I am unwaveringly fond of modern art museums. It’s one of the first things I look up when I search for things to do in a new city, and it was no different for my trip to Shanghai. But let me start here: Shanghai is big. Imagine a big city you’ve been to – if it’s Los Angeles, multiply the population by six, if it’s New York City, multiply by three, if it’s Delhi, you’re getting closer but you still need another 6 million. I have been to a lot of big cities, but nothing really could have prepared me for Shanghai.
In spite of its overwhelming scale, I still walked a lot in Shanghai. Sometimes to avoid complicated train trips, but mostly because I wanted to take in as much of that behemoth as I possibly could on foot. See what it was all about, soak in the people, the sounds, the culture, find the best food. Most days were warm, sunny, but thick and sticky with smog. So, my walk through People’s Park to find the Museum of Contemporary Art was notable; the sky was clear and blue, the breeze felt clean and refreshing. I remember a sense of calm, a sharp contrast to the chaos of the city streets.
The MoCA is interesting in itself: a former greenhouse turned into a 3-story art space, it’s the first private contemporary art museum in China, but it only opened relatively recently, in 2005. After exploring two rather odd exhibits on the the main floor, I wound my way up a curved ramp hugging the original greenhouse glass. At the top I found an archway made up of a patchwork of wooden shutters, and a small dragon on a pedestal off to one side. This was very different from the rather austere spread on the floor below. I stopped to take a photo just as a tourist couple came out through the arch. “Don’t worry,” they told me, “there are plenty more photo ops inside.”
Entering the exhibit, “Like Child’s Play,” felt like stepping into a different world. A confusing world full of bright colors and children. Or, at least, a street artist’s representation of children. At first glance I was faced with a mural of a schoolgirl who appeared to be hopscotching through the wall away from me – only the back of her head, her flowing pigtails, her backpack (which was actually a house, upon closer inspection), and the soles of her shoes visible. Her face, her arms, her legs all appear to be inside or through the wall. Immediately I knew I had found a gem in that big, sticky, crowded city.
Seth, or Seth Globepainter, is the pseudonym of Julien Malland, a street artist born in Paris. As his pseudonym surname suggests, he travels the world painting murals along the way, often working with local artists to avoid confrontation. The children in his exhibit in Shanghai are his signature characters. They represent a fascination with seeing the world with a childlike perspective. An article for the South China Morning Post quotes Malland: “I speak to the child in the adult … The way that kids see the world is not about innocence. It’s more of a true and direct way to see life. The way they are is what they are, they don’t hide it and I like this. All my life I try to be like this.”
Malland’s show was the result of a two month residency and collaboration with the MoCA. He spent those months painting on the streets, but also worked to bring the street inside. His murals dot the older, deteriorating neighborhoods. In an interview with art magazine Widewalls, he explains a connection with those old neighborhoods: “I wanted to exchange with the people of Shanghai and share my vision of their city along with my love for traditional China that is disappearing. I felt like reminding them that at the bottom of these crumbling buildings lay the last traces of an age-old way of life that is dying.”
One of the things I noticed most about Shanghai was the disparity between the young and older populations. One on board with all things modern, the other offering a brief glimpse into what Shanghai used to be. The street I stayed on in the former French Concession had a frozen yogurt shop, an espresso bar, a sushi restaurant, and a french bakery; teenagers and millennials walked with their faces glued to screens. But every time I came home from the metro at night there would be old men from the dumpling stands scrubbing their pots on the sidewalk and tossing the water into the street. It was east and west squished up against each other – stark differences apparent but also somehow seamless.
Seth’s exhibition was laid out to mimic the old neighborhoods where he painted. As I wound my way through I found a set of arms holding a book, and the matching legs, protruding from a brick wall; a boy crouched forward, asleep, the bricks of his head tumbling out on the ground in a sea of bright colors; another boy on his knees, head thrown back with a wave of salvaged wood and toys erupting from where his face would be. They walked the line of being a bit disturbing, but really I found them unexpected and completely fascinating.
Curator Cao Bin says, “When you gaze at Seth’s work, you can imagine the narrow streets becoming the playground for neighborhood kids again. By exploring local culture, Seth invites people to escape reality and rediscover the place through the eyes of a child.” Seth says:
Each and every neighborhood and inhabitant has their own story. While painting in these places, I met many natives who refuse to leave. The majority of former residents have accepted real estate developers’ deals to leave their homes. But the older ones, those who have always lived there, are the ones who won’t give up the fight, no matter how long it takes. They are very talkative and like to share their stories, from how they grew up in these streets, so [sic] when their family came to live there, to what kind of small businesses used to line these lanes...The stories of these people inspire me a lot. Often I was invited to their table to share lunch. Painting is finally only just a pretext for meeting people.
One of the elements of the exhibition was a collection of creatively curated photographs of the actual locations of Seth’s murals throughout the city. And though I ended up walking hundreds of miles during my three weeks in Shanghai, I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble upon one of them in the outside world. I suppose I chose the paths most taken. But my walk through People’s Park, my exploration of the MoCA, and my discovery of Seth made that my very favorite day in Shanghai. And if traveling has taught me anything at all, I like to think it’s to get out on the streets and view the world with a sense of wonder, almost as if I’m seeing it through a child’s eyes. On my way out of the MoCA, I noticed the dragon on the pedestal was actually a crouching child with a dragon’s face. Just one last bit of whimsy before I made my way back out into the city.