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Seth Globepainter's Reflections on the Cultural and Societal Transformation of Shanghai

  • Seth Globepainter Working
  • Seth Globepainter Working
  • Seth Globepainter Working
  • Seth Globepainter Working
June 24, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

As his moniker suggests, the French street artist Seth Globepainter is traveling the world and using the streets as his canvas. Wherever he works, he incorporates local symbols and subjects from the surroundings, sending a message that is often playful and political at the same time.

This year, the artist has spent two months in the lanes of old Shanghai, as part of his residency at MoCA. Profoundly exploring the local culture, he used the streets and alleyways of one of the last old working-class neighborhoods as an urban artistic playground. Over twenty paintings created in the alleys of the neighborhood evoke the time when children played in the streets and the public space was a place of life and sociability.

Additionally, Seth presented the new series of paintings and installations in the exhibition Like Child’s Play at MoCA, summoning childhood memories that question the evolution of this massive city over the past few years. An initiatory journey through the corridors, halls and tunnels, the exhibition is arranged to reflect labyrinths of the alleys of old Shanghai. Most of the installations are made of materials collected in the neighborhoods where he painted.

We had a chat with Seth to find out more about this extraordinary residency and the works that resulted from it. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, he talks about the residency, the Chinese society and culture, neighborhood murals, the exhibition at MoCA, the change China is undergoing, and much more.

Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural

The Residency in Shanghai

Widewalls: After a two-month long residency program at MoCA, you have presented the newest body of work created in the streets of Shanghai. Could you tell us more about this residency and how it came about?

Seth Globepainter: The first time I traveled to China was back in 1999, and I have been working in Shanghai regularly for the past four years. I developed this passion to paint in the ruins of old Shanghai ever since I first discovered them. I wanted to do a project that could speak about the metamorphosis of this city and consequently Chinese society.

Last December, I was finally given the opportunity to work with the MoCA Shanghai, along with the huge challenge of producing a show in only three months.

Widewalls: You have chosen to leave your mark on the last old working-class neighborhoods in the city. Which aspects of Chinese society and culture have inspired your work the most?

SG: I wanted to talk about the radical transformation that is going on in Chinese society, as I have always been passionate about Chinese culture. Today, China is an over-consuming society in full transformation that resembles more and more our own.

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.

I was inspired by antique photos of the streets of old Shanghai where you can see children playing everywhere. This is a huge contrast to modern Shanghai, where the streets are no more than places of passage between one shopping center and another.

Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural

Seth Globepainter – Like a Child’s Play

Widewalls: Your murals depict children playing with emblematic games of the 70s and 80s. How do these subjects correspond with their environment, but also your overall concept?

SG: I always thought that you could talk about serious subjects in a fun way, especially in China where you have to be very careful about what you say. The contrast between children playing with toys and the chaos and violence of the surroundings corresponded with what I wanted to talk about.

I was born in the 70s. While looking for inspiration in a flea market, I came across a little red piano, the same I had when I was a child. Seeing it immediately brought back a lot of personal memories. I thought to myself, so I may be able to speak to the people of Shanghai after all.

In my creations, the children seem to be enjoying themselves, all the while playing games in the direst of situations. Even though everything is destroyed around them, they continue using their imagination as a way to escape.

Widewalls: Featuring a diverse display of sculptures, paintings, installations, and photographs depicting the murals created all across the city, the exhibition at MoCA is arranged to reflect a labyrinth of alleys of old Shanghai. Could you tell us more about the concept of the show?

SG: It is always difficult to bring the street into a museum. The exhibition consists of sculptures, installations and photos, as a way of bringing external elements inside the museum.

The layout of the exhibition, with its many winding corridors and halls, resembles the layout of Shanghai’s old streets. At every turn, a surprise awaits. Different soundtracks also set the mood in each room of the exhibition.

Like a Child's Play at MoCa Shanghai, Installation View
Left and Right: Like a Child’s Play at MoCA Shanghai, Installation View

A Changing City

Widewalls: Could you tell us some local stories you have unveiled while working in these neighborhoods? What is the future of these communities?

SG: 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 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. Despite their best efforts, they will inevitably live in new buildings in a suburb very far from the city center.

Widewalls: You worked in Shanghai for the first time in 2014. How has the city changed since?

SG: The city continues to modernize, to develop. The old working-class neighborhoods are slowly disappearing, and the Starbucks multiply constantly.

But between the first time I came to Shanghai in 1999 and today, it’s another country. I do not recognize the China that made me dream.

Widewalls: Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?

SG: I just painted a very big wall in Mexico. In September, we will redo the project Back to School, where we invite a dozen international artists to paint schools in disadvantaged areas. Past editions took place in China and Ukraine, and this year it will be in Turkey.

I would also like to redo the exhibition Like Child’s Play in France next year, but with more pieces.

Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
In My Dreams, 2018
Seth Globepainter – In My Dreams, 2018
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Like a Child's Play at MoCA Shanghai, Installation View
Like a Child’s Play at MoCA Shanghai, Installation View
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Like a Child's Play at MoCA Shanghai, Installation View
Like a Child’s Play at MoCA Shanghai, Installation View
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural
Seth Globepainter Mural

Featured images: Seth Globepainter. All images courtesy of the artist and MoCA Shanghai.