LA's 14th Factory Offers A Warehouse Full Of Art And 'Otherworldly' Experiences
You really have to go out of your way to get to the 14th Factory, a new pop-up art space in the industrial area of Lincoln Heights, east of downtown Los Angeles. It's housed in an enormous building the size of a Costco warehouse and it sits across the street from an old, abandoned city jail.
The first of many gallery spaces you enter is almost pitch black. When your eyes adjust, you see giant metal shards that look like an asteroid has imploded. At the center, you step inside an almost blindingly bright white room and find yourself in the bedroom from the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Light floods in from the floorboards. There are knickknacks, pieces of neoclassical furniture and paintings on the wall. And there's the bed where, in the movie, astronaut Dave Bowman lies down as an old man and transforms into a star baby.
"It's such a perfect symbol and metaphor for the entire project," says artist Simon Birch, the man responsible for the unusual, immersive experience that is the 14th Factory. Birch is a tall, lanky Brit and a big sci-fi fan. He says he always wanted to recreate that Kubrick set, but it took a stroke of luck to make it happen. All the models and props from 2001 had been destroyed under Kubrick's orders, so Birch asked his architect friend Paul Kember to rebuild the set for him.
"Paul got up from the table with a smile on his face," Birch recalls. "He says, 'I don't need to watch the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey to work out the dimensions of that room. I just need to call my uncle Tony.' He says, 'Well, my uncle Tony just happened to be Stanley Kubrick's chief draftsman/ set designer and built that original room.' "
Not Your Traditional Museum Experience
The 2001 room and other 14th Factory installations have captivated visitors. "It's wild," says John Di Maina. His wife, Susan Di Maina , adds, "The white room was sort of disorienting."
Visitor Scott Meisse describes the experience as "otherworldly." His 12-year-old daughter Scarlett Meisse says, "It felt like it came out of a dream. ... It was very surreal."
Other installations by Birch and his collaborators (architects, filmmakers and multimedia artists) include a room of pitchforks hanging down overhead, giant screens with slow motion images of acrobats, and footage of a horde of Chinese men punching each other. In one room, you're surrounded by videos of Hong Kong apartments; the camera tracks up and down the towers, making you it feel as though you're floating.
"It's not like a traditional museum, that's for sure," Birch says. "It's the exhibition I'd want to go to."
Each room is a distinct experience. At the center of the factory, there's a green lawn with a crater and swings hanging from the ceiling. Another video space projects multiple angles of Birch's red Ferrari getting into a car crash, with parts of the wreckage on display. One room contains a ceremonially arranged series of crowns and meteoroids. And finally, an outdoor courtyard holds 40 salvaged airplane tails that have been planted in a pool, like an aircraft boneyard.
An Unknown, Guerrilla Pirate Renegade
Birch came out of obscurity to create the 14th Factory. "Nobody's ever heard of me or the project, so it's a weird paradigm from the ground up," he says. "And I suppose I'm a weird artist. I'm not trained; I didn't go to art school. I actually come from a very rough background."
Birch grew up in a violent neighborhood in the English Midlands, where he was a club bouncer and DJ known for throwing raves. He eventually made his way to Hong Kong to work in construction. In his spare time, he picked up a paintbrush.
"I used to paint my mates I worked with [who were] Chinese gangsters covered in tattoos, so quite realist, figurative work," Birch recalls. "And that led to sort of wealthy people commissioning me to paint them in my style. So I started sort of doing portraits for heads of the big banks."
Birch was getting solo and group shows when, eight years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live. He survived, and began working on the 14th Factory. Red tape and logistics were too difficult in Hong Kong and New York, so when he found a 150,000 square foot space in LA, he sunk everything he had into it.
"As an unknown group of guerrilla pirate renegades doing this massive project, we have no money. I have no money," he says. "I started selling everything I owned, sold everything. So I now have one suitcase of clothes. That's my life."
Birch says the 14th Factory will stay open as long as people keep coming and donating money — right now, at least until the end of May.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.