Being told he had six months to live gave Simon Birch a new perspective
When Simon Birch left Australia in 1997 with scarcely any money and no job to come to Hong Kong – the nearest English-speaking place outside Australasia where he could find work with his British passport – he had no idea where fate would lead him. Now one of Hong Kong’s most commercially successful artists – thanks to his dramatic, figurative oil paintings created with heavy paint, palette knives and brushes – his route to success followed many twists and turns, just like his art pieces.
“The day I landed, I got a job working in a bar in Wan Chai. Then I met a guy at the bar who was looking for cheap labour [for work on the Tsing Ma Bridge] and I started working for him, too. I also did some DJ-ing at the weekend and got some film extra work,” he says.
As he alternated between odd jobs, he carried on painting – his passion since childhood. Bypassing the traditional art-school route, Birch believes the lessons he learned in the real world gave him a broad perspective on art creation, as he adapted to different situations and people.
Over his first five years in Hong Kong, Birch tried to get his name better known by organising small shows in any venue he could find, such as the Hong Kong Arts Centre and the Fringe Club. When he was made redundant from his day job in 2003, he decided to launch a career as an artist. Eventually, galleries began taking an interest.
“That took years, but I wasn’t frustrated. I didn’t expect life to owe me a career as an artist. I just expected to continue to work day jobs and that art would just be a passion on the side. I was happy so long as I got chances to show my work,” he says.
“My problem was, and still is, being a better artist and a better person. If you want to be a better artist, there’s no shortcut. You have to be focused and dedicated, and work hard, think and learn.”
However, just as he was building his name as a professional artist, Birch was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer, in 2008, and was told he had six months to live. He underwent chemo and radiation therapy, and managed to beat the disease into remission. The experience offered acute clarity on what is, or is not, important in life.
“I feel I can discuss certain issues in my work – such as love, fear and hope – with more qualification,” he says. “It was the most horrifying experience, but also the most liberating, and though I would not choose to have the experience, it has had a tremendously positive influence in many ways by helping me better understand fragility, time, human gravity – things I was too distracted to notice before.”
Now an active supporter of charities such as the Hong Kong Cancer Fund and Mother’s Choice, Birch gives away his paintings to be auctioned off to raise funds. He is also doing his part to boost the local art scene by building a contemporary art museum in Central to showcase non-commercial works by artists. Scheduled to open at the end of this year, the museum is located in an old 10,000 sq ft car park which was donated by an art collector.
“I am lucky because my paintings are quite accessible. Without designing it, my work is commercial and can be sold,” he says. “I feel the frustration of artists in Hong Kong, though, whose work is more experimental, conceptual or installation-based. Those are the people who need more support.”
He adds that he uses the money from his commercial work to fund his less commercial projects in film and installation. He says it is “ridiculous” to consider commercial art as a kind of compromise. “I want to do bigger and better projects. They are not going to happen by me hiding in my studio. Networking and writing proposals are a means to an end, which is to make the art I want to make,” he says.
“There’s no compromise for me in selling work and taking commissions. There’s no compromise at all so long as my output has integrity, [which is to] produce art that really comes from your heart.”
In his most recent show, “Simon Birch Hooligan”, at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Central, his paintings explored the duality of life – how it can be beautiful and horrible at the same time.