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Simon Birch
at 7:06pm on 8th September 2011

Photo courtesy of the South China Morning Post. (原文以英文發表,評論Simon Birch的《Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood》展覽。) The spectacular, panoramic East Lamma Channel view seen from Simon Birch’s Ap Lei Chau studio reflects some of the raw physicality to be seen in his new exhibition of figurative paintings, Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood, currently showing in Sheung Wan’s Museum of Medical Sciences. “The marriage of arts and science is a beautiful tradition dating back to the Renaissance. All this new work is a study of the flesh and about movement.” Birch’s paintings are large life-size canvases that fill the Museum’s two ground floor spaces, specially prepared as dedicated galleries. A leading Hong Kong figurative artist who has lived in Hong Kong since 1997, Birch’s new work shows a looser style using flat planes of paint spread with a palette knife to create strong gestural movement across the canvas. He captures the fluidity of motion by working with models that he photographs, “There is a sense of ambiguity. I am depicting the duality of the horrific and beautiful. These floating figures are either falling or flying. It is a snapshot in time; the flying could actually be during a moment of violence.” Displaying a freer, more confident painting hand or as he says a “more liberal expressionism”, Birch’s work also toys with abstraction with splashes of paint across many of the paintings. “I like the push and pull of abstraction and it makes the depicted figure bounce between frailty and abstracted distortion.” Birch himself has had a similar push-and-pull life over the last three years, including a remarkable recovery from a life-threatening illness and popular praise, and criticism from a divided arts community, about his ambitious self-organised Hope and Glory exhibition visited by thousands of people last year. The urge to do similar large independent projects has led to his breaking away from the art gallery that previously represented his work and he now manages himself to both market his art and to manage future large group exhibitions. Birch’s hard work and self-confidence is legendary, but this new venture coincides with an understandable personal change in priorities, “I previously wanted fame, make money, but there is more clarity now. The most important ability is to let things go. I just want to be an artist. Just do art and share it with the world. I know it sounds soft, but I see how art affects people.” Many of the exhibition paintings include images of stenciled stars and crowns. “They are symbols of power. They represent how they all fail us.” It is an angle of Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood that is not immediately obvious. Birch elaborates, “ ‘They’ are politicians, those in power. Yes - they fail us. The world is a mess. The trajectory of humanity is now all in the name of ‘progress’. It’s wasteful and only about concrete and money.” Hope and Glory conveyed a similar message. ‘Hope’ related to the beauty, love and empathy embodied in progress, but ‘Glory’ echoed the colonial ethos of the spread of empire with its entailing violence and destruction of other cultures. “We should care for nature and the environment. The hippy ethics of the 1960s had it right, but we have now turned to be a huge democratic empire.” But the realism of living in an increasingly complex world has not stopped Birch in believing in the power of art to convey messages for change. “I have a doggedness, a drive to get on with it, to not give up. I was passionate about the Hope and Glory project and found a way of doing it. The same with this exhibition, the Museum is a pop-up exhibition venue, and I will fit-out the spaces first and invite a range of people to come. Sales of my own work will fund other projects.” A modified version of Hope and Glory recently opened in Beijing and one of the first projects that Future Industries, Birch’s new management and exhibition company will organize is 100 filmed vignettes (e.g. of such imagery as of the sea, a sunset etc) by 100 filmmakers to be mounted as a huge multi-media experiential installation. The design and venue for this project is still in the planning stage, but the finished installation will project a metaphor of the universal human experience. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo recently included Birch in Transformation, a group exhibition of invited overseas artists. This was an eye-opening experience for him as he experienced top museum-quality exhibition planning and execution for the first time. He exhibited a modified video of a prowling tiger first seen in the Antonio Mak retrospective hosted by the Hong Kong Museum of Art in 2008. The tiger was a motif frequently used in Mak’s own sculptural work, but Birch’s tiger could be Birch himself. Despite living a quieter, more sustainable, less wasteful life, this determined artist, with great irony, optimistically growls about the world, “We are so far gone!” Exhibition: Laughing with a Mouth Full of Blood: New Paintings by Simon Birch Date: 20.5.2011 – 19.6.2011 Venue: Museum of Medical Science A version of this review was published in the South China Morning Post on 15 May 2011.

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