French street artist’s Shanghai show ‘speaks to the child in the adult’

The innocent figures of Julien Malland, also known as Seth, are a world away from typical graffiti

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 March, 2018, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 7:09pm

The work of Julien Malland, who paints under the name Seth, can be seen in the old alleyways of Shanghai, in – as the artist puts it – “Beijing, the mountains of Sichuan near Tibet, in Xinjiang, Fengjing, at three schools in Taiwan”, and in Tahiti, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Now it can also be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Shanghai, where his first solo show in China, “Like Child’s Play”, has just opened. Inside the museum are 10 major pieces (including five sculpture installations) but included in the exhibition are some of the distinctively youthful images the French artist has painted around the city.

“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,” he says.

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Context is important for the muralist and street artist. Often playfully incorporating the surroundings into the larger image, he’ll use a doorway, a window or a crumbling wall as part of the scene he sets with his signature figures: innocent, nostalgic and often contemplative.

“What’s happening here in China is what is happening around the world but in a very short amount of time: changing from traditional to this kind of modernity,” says Malland. “[In Shanghai] it’s condensed … you can be in Xintiandi in the best new malls and go two or three streets away and you’re in a China from 30 years ago … this contrast interests me.”

His innocent figures (mostly children) and distinctive style developed during his travels around the world and from a desire “to see the world always in this childlike way”. They are a far cry from the more stereotypical graffiti – “aggressive stuff, sexy girls, guys with weapons” – Malland was producing years ago.

“The change came naturally,” he says. “If you do something more sweet [rather than aggressive] you can speak to everybody. I think they feel what I want to say.”

The exhibition has an interactive section called “In My Head” outside the museum near People’s Square that allows visitors and children to draw what’s on their mind.

“It’s a self-portrait in a way … but not of your face, but what’s inside your head,” Malland says.

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His fascination with China started many years ago, and he has been painting the streets and walls in old neighbourhoods ever since. While street art has become increasingly commercial, there’s a sense that Malland yearns for simpler times. He talks about his extensive travels in South America, where, he says, there is “[this] social consciousness of painting in the street”.

The 2016 “Back to School” project (a Nippon Paint initiative) that he led speaks to this; he gathered (in his opinion) the best street artists from around the world to paint giant murals at rural schools around China.

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Malland wanted to “mix what I think is interesting in terms of art with a social side” and to encourage children to develop their own imagination and sense of creativity.

“The kids were so curious and for them it was new to see paintings like that and to see foreigners like that,” he says.

The schools were often in poor areas, often educating children of migrant workers, who lived with their grandparents.

Somehow Seth’s sweet images of local children playing in the streets makes a timely statement in the midst of China’s breakneck modernisation. His work at MoCA is an invitation to escape reality and to see the Shanghai metropolis through Malland’s “creative, playful” lens.

“Like Child’s Play” runs from until April 9, 2018 at MoCA Shanghai.