Daydreaming with… Simon Birch

JournalArt & Culture

Daydreaming with… Simon Birch

We talk to the Hong Kong edition's co-curator...

A few weeks back, we interviewed James Lavelle, discussing the recently opened Hong Kong incarnation of his ongoing Daydreaming with… project. The show – that featured the likes of Robert Del Naja, Futura and Kai and Sunny, alongside some of Asia’s most influential artists – has been a resounding success, and as the doors closed yesterday, we caught up with its co-curator, Hong Kong-based artist Simon Birch, to find out how it went, what sort of an impact it could have on the city’s art scene, and lots more…

Daydreaming with... Simon Birch

So, how did the collaboration between yourself and Mr Lavelle come about, and how long in the making was Daydreaming with… The Hong Kong Edition?

Long story! I’ve been a fan of James, as we all have, for many years. When I first came to Hong Kong in ’97, I was DJing and running events, and had the chance to book him! We got on very well and did a bunch of gigs together over the years. James introduced me to so much film, culture, fashion, etc. He’s a pretty inspiring guy. Though I slowly exited from nightclubs, as my career as an artist took off, we always stayed in touch and collaborated on a number of art projects. He has scored a number of my video installations. He then invited me to join his Daydreaming with… show in London at the Haunch of Venison, where I produced a video installation… which James again scored.

The show was so good I wanted to bring it here to Hong Kong. It took over a year to finally get it to happen, but better late than never. The Hong Kong version is a remixed, expanded version of the original project. Myself and Future Industries pulled in artists from this region to add another layer of content to the project. It’s pretty awesome!

The content is hugely varied, and blurs the boundaries between art, design and music… it’s clear that’s a big part of what James does, but is this something that’s also important to you as an artist and curator?

Yes. Being isolated from the greater art world here in Hong Kong, one is somewhat ignorant of the rules of museums, institutions and curating; if indeed there are any. So I see no issue with mixing artists from all kinds of backgrounds together if it feels right. The lines are so blurred now, where design ends and art begins, or music, or scent, or whatever else… I guess my approach is just to make my own way.

The art world is perhaps more poly-centric these days, and we are part of that newness i think. In Hong Kong I’ve certainly invented my own platform – and my work, which goes from figurative oil painting, to installation, to film, to performance… well, I see no compromise or conflict with any of that activity. The show I guess reflects all of this, and curating it was maybe like DJing, you could be throwing down drum ‘n’ bass, but with the right timing you can switch to punk rock – if your intuition is working well. It’s all good…

Daydreaming with... Simon Birch

I spoke to James just after the opening, and he was impressed with its initial success – how has it been since?

So good! Over the first few weeks we had over 20,000 people come through. The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. We were so limited on time and money, so it’s been great that the compromises we had to make because of this have not affected the quality of the project. The show feels no different than being in a decent contemporary art museum, it’s just maybe a little more punk rock….

He thought its success may have been down to the show’s environment, that it was more museum-like than typically art gallery-esque. Do you think it’s helped introduce Hong Kong residents to something a little more cultured?

Yeh, it’s certainly presented in a stunning space which let’s the show breathe. Just the volume of the aircraft hanger-scale space lends gravity to the project. Well, Hong Kong residents are not ignorant of culture you know! But we don’t have a contemporary art museum at all in our city, so projects like this are rare. It certainly has more impact because of that dynamic. Honestly people are kinda blown away, they just don’t get to see art on this scale, or of this quality very often. We see repeat visitors every day too, which is cool.

Daydreaming with... Simon Birch

What took you to Hong Kong, and how has it changed since?

I was kinda homeless and jobless and I stopped in Hong Kong to get a bar job. Then I got offered a construction job that paid OK, so I stuck around and developed my art in my spare time. Fortunately my work started selling well and I was able to quit the day job, and now I’m fully involved in all kinds of art production and projects, and now my activity is able to extend beyond myself to being involved in education, cultural sponsorship, artist support and non-profit work.

Hong Kong is endlessly expanding in so many ways. Commercially it continues to bloat. Culturally it’s still a bit off. Though there is remarkable commercial arts activity with the art fair (recently bought by Art Basel), Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales, White Cube and Gagosian openings, there is little else outside of this. Though these things have value and make up an important part of our cultural landscape, you need the other stuff too. There is still little alternative art activity, artist support, patronage, venue, media, education and… I’m sorry to say, few artists.

The grass roots stuff is terribly insecure, poorly supported… all the financial activity has not filtered down to the local arts community. This glaring disconnection is a problem, but hopefully, with time, organic growth from within will address this current imbalance. Myself and Future Industries will certainly play our part in adding value and content outside of the commercial activity.

Daydreaming with... Simon Birch

Where do you think the city stands, against the rest of Asia, in terms of art, creativity, and cultural expression?

It’s far behind. As I’ve just noted, we are lacking the spark, and the fire, of local cultural activity. Though there are initiatives underway, outside of the private commercial enterprise of brand galleries, sales and fairs, these are institutional and problematic. The government plans to build a 28billion HK$ cultural district, 2kms of waterfront reclaimed land, which will include a modern art museum.

This is some 5 years away, but I’m not sure building such a vast cultural project necessarily will create a nation of artists and art lovers. I think culture grows organically over time. And I don’t think it comes from a government like ours, bureaucratic and lacking in cultural human resources, I think it comes from people being passionate about making and viewing art. There are murmurs of this more local activity. I myself am part of that murmur, staging non-commercial projects of some scale, Daydreaming with… being just the latest.

But it’s a challenge. Trying to get space and support is an uphill battle every time, just trying to explain art to the people with power here is a difficult thing. They generally just want to know what the financial return is… still, nothing worthwhile is easy.

Daydreaming with... Simon Birch

Do you think the Hong Kong art fair is breeding creativity, or is it more of a service to the rich?

Well, it’s a trade fair. Could be toys, could be electronics, so it has a certain retail function and it clearly does that very well so it has value of course. I always go, it’s a great social event. But it is lacking in heart, which I guess is not its problem. You never really get to appreciate the art in that environment. I wish they would do more to support or encourage satellite events (like ours). It’s depressing for me as an artist to walk around.

I would hate my work to be shown in such a place, it’s not how I want my work to be considered, but at the same time I desperately want to be the star of it!

Daydreaming with... Simon Birch

Can you tell us a little about the works of yours displayed at Daydreaming with…, and how they fit in with your overall output?

All my work is about duality, how violence and horror can be beautiful. There are other layers of meaning that relate to Sino-Colonial history, science fiction and much more. This complex multi-layered approach to content and medium seems to work very well with the similar rhythms of the project itself. There’s often a musical thread in there too (even to the extent that I’m listening to music constantly while I work). Some of my paintings are named from song titles or lyrics.

For the show I included some such paintings, figurative oil paintings with violent movement, as well as a calm poetic film of 2 beautiful people reciting lyrics from an UNKLE track that is disturbing. The talking heads of the film are framed in a similar way to the oil paintings of blurred heads.

What inspires you?

Everything. I’m like a sponge that is endlessly absorbing.

If we were coming to visit you in Hong Kong, where would you take us?

Apart from the usual tourist, electro, Blade Runner, downtown craziness, I’d take you to the beach. 70% of Hong Kong is actually national park, and it has stunning hiking trails and beaches. I surf there every chance possible.