Megacities Asia at MFA

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Megacities Asia, the largest contemporary exhibition ever organized at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), invites visitors to walk under, through, along, around or inside large-scale sculptures and installations that examine issues of urbanization. Eleven artists offer 19 works created from accumulations of objects found in their home “megacities”—those with populations of 10 million or more—in China, India and South Korea, which have seen unprecedented development over the past 50 years. On view through July 17, Megacities Asia extends beyond the MFA’s Ann and Graham Gund Gallery into other exhibition and public spaces, onto the Museum’s front lawn and into the city beyond, with a sculpture presented in Marketplace Center near Faneuil Hall.


Megacities Asia features artists Ai Weiwei (born 1957, Beijing), Choi Jeong Hwa (born 1961, Seoul), Subodh Gupta (born 1964, Delhi), Han Seok Hyun (born 1975, Seoul), Hu Xiangcheng (born 1959, Shanghai), Aaditi Joshi (born 1980, Mumbai), Song Dong (born 1966, Beijing), Hema Upadhyay (1972–2015, Mumbai), Asim Waqif (born 1978, Delhi), Yin Xiuzhen (born 1963, Beijing) and the collective flyingCity, led by Jeon Yongseok (born 1968, Seoul). Several of them are being exhibited in an American institution for the first time, and nearly half of the works were created specifically for Megacities Asia.


Asia is the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent, containing more than half of the approximately 30 megacities around the globe. Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai and Seoul have grown at an astounding pace over the last half-century to equal and in some cases exceed the size and urban density of metropolises like Tokyo and New York. The artists in Megacities Asia respond to the dynamic, political, environmental and social conditions of these cities through immersive artworks that invite physical interaction.


Co-curators Al Miner, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, and Laura Weinstein, Ananda Coomaraswamy Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, have worked together for three years, traveling to each megacity and visiting artists’ studios while organizing the exhibition.


“These artists are observing their cities and seeing the landscapes shift before their eyes. They’re feeling a city growing around them, and that’s really the impetus for them to create the works as they do. They want you to truly understand their perspectives of their homes—why those places are changing and what the results of those changes might be,” said Miner.


The artists engage with the history of “found object” art by accumulating mainstays of daily life—dishes, discarded architectural components, bicycles and plastic bags, to name a few—and using them as materials for their works in large volumes that reflect the enormous sprawl and scale of their megacities.


“For these works of art, the city is the medium as well as the message. We wanted to include works that have a very direct and immediate connection to the urban environment in which they were made, and we want visitors to feel as if they’ve had an encounter with the city through an artist’s eyes,” said Weinstein.


Nine of the 19 works are presented in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, the MFA’s largest exhibition space. Two works by Hema Upadhyay reflect on the migrant experience, as understood by the artist firsthand—she relocated from a smaller city to Mumbai to begin her career. The installation Build me a nest so I can rest (2015) arranges 300 terra-cotta birds—some handmade by craftsmen from river clay and sold as trinkets, others by the artist herself—on a 35-foot shelf hung at eye level. Upadhyay and her assistants painted the figurines to resemble migratory species and inserted thin slips of paper with typed quotations about migrants’ hopes and experiences into the beaks.


Another work by Upadhyay responds to the high cost of living and limited housing that migrants encounter once in Mumbai. The dimensions of the immersive installation 8’ x 12’ (2009), which invites visitors to walk inside, are drawn from those of an average family dwelling in Dharavi, the city’s largest “slum,” or informal settlement. Built from the same materials used by residents to construct their homes—including aluminum sheets and car scraps—the walls and ceiling of the boxlike structure are encrusted with representations of densely packed buildings of various heights, manipulating perspective by offering bird’s eye-views on all sides. The work evokes the entire city in a single, expansive view, while at the same time providing the experience of how constricting it can be.


Subodh Gupta evokes densely packed neighborhoods in Delhi by accumulating and arranging objects commonly found in the kitchens of local households: stainless-steel kitchen racks, dishes and utensils. Cooking and eating practices in Indian homes, as everywhere, are important in forming individual, family and community identities. However, globalized culture has begun to change local meanings attached to food in cities like Delhi, where high-end sushi restaurants appear alongside those serving traditional Indian cuisine. Gupta’s installation Take off your shoes and wash your hands (2008) is made up of rows of kitchen racks found in urban Indian homes of all classes. Each of the 48 racks references a family unit. Gathered en masse, they suggest a whole community, perhaps gathering for a communal meal, but the individuality of each is lost along the way.


A large interactive installation by Asim Waqif, an architect-turned-artist also from Delhi, responds to the megacity’s ongoing construction on a massive scale. The artist elevates the status of undervalued local materials, such as bamboo, which is rapidly falling out of favor in India as developers turn to high-tech building methods. Venu (2012) is an accumulation of bamboo poles held together with rope, which Waqif learned to hand knot in part by working with Bengali migrant laborers. Visitors’ proximity and touch, as well as changes in light, trigger electrical relays and motors that vibrate or make sounds. The more people explore the work, the more it responds. Bringing together traditional practices with contemporary technology, Waqif shares a vision for a sustainable future where they’re seen as complementary mechanisms rather than working against each other.


The artist collective flyingCity, led by Jeon Yongseok, envisions an alternate urban reality for Seoul. Since 2001, the group has investigated—and even temporarily resided in—neighborhoods of the city transformed by redevelopment. For the series Drifting Producers (begun in 2003), flyingCity spent six years focusing on a central Seoul neighborhood that houses many small-scale machine shops under threat of displacement. Collaborating with shopkeepers, the group produced kinetic sculptures—four on view in the exhibition—that embody the creative energy, interconnectedness and endurance of their producers, celebrating the improbable survival of small-scale industry in an ever-changing Seoul.


Redevelopment in Beijing has uprooted older neighborhoods at a rapid rate. Yin Xiuzhen creates works that evoke memory and community, including Temperature (2009-10), which consists of brick rubble scavenged from razed buildings and scattered across the floor, with bits and pieces of fabric peeking out from the cracks. To Yin, the clothing fragments soak up and preserve the experiences and energies of those who lived within them—even if torn down to make room for new high-rises.


Like Yin, Shanghai-based artist Hu Xiangcheng scavenges materials. He scours used wood markets for windows and doors from dismantled houses from the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) eras, using them to erect shelves, rooms and even sequences of building-size structures that invite visitors who wander through to look closely at the rescued architectural elements. The installation Doors Away from Home—Doors Back Home (2016) offers an additional layer of meaning when seen from above—its internal walls form the Chinese character for “wood” (mù, 木), while four exterior walls transform it into another character (kùn, 困) meaning “to be trapped” or “to be surrounded.”


An unavoidable by-product of rapid development in megacities is an enormous quantity of waste—in Mumbai, enormous hills of discarded plastic form surreal landscapes. In July 2005, a massive flood swept across the city, killing hundreds of people, and an accumulation of plastic bags clogged drainage systems, exacerbating the situation. Aaditi Joshi sees both the threat and beauty in these objects, incorporating them into her artistic practice. She uses heat to manipulate and fuse together plastic bags to create bold, lacelike works, such as Untitled (2016).


Environmental issues are also on the mind of Han Seok Hyun, who collects products in Seoul supermarkets to form green landscapes that evoke the city’s mountainous terrain. The hills formed in Super-Natural (2011/2016) provide a sense of calm and peace, but some of the materials within them—collected both in Seoul and Boston, at the MFA—may be greener in color than they claim to be in substance. The installation points to citizens’ appetite for consumer products, while at the same time reminding viewers of the equally pressing—and sometimes forgotten—need to connect with the natural world, which is especially rare in growing cities. After the exhibition, the objects from Boston will be recycled or donated, while the objects from Seoul will return there to become part of another artwork.


Five additional Megacities Asia works are installed in MFA exhibition and public spaces outside the Gund Gallery. Two iconic sculptures by Ai Weiwei—whose art is featured at the Museum for the first time—respond to rapid urbanization in Beijing. When Ai was growing up, China’s poor families aspired to own Forever brand bicycles as means of both transportation and socioeconomic mobility. After spending a decade in New York, the artist returned to a radically changed Beijing in 1993, where the bicycle had faded into the past, giving way to cars. Forever (2003), presented in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, is a circular arrangement of 64 Forever bicycles. With no beginning and no end, the sculpture questions whether something eternal can exist in a quickly changing society.


In addition to transportation, the constantly moving landscapes of Chinese cities are also shaped by ongoing construction—and the fast-paced race toward progress has been blamed for many crumbling and collapsing buildings across the nation. Ai’s Snake Ceiling (2009) connects nearly 350 backpacks to commemorate the lives of more than 5,000 children who died in 2008 when their poorly constructed school buildings collapsed during a major earthquake in China’s Sichuan province. The twisting, serpentine form of the piece, mounted to the ceiling in the Eunice and Julian Cohen Galleria, is meant to evoke a stream of children walking to school, hand in hand.


Like Ai, Song Dong grew up during the Cultural Revolution and has watched neighborhoods of his youth radically change as Beijing became an international urban center. As a result, his artistic practice is fueled by nostalgia and respect for traditional methods and materials. Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons (2005-06), surrounded by Chinese Buddhist sculpture in the Paul and Helen Bernat Gallery, references a traditional courtyard residence found in Beijing’s older neighborhoods. On select days, visitors are invited to enter the structure, where they experience tight proportions reminiscent of the artist’s childhood home, as well as the resourcefulness the compact neighborhoods inspired. Song recounts how residents would “borrow space from the sky” by extending their cramped living spaces into rooftop pigeon coops and sleeping behind the nests. The architectural installation pays tribute to the ingenuity of the poor born out of a difficult time in China’s history.


Alchemy (2016) by Choi Jeong Hwa directly responds to the architecture of the MFA, in a space chosen personally by the artist. Installed between the classical stone columns of the Hemicycle Staircase, stacks of plastic containers and dishes, lit by LEDs, transform into gleaming columns of colored glass. Choi finds appeal in the dazzling jewel tones of mass-produced plastic objects, which he sources from street markets, secondhand shops and discount stores. He is also fascinated by the conflicting qualities of plastic—it is disposable but eternal, beautiful but debased, ubiquitous but invisible. The artist presents another dichotomy—a vision of the world as chaotic but beautiful—in Chaosmos Mandala (2016). The room-sized installation in the Asian Paintings Gallery presents an artificial seascape with a mirror-covered floor, walls and ceiling, as well as a plastic, multicolored chandelier in constant motion that represents the celestial realm. Every element is multi-faceted, and each reflects all of the others. Visitors are invited to sit in a chair and take pictures, becoming part of the landscape themselves.


Two other installations by Choi take root outside the MFA. Moving gently and glowing from within, Breathing Flower (2016), set up on the lawn outside the Museum’s Huntington Avenue entrance, seems very much alive. While many see plastic flowers as lifeless and fake, Choi redefines nature to include everything that fills urban ecosystems—whether it’s man-made or not—and challenges us to see value, art and beauty in things usually considered worthless. Similarly, Fruit Tree (2014), set up in Marketplace Center near Faneuil Hall, presents Choi’s take on plastic fruits and vegetables as more alive than their edible counterparts. They make up an improbable cornucopia that stands in for the tree’s foliage, giving it a sense of naturalness and vitality despite its obvious artificiality.