Enter the exhibition space beyond the glass doors, and a wall of stainless steel and brass overwhelms the eyes. From New Delhi, artist Subodh Gupta has assembled objects commonly found in the kitchens of Delhi households—stainless-steel kitchen racks, dishes, and utensils—into a staggering display. Turn left. Turn right. In either direction is a massive assemblage—a testament to urbanization.
This is Megacities Asia.
In the latest exhibition running at the Museum of Fine Arts from April 3 to July 17, Boston finds its origins on the other side of the world.
A population of 10 million or more defines a megacity, and Asia has the fastest-growing number of them. Megacities Asia features sculptures and installations from 11 different artists from five megacities on the continent: Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, and Seoul.
Co-curators Al Miner, assistant curator of Contemporary Art, and Laura Weinstein, Ananda Coomaraswamy curator of South Asian and Islamic Art, began work on their brainchild three years ago.
When they traveled across Asia, Laura Weinstein said she and Miner looked for artists whose work related to their cities.
They sought out large-scale pieces that use everyday materials, and the power of those everyday objects runs through the exhibit, as they assemble to form towering, expansive, and consuming installations. These seemingly ordinary objects are collected and presented on a scale that fits the enormous cities they represent and show how the small entities of a city, how people and their lives, add up to create both the glory and the gore of a city.
The exhibition focuses on cities that have seriously urbanized over the last 30 years, so that the artists’ installations were products of and commentaries on their lived experiences in the cities as they grew. This is why Tokyo-based artists are absent from the show. Back in 1960, New York and Tokyo were the only megacities in the world. Today, there are nearly 30 megacities across five continents. For Weinstein, Seoul proved to be the most overwhelming to experience.
“I didn’t know anything about Seoul before travelling there, and it’s made the most dramatic transformation of all the cities,” she said. “From the post-Korean-War period to today, it has been rebuilt to be very glamorous.”
The curators focused on this sensation of being overwhelmed when they designed the exhibit. It is the sense that urbanization can truly be felt as a lived experience.
Weinstein noted that there is no specific travel path for viewers to take—there is no single narrative for the experience. Instead, the curators want the visitors to interact with the sculptures and installations on their own terms and in their own patterns. The viewer is both witness and actor, both victim and inflictor.
Each piece is meant to stand alone and provide its own experience. For this reason, ample space is left between installations to express individual monumentality, rather than a sense of solitude.
Because of the sheer size of the exhibition selections, Weinstein and Miner knew the exhibit could not be contained to one gallery. Using this to their advantage, the exhibition expands out of the gallery into other parts of the museum, out onto the front lawn, and around the city.
From Beijing, Ai Weiwei’s Snake Ceiling (2009) slithers above the heads of visitors as they walk by the popularly Instagram-ed neon light sign in the contemporary art wing that tells people to “ENJOY” and “LOOK.” From Korea, Choi Jeong Hwa’s Breathing Flower (2013) stands radiantly red outside the white stone of the museum, while his Fruit Tree (2014) sits down by the marketplace at Faneuil Hall.
The scale of the pieces is further exemplified by their inability to be confined to a singular exhibition space, a singular building, and a singular street block. Moving beyond the walls of the museum shows how the nature of the megacity is to continuously expand.
Back inside the gallery space, a vibrant, neon-green sea of bottles, brooms, and other common items makes up Seoul-based Han Seok Hyun’s Supernatural (2011/2016) and shows how even Boston was incorporated into this expansion.
Weinstein laughed as she told the story of the installation process for Supernatural. “Han Seok Hyun had [the curators] buy materials from the Dollar Tree and Stop and Shop on St. Paddy’s Day Weekend,” she said. “Luckily, there was no shortage of green.”
Featured Image by Museum of Fine Arts