Hong Kong artist Simon Birch makes a grand New York entrance

Pop-up installation show serendipitously found a home in former Wall Street headquarters of J.P. Morgan, which has been turned into exhibition space with help from Hong Kong architect Paul Kember

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 March, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 3:04pm

There is no shortage of beautifully designed art galleries in New York, but Hong Kong-based British artist Simon Birch was looking for a completely different setting to the usual white cube experience for his ambitious, large-scale public-art installation featuring his own works and those of 19 other artists.

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

The original, cavernous site at the James A. Farley Post Office Building, opposite Penn Station, had fallen through at the last minute and the project was on the verge of being cancelled when he found what appears the perfect location right on his doorstep. While Birch was searching for an alternative space large enough to accommodate the collection of monumental works, an agent pointed out that the artist was living in an apartment directly above J.P. Morgan & Company’s historic headquarters at 23 Wall Street, across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. The 102-year-old building below had been empty for 10 years.

“It was pure serendipity in that there was one window of time where we could use the building, as it’s not normally available for a pop-up event like ours. So we got an amazingly reasonable deal and a lot of flexibility with terms,” Birch says.

Clothes real Hongkongers wear: British-born artist Simon Birch

He says the Wall Street location – with its memorable history, from the invasion of the Dutch in the 17th century, the slave trade, the liberation of America (“George Washington became first president across the street from our space”) and then the recent history of finance, greed and corruption – tied in brilliantly with the exhibition’s exploration of cycles of civilisation, collapse and the unknown future.

With nearly 1,400 square metres over seven floors, including two vast basement vaults, to play with and 15 interlinked installations to build, Birch enlisted the help of Hong Kong-based architect Paul Kember, of KplusK Associates, who in 2010 had helped transform the artist’s landmark “Hope and Glory – a Conceptual Circus” exhibition space at ArtisTree, in Quarry Bay, into a mesmerising, futuristic world, and who had already been part of the Post Office design team.

“I knew the Alice-in-Wonderland effect of abandoned space in 23 Wall Street was perfect for our theme, but at the same time the interiors threw up all sorts of spatial problems, so the benefits of working with a professional architect on a project of this scale and complexity are endless,” says Birch.

For instance, although the building still sports an imposing and elegant facade, over the years the interior’s original features had been gutted and numerous modifications and general neglect had created a ramshackle labyrinth within. The challenge Kember faced was how to engineer a cohesive series of environments within a complex matrix of spaces.

“The beautiful double-height ground-floor space, for example, is cut in half by a mezzanine floor while many of the other spaces do not follow a logical order,” Kember explains. “This added a layer of complexity to the project, as the plan was to take visitors on a visual journey, immersing them within a monomyth where the ‘hero’ moves from an ordinary world to the extraordinary.”

The exhibition’s conceptual path features classic monomyth elements – the trials and tasks faced, allies and enemies encountered, the final battle, reward, enlightenment, transformation and the journey home. The works range widely, and include paintings, sculptures, videos and interior landscapes by an international cast including Chinese performance artist Li Wei, music producer Gary Gunn and the Hong Kong fabric artist Movana Chen, who makes clothes out of shredded paper from magazines.

Some of the pieces are extraordinarily large. Birch’s six-metre “meteor” sculpture, for example, consists of 164 uniquely shaped pieces that interlock around a structural frame enclosing a “secret” room. “Simon’s work always has a great sense of scale and some of his work has a great deal of intricate detail while other parts are exploded in terms of the massive areas that we are looking at,” Kember says, pointing to an architectural plan setting out a complex layout of where an epic video of the artist’s bright red Ferrari deliberately being crashed will be presented alongside a sculptural installation of the twisted red metal pieces that were salvaged from the aftermath.

In other areas, Kember’s architectural training helped Birch and the other artists visualise their ideas in practical, buildable terms. A lunar landscape with a field of poppies, for instance, was detailed for the construction team to ensure the built product, comprising artificial grass and real poppies, would reflect the original creative vision; at the entrance, an enormous explosion of laser-cut wooden shards required a precise architectural plan to ensure each unique piece would be correctly assembled. Another vast, complex installation calling for design rigour comprises 60 deconstructed aircraft tails that Birch sourced from the Mojave Desert.

“Having a designer like Paul on the team means we could make the most of the space,” says Birch. “He brought critical insights, professionalism and practical problem solving when it came to spatial relations, as well as helping to develop material solutions.”

Kember believes that working on projects such as The 14th Factory is good for architects. (The title derives from the Thirteen Factories, or centres of foreign trade in the Canton region in 18th-century China. The imagined 14th Factory retraces the notion of a factory.) “It brings a great deal of creative energy and challenges us with visualisation techniques and the fascinating conundrum of building something conceptual in real space.”

Collaborating with Kember brought other unexpected creative benefits, too. Birch laughs as he recalls another serendipitous moment in the planning of the exhibition. “We always wanted to reference the film producer and director Stanley Kubrick in the show and then I thought, ‘Why not do something more blatant and direct and recreate the futuristic room that features at the very end of 2001: A Space Odyssey?’ The film and our show share a common core theme of transformation.”

Unfortunately, Kubrick had destroyed all his working drawings and models so there was no paper reference to provide dimensions or details about materials. So Birch showed a series of film stills of the room to Kember, hoping he could try to rebuild it simply based on the limited information from watching the movie.

“It was so strange because two of my uncles, Tony and John Graysmark, had been draughtsmen on the movie and had actually drawn up that exact room,” Kember says. “It was a personal tribute to recreate a project my uncles had first worked on nearly 50 years ago.”

“This entire show is a collaboration; we don’t really do the single winner, lone artist thing,” says Birch, who has established a non-profit foundation to deliver the six-week exhibition, which opens on April 29 and will be free to the public. All the works will be auctioned at the end and all proceeds donated to charity. The project has been funded in part by Birch, private donations and a Kickstarter programme.

“Leaning on other creatives who are smarter and more talented than I [am] has meant the show is far beyond the average art installation. It’s a family affair, it’s authentic and it has a quality, aesthetic and intention far above anything I could manage alone,” he says.

For details about 14th Factory: An Art Odyssey on Wall Street, visit www.kickstarter.com