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Posing for Photo, Gallery Visitor Topples Row of Pedestals Like Dominos [UPDATED]

In an LA exhibition by artist Simon Birch, a visitor lost her balance and damaged $200,000 worth of art.

(GIF by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)

Is this the art destruction story to rule them all? In terms of visual drama, most certainly: in an exhibition by Hong Kong-based artist Simon Birch, a toppling row of pedestals presents the perfect cascade of dominos, beautifully drawing out the shock of one momentary misstep. It was triggered by one woman who backed up to pose with the installation for a photograph, but instead lost her balance and fell against one pedestal, sending off the chain.

The incident occurred two weeks ago at the 14th Factory in LA, a pop-up exhibition space conceived of by Birch, but the glorious footage was uploaded to YouTube today by someone who claims to know Birch personally. Open since March — following four years of delays — the show features works by him and 20 other artists that fill 14 rooms in a massive warehouse. It’s an art show made for the Instagram age; Carolina Miranda of the LA Times described the 14th Factory as a “series of wondrous, over-the-top sets for the perfect selfie [that] makes Instagram the perfect platform through which to experience all the high-budget spectacle.” Resources, however, were clearly not spent on properly securing the displays.

The footage captures a room that hosts the installation Hypercaine. A collaboration between Birch, Gabriel Chan, Jacob Blitzer, and Gloria Yu, the piece consists of a grid formed by pedestals that each carry a crown-like object. While some are made of wood, nylon, and scrap metal, others are crafted from precious metals such as gold, silver, and marble.

“Three sculptures were permanently damaged and others to varying degrees,” Yu told Hyperallergic. “The approximate cost of damage is $200,000.”

You have until July 30 to check out the 14th Factory and snap your own photos, although you do have to purchase tickets in advance (at $18 a pop, not including fees). If you do visit, please, please review Hyperallergic’s past coverage of selfie-seekers destroying art — from a Kusama pumpkin to centuries-old sculptures — as a reminder to stay alert. And never forget: DON’T TOUCH THE ART!

Installation view of ‘Hypercaine’ (2016) by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan and Jacob Blitzer
Detail of ‘Hypercaine’ (2016) by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan and Jacob Blitzer
Detail of ‘Hypercaine’ (2016) by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan and Jacob Blitzer
Detail of ‘Hypercaine’ (2016) by Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan and Jacob Blitzer

Update, July 17, 5:50 p.m.: Gloria Yu sent Hyperallergic following statement from Simon Birch with further details on the incident, its aftermath, and the damaged artworks:

The girl came in with her friend and although we told everyone to be careful, the staff was in conversation with someone at the time and was not paying full attention. She came in, crouches down to get a selfie with the crown and stumbled… and you’ve seen the rest.

The project is independently funded, has no sponsorship nor institutional support, and has taken years of overcoming huge obstacles to finally be realized. The room where the incident occurred was only a small part of the space, which features fourteen huge installations that the audience can wander around in. All the works are interconnected both conceptually and literally, and quite by accident, perhaps because of its scale and that the viewer is ‘in’ the art, it has become very popular as a location to take pictures in. We have also observed that the installation has at times had a great emotional impact on people.

The show features a huge interior garden, hundreds of pitchforks hanging from the ceiling, three hundred Chinese factory workers fighting in a video work, the destruction of a vintage Ferrari on film, a recreation of a set from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and a collection of massive airplane tails salvaged from the Mojave desert, standing upright on a pool of black water, whose dimensions are of the same ratio as that of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The show discusses the world right now, a reflection and a response. It was built using my own personal savings and assets, and also those borrowed from generous friends. The project has taken many years of persistence to be realized and has been stopped multiple times before. In the end, the project connects my personal lifeworld – a journey from a self-taught artist (I started my career painting on my spare time while working construction) to a cancer survivor – with a global story of entanglement scored to the brutal rhythms of capital expansion and contraction. The project is about making collaborative art that breaks down borders even as it recognizes the tug of tribal belonging.

Anyway, back to the incident…

As a non-profit we don’t have the budget for lots of staff or security and The 14th Factory is not like a traditional art museum nor gallery show, being housed in a 100-year-old 3-acre warehouse space in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. It doesn’t have a board of directors, funding, a corporate sponsor or a slick PR company to promote it.

The young student, a Chinese girl studying at a local university, was horrified and upset when the pedestals fell. We took down her details but decided not to take action as it was clearly an accident and she is a student. Plus, we are a non-profit so it’s not like we could afford to sue her anyway.

Many of the crowns were ok, there were sixteen on that row, some 3D printed in nylon or gold plated brass, some a mix of both, and some in other materials such as granite and marble. We fixed most, but there are a few delicate ones that are still in the process of being repaired and might be permanently damaged. Some are still on display

They are priced at around USD20,000 each in line with the current rate for my work, but of course, value and price are different – the Mona Lisa could be seen as USD50 worth of paint and canvas but its value is priceless. Value in the art world is a complicated thing, and these days people know the price of everything but the value of little.

Each sculpture was painstakingly designed and built from all kinds of materials and involves 20-30 hours of man labor each. There are 64 unique ones, some made in the US, others in China. Four different creative collaborators and artists were involved in the process of taking my sketches and bringing them to reality. It took years for the sculptures to be designed after my continued investigation into the themes of the project and more for solutions to be found for their physical realization.

The works are about power, or a symbol of, but they also have to do with survival – while battling cancer, my head had to be held in place by a headpiece while undergoing radiotherapy. Some of the sculptures are inspired by the experience.

People ask why the plinths were not bolted down. Well, people are warned to be cautious in that room but the idea was that the sculptures should be delicate, exposed and fragile. They are crowns, and crowns – symbols of power, are fragile things. And anyway, you can do your best to make things idiot-proof, but eventually someone will make a better idiot.

It is surprising that the incident has blown up. It was an unfortunate event, but we are grateful for the unexpected exposure and wish to direct the attention to what is important – the art in the space and the artists behind them.

Just another interesting day at The 14th Factory.

The show has been running since mid-March, we have welcomed 65,000 visitors so far, but we will be closing our LA chapter on July 30th and will move to a new city.

So no big deal in the end. No one got hurt. The show has been a four-year struggle to realize. It took a massive commitment and persistence – so the crown incident was not the end of the world after so many challenges.

Fortunately, The 14th Factory has been a huge success. It is also a wonderful example of the power of social media – as we barely had any budget for marketing when we first opened so social media was at times our only way of attracting audience.

Oh, and the crowns weren’t insured – we couldn’t afford it but we fixed most of them. Onwards and upwards!

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