The surreal journey into the heart of the "14th Factory" – Simon Birch's mammoth art labyrinth in Los Angeles – begins well outside of the brutalist, industrial compound that houses the exhibit.
You arrive in an obscure corner of the city, boxed in on one side by the Los Angeles River and by two highways on the other, reminiscent of the "Concrete Island" in J.G. Ballard's eponymous 1974 novel.
It is a desolate, gray zone of former industry and sprawling warehouses. In other words, the perfect setting for an immersive monument to the collapse of civilization.
If you have ever partaken in the underground rave scene in L.A., there is a familiar feeling of uncertainty when you arrive at the warehouse venue – "Is this the spot?" "Did we pass it?"
The brutalist, black façade does not reveal much, and the long march up the loading ramp keeps you in suspense. Once inside, the mystery continues to unfold in a dizzying journey through 20 interconnected exhibits spread across 3 acres.
As recently as a year ago, Simon Birch had an entirely different conception for the "14th Factory." Initially it was supposed to span seven floors of a vacant building on Wall Street that formerly housed J.P. Morgan & Company.
The NYC site would have brought the artwork into direct dialogue with global finance and market collapse, but the logistics of the space made the exhibit impossible. So Birch looked West...
Commentary aside, the main thread of the exhibition is Birch's home of Hong Kong. All twenty artists associated with the project have a close relationship with the city.
In fact, as Birch explained in an interview with Surface magazine, the name "14th Factory" references the historic "Thirteen Factories" region of modern-day Guangzhou in the south of China.
The "14th Factory" refers to an imaginary space that exists outside of sovereign nations and global markets:
“As much as it’s a reaction and a mirror, it’s also a creation – our own little utopia where everything is upside down, people fly through the air, airplanes are on the ground, gardens are inside, and enlightenment is available to those who reach the end of the journey."
When Birch's vision ultimately materialized in Los Angeles, much of it remained true to his initial plan. Even while forgoing the vertical of NYC for the horizontal floor plan of LA, the exhibit maintains the dreamlike integrity of an Alice-In-Wonderland type journey, as its founder intended.
As you wander through the Byzantine chambers of the 14th Factory – sometimes literally groping in the darkness for the next way through – you experience the giddiness of a haunted house amusement or maze.
Some would argue it peaks early when you arrive at the first installation – a perfect scale reproduction of the "Renaissance room" from the final scene of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
When Birch first approached architect Paul Kember with his vision for reconstructing the room, the two were astonished to learn of a personal coincidence: two of Kember's uncles had been draftsmen on the film and helped build the original set.
Kember remarked how it was "a personal tribute to recreate a project my uncles had first worked on nearly 50 years ago.”
Many of the other exhibits evoke this immersive, ecstatic sensation. The core of the 14th Factory is an island of real grass adorned with a large swingset (on which spectators are welcome to swing!). In an adjacent room, you can feel the anxiety of standing under 300 pitchforks hanging spikes-down from the ceiling.
The immersive video installations allow you to wander through brawling shirtless men, plummet between the bleak walls of tenement buildings and witness a fiery car wreck and its aftermath. The experience is relentless – every piece a stimuli-shattering feat of design and spectacle.
You finally catch your breath in an outdoor courtyard where the towering fins of actual airplanes – recovered from a junkyard in the Mojave desert – jut from a pool of standing water. After the dark, twisting journey through the factory's cavernous interior, it is an oddly moving and serene vision.
Check out more photos courtesy of James Bianchi: