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  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 12:44pm
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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."



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This article is now closed to comments

HK's government leads the list for inept and stupid. Arts, culture, al fresco dining, land usage, health care, education, and on and on - almost everything the government touches it screws up.
Hong Kong is a city that doesn't know how to be Asia's World City. Lots of empty words.

Regarding this article, I feel was misquoted and misrepresented to some degree. Though I am frustrated with HK I am not leaving completely, just focusing on overseas projects which means IF they work out I won't be around much. I will always do my best to continue to exhibit and contribute to HK. Opportunities for me to do large scale work are next to nothing here but things change. Hong Kong doesn't suck, it's just our art scene struggles as every artist knows. It's incredibly difficult to be an artist here. I'm frustrated because I want to do more here but can't.
Regardless of my issues, i would rather not complain, just focus on working on new paintings and exhibitions I am proposing for NYC and London. And that's what I am doing, going to work every day to make it happen.
Hong Kong doesn't owe me anything and has given me much, I'm grateful for that.
SCMP didn't do a good job of reflecting my views. They interviewed back in March. I had no idea about this feature and wasn't consulted.
I absolutely love Hong Kong, hence not abandoning it once a better offer comes along but I am disappointed at how conservative and material it is. The balance is all wrong. Environment, culture, love and the spiritual side of things are second place to money, ego, face and greed.
We all know this. I'm not giving up, I believe I can still make a difference here. And I'll be able to do that a lot more effectively if I can increase my profile internationally too.
Simon Birch is not leaving Hong Kong, it is only his current projects due to government obstructions here. He has given much back to the city with millions raised for local charities and volunteered his time at no charge to schools and universities regularly, as well as artist lectures and forum for the public.
All of his projects in HK have been self funded, non-profit and free of charge to the public and have always had well structured community outreach programmes.
Some of these have been the biggest in HK history.
Coming from a local construction background as a labourer 17 years ago, he is not your usual expat.
he has clearly given back more than most local artists. he doesn't expect special treatment, just a fair go.
The issue is not Birch whining, it is why is the arts and culture system making it so difficult for him and other local artists to exist?
Robert Peckham, the professor, is a really good friend and has written a number essays for publications about myself.
We worked together on a number of projects at Hong Kong University with students from both medical and humanities departments.
So the fact is correct.
Simon Birch.
The publishing of this article - a feature on an artist solely as a result of his inclusion in an upcoming SCMP charity auction, disseminated with a politically charged angle clearly in the pursuit of traction- shows seriously poor editorial judgment on the part of what is supposedly Hong Kong's leading English language newspaper.
Simon Birch should not be given the platform to indulge in his ego building or to air his childish uninformed thoughts. This is a case of a bitter artist; vastly incapable of comprehending the term 'failure' and someone who is shockingly unaware of his irrelevancy. His response to the government’s dismissal of his plans to open a 'private' museum backed by a slew of Hong Kong property tycoons- 'Hong Kong sucks'- speaks to his incredible immaturity and little to the governments ongoing and increasing support of public arts in Hong Kong.
His patronage is self-proclaimed and void. Art and culture in Hong Kong does not need ‘saving’ at all. Progress, be it small, is progress nonetheless. There are far more interesting and far more important voices out there who are and have been committed to the development of arts and culture in Hong Kong. Individuals who do not require recognition, individuals who believe in the collective, greater and more powerful ‘we’ of a thriving art community and Mr Birch, as well as Ms Tsui should tune in and take note.
In my defence, I was misquoted and misrepresented, the facts are wrong also. I was interviewed in March about contributing a work for charity.
Though I am irritated I couldn't get permission for a small non-profit art space, funded by myself and friends, not rich tycoons, I'm not the kind of person to whine about it. I simply get back to work as usual.
Hong kong doesn't owe me or anyone else special treatment. The last thing I feel is entitled and I'm offended that the article paints me as some spilt kid who didn't get his toys.
I am well aware that I am insignificant in the grand scheme of things and am reminded often by incidences such as the failure of projects I have proposed.
After 17 years however, I do have some insights into HK and it's workings, but I tend to keep them to myself and focus on making art and contributing to education and charitable causes, which I do regularly.
The SCMP clearly had an agenda, I was unaware an article was to be written about me. I wouldn't want an article unless there was something worth writing about, perhaps actually having a show on worth discussing which I certainly don't have and won't have in HK for some time.
Simon Birch
Oh, and for gods sake, i beg of you to fact check. I highly doubt Dr Robert Peckham- lecturer on the history of medicine and health in the Department of History at the University of Hong Kong, whose research interests include 'the appropriation of biomedical models in economics and financial theory from the nineteenth century'- has an opinion on Simon Birch's practice. I suspect you are looking for Mr Robin Peckham, the much respected, well known independent curator and art critic.
I wish you the best of luck with your future artistic endeavors, Mr. Birch. Hong Kong's an imperfect city, and I do wish they loosen things up for local artists.
Another stupid comment from you! How do you know who is and who is not an artist commenting here? I own 4 Simon Birch paintings, part of my quite large contemporary art collection; I also know the reasons why he is moving away from Hong Kong; he is of course completely free to live wherever he wants, but don't try and blame a city that made him an artists for his present woes i.e. small sales - Hong Kong, as I said, does not owe Simon Birch



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