Exploring Los Angeles' Audacious New Art Space (while we can), The 14th Factory
Too often in today’s high-finance art world “risk” is a concept that entangles painting and sculpture in silk-tie concepts like rate of return on investment and long term yield. Yet “risk” still peppers the lexicon that describes good artistic practice. In the case of The 14th Factory, risk is the operative word, as there have been few fine art projects in Los Angeles in recent years that have taken a tenth as much risk as this vast, singular, new experience in the Lincoln Heights district.
“I bankrupt my life to fund it,” artist and project creator Simon Birch tells me, “and then I ran out of money, then I borrowed from people that buy my work already – ‘lend me fifty grand and I’ll give you a painting if it doesn’t work out.’”
Is the work for sale? I ask Birch.
“Buy whatever you want,” he tells me. “We have no choice, because we can’t make rent next month, so I’m hoping somebody buys something.”
Birch and I meet in the central garden of the impressive, sprawling space – a green lawn in the midst of a section of white-washed timber warehouse. He’s unshaved and a band of sweat runs across the pink baseball cap on his head. He’s friendly, polite, and has an English sort of calm. But there’s an edge to our conversation – a lingering taste of desperation, the tang of someone who’s really pushing their limits with what they’re trying to achieve.
“I’ve done quite a number of projects in Hong Kong,” Birch explains, “I’m obviously completely unknown here. Five years ago I conceived of this project and planned it out to build a show that was very cohesive, a connected journey, a procession from piece to piece. Like when a movie is made, with a beginning, middle, and ending. The idea was there has to be an entry point, a crossing of the threshold, there had to be warnings, there had to be allies and enemies, and all these other things that make up a story.”
The result in an art space of quite extraordinary scope and variety – at least by the only metrics with which I can fairly judge the endeavour: vision, taste, originality, intelligence, creativity, courageousness, and beauty. Were I an accountant I might think differently of it, though on reflection it seems that the financial profession perhaps has too high an opinion of risky and audacious behaviour.
Within the exhibit, moments of artistic encounter emerge as fully encapsulated experiences; a glossy carwreck engulfing and shattering in an immersive videoroom (the death of Birch’s own Ferrari); an utterly physically disconcerting elevator ride flying between Hong Kong skyscrapers; a sombre assembly of plane wings; a surprising recreation of a Stanley Kubrick film set; and a commanding body of abstract figurative paintings, to name but a few. In all cases the execution is meticulous. Local Los Angeles painter Paris Reid was deeply impressed: “It’s not just a show,” she told me after we explored the space together, “but a real art experience. It’s mentally stimulating and visually fantastic.”
Many of the works are Birch’s own, while others are by different artists that Birch has ensnared in his vision. The 14th Factory rivals, and to my taste betters Los Angeles’ other installation galleries of a similar scale – of which there are few. Hauser & Wirth for example is smaller, and less of a cinematic spectacle, given it misses the singularity and cohesion of The 14th Factory’s vision. The Geffen Contemporary offers an experience that varies with the artist on display, but The 14th Factory gave me more of a sense of A to Z adventure than I have ever felt in the shows I’ve attended in that space, as excellent as most of them have been.
It’s a startling achievement for a collection that has no external backing or financial support. “We’re not funded or sponsored,” Birch tells me plainly. “There’s no patron involved. We’re totally independent. So, in a way, it’s a guerrilla project, but not by choice to be honest. We’ve only been able to afford to open the show, now we’re broke. We can’t do any advertising or we don’t have a way to sell work, we’re just hoping that people will start coming. Word of mouth keeps it alive.”
For Birch – born and raised in England, before relocating to Hong Kong as a construction worker who then turned to art – necessity is the mother of invention: “Why make art at all, right?” he muses when I press him on his motives. “It’s a passion, an obsession. I suppose my vision keeps expanding and I get pissed off when it seems impossible. Maybe some of it’s frustration at being an outsider to the larger art world. I haven’t been invited to do something in a museum, or a posh gallery. Part of it is feeling excluded. And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen, I’m not going to get that,’ so I built my own fucking museum to do my own fucking show,” he tells me with passion. “I mean, I wanted to do museum scale shows but I don’t have access or opportunity, so you just have to build your own museum. Part of it is just that realization and me feeling like I could innovate my way out. I’m very persistent. I won’t give up. I may not be the best artist in the world, but I’m fucking persistent.”
There’s something about the audacity of the venture that feels very at home in this city – maybe it’s a distinctly Los Angeles variety of catharsis that takes dreams to the wall. “We came here a year ago and just instantly everything clicked,” Birch tells me, “like, this is the time, this is the place. It’s an open and friendly community, a giving community, diverse in a much more authentic sense. It just felt more interconnected – as we are, I think, as a group. We were looking at New York and we pursued a site there but we just ran into so many hurdles.”
Without intending to sound disingenuous, the 14th Factory will be open until it shuts. So see it while you can. “To me, the project’s quite humble, it’s just a piece of art, right?” Birch tells with a light in his eye as our conversation finishes. “It’s a big piece of art, but we’re not big. I think I could do a lot better than this. The one I want to do is like this on crack, on a whole different planet. But we’re just getting started. We’re just getting started.”
Written by: Gus Donohoo