private art museum in Central. Wealthy property owners gave Birch a four-storey building in the business district to develop into a centre for conceptual art, but last year the Buildings Department put a stop to the plans, citing land-use concerns.

All this is highly discouraging for a talented and motivated artist. Circumstances denied him the opportunity for any formal training growing up, but he'd always wanted to paint, Birch says. After a few years, he started showing his work in public and his big break came in 2004 when he won a Sovereign Asian Art Prize and had a successful solo show at 10 Chancery Lane gallery. His large, intense portraits, stripped bare of context and background, had an old-school, painterly quality that was a breath of fresh air amid the fashion for infantilism in contemporary art.

Untitled, the one-metre-by-one-metre oil painting that he has donated to the SCMP Charity Art Auction, to be held in September, is a freeze-frame of a woman shaking her head. The bold brushstrokes and the application of the palette knife suggest pure, raw energy, expressing the subject's exterior appearance and internal emotions.

Birch is fascinated by the human body, a subject that is incredibly hard to get right. "I may move on to landscapes one day, but not yet," he says. Painting is a natural urge that takes him to his Ap Lei Chau studio daily, when he is in town. But it has also become a financially rewarding activity that subsidises his other love - sensational, collaborative multimedia shows that no other local artist has had the gall to attempt before. Birch says there is an absence of critical stimulation for local artists. He names independent curator Valerie Doran and Robert Peckham, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, as the two people he can talk to here for constructive feedback.

"I wouldn't be here if not for Hong Kong. Hong Kong made me and I'll always for grateful for that," he says. "But now, the city is a nightmare. I am really at that point where my only option is to leave, and that's quite sad."