What else accumulates in cities? Why, artists of course.
As cities get bigger, the artists who live in them try ever harder to evoke the immensity all around them, the incessant daily accumulation of goods, refuse, stories, forgetfulness, spectacles, and secrets.
But they struggle. There is no single story to tell. No containing form. Each story, even their own, is overwhelmed and undone by profusion, multiplicity, chance. It’s a question of scale — and the scale can feel inhuman.
Chance, accumulation, and a kind of mad profusion are at the heart of “Megacities Asia,” a show of large-scale sculpture and installations from five stupendously outsize cities in Asia: Mumbai, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, and Seoul. (The term “megacities” refers to cities of 10 million or more inhabitants.)
The show, at the Museum of Fine Arts, comprises just 19 works by 11 artists. But it is big enough not only to fill the vast Gund Gallery for temporary exhibitions, but to spill over into other parts of the museum, including outside. And even into the city: “Fruit Tree,” a sculpture by the South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa that is part of the show, will be installed at Marketplace Center near Faneuil Hall on April 7.
The same artist is responsible for a giant breathing red lotus flower on the MFA’s Huntington Avenue lawn, and produced an installation of slender columns of stacked colored acrylic bowls illuminated by electric light in the curving stairwell beyond the Koch Gallery.
Downstairs, beside the serene Korean gallery, Choi Jeong Hwa is also the man behind an eye-assaulting installation, “Chaosmos Mandala,” which features a colored chandelier hanging from a rotating disc in a room covered with mirrors.
Meanwhile, in the upstairs gallery devoted to ancient Chinese sculpture, China’s Song Dong has assembled a two-story house from reclaimed elements of traditional working-class homes in Beijing. And in the giant Shapiro Family Courtyard you’ll see a sculpture made from bicycles by China’s Ai Weiwei, who has a second work, “Snake Ceiling” — a curving line of children’s backpacks — suspended over the walkway outside the bookshop in the Linde Family Wing.
That’s all before we’ve even entered the main part of the show.
But “Megacities Asia,” which was organized by Al Miner and Laura Weinstein, is not only an impressive logistical accomplishment. It’s also lots of fun, in many places poignant, and all in all, a very smart move by the MFA.
The show was approved and supported by former director Malcolm Rogers, and has been expanded by his replacement, Matthew Teitelbaum. Not all of it is great. But even the artistically lackluster pieces that spill out of the temporary exhibitions space do much to enliven the museum’s occasionally daunting and precious atmosphere.
The results are glittery and spectacular in ways that would be irritating if we had to endure them permanently. In the meantime, they entice and amuse, and are judiciously tempered by restrained, poetic, and pensive works.
Among the most poignant of these are two installations by Hema Upadhyay, a Mumbai artist who was murdered, at the age of 43, late last year. The first, “8’ x 12’,” is a square-shaped container you can walk into. Its title describes its dimensions, which represent an average-size-dwelling in Dharavi, one of the oldest slums in Mumbai.
The walls and ceiling of Upadhyay’s box are covered in small pieces of corrugated aluminum and car parts, pieced together to resemble an aerial view of Dharavi. It’s not an accurate map. Nor, importantly, is it necessarily a depressing sight: There is delight in the dollhouse tension between tiny and vast, between cramped intimacy and godlike distance.
The sense of endless sprawl, and the ensuing threat to notions of individuality, may appear overwhelming. But there is a jaunty joy in the colors and improvised shapes, and all this accords with the bustle and liveliness of Dharavi itself.
Upadhyay’s second piece, left incomplete when she died, is more oblique. Conceptually, it also seems slightly overwrought. Titled “Build me a nest so I can rest,” it consists of a long shelf of generic clay bird figurines, commonly sold as children’s toys, and fastidiously painted to resemble individual migratory birds.
Thus altered, the birds allude to the many migrants who pour into cities like Mumbai from rural areas, and, like caged birds, struggle to adapt to the city’s confining conditions.
The paradoxical experience of confinement and growth in Asia’s megacities is also the subject of Song Dong’s “Wisdom of the Poor: Living With Pigeons.” The structure, suggestively encircled by ancient Chinese sculptures, is a makeshift courtyard dwelling topped with pigeon houses.
In cities like Beijing, resourceful Chinese families during the Cultural Revolution would “borrow space” (Song’s phrase) from wherever they could find it, including on rooftops alongside pigeon coops.
The interior space is very tight. But as with Upadhyay, Song isn’t trying to trigger pity or revulsion. Quite the contrary: As these makeshift dwellings are destroyed in the storm of progress that characterizes the new Beijing, Song laments loss of the community made possible by these crowded courtyard homes.
Ai Weiwei’s two works are classic blends of Duchampian slyness, political protest, and spectacular scale. “Snake Ceiling” reprises, in altered form, an outdoor installation seen five years ago at Harvard University, in a show organized by the Graduate School of Design, “The Divine Comedy,” The children’s backpacks used in both works allude to the 5,335 children who were killed during a 2008 earthquake in China when their shoddily built schools collapsed.
Ai’s cylinder of stacked bicycles, “Forever,” is an allusion to Duchamp’s first readymade, the “Bicycle Wheel” of 1913. In fact, almost all the works in the show are Duchampian, in the sense that they are made from “found” objects and embrace the workings of chance.
But “Forever” (the title alludes to a popular bicycle brand) also speaks to the cliché of Beijing as the city of bikes: a reality that Ai Weiwei saw changing when he returned to China after 10 years in New York. Suddenly, vast numbers of people no longer aspired to own a bicycle, but a car.
So “Forever” is about an experience that is precisely not forever — one that is “changing faster, alas, than the human heart,” as Baudelaire once wrote of cities. In this sense, it strikes the same ambivalent note as Song’s “Wisdom of the Poor.”
“Megacities Asia” has terrific things, too, by Delhi’s Subodh Gupta and Asim Waqif, Beijing’s Yin Xiuzhen, Shanghai’s Hu Xiangcheng, the Seoul collective flyingCity, and Mumbai’s Aaditi Joshi.
The show sends, I think, a powerful message. It announces that Boston’s MFA is not just home to one of the finest historical collections of Asian art in the world, but also is engaged with present and future realities of Asia — realities that are astonishing and foreign, yet uncannily familiar and intimately connected with who we are.
I hope this message will be received not only in Asian countries and by visitors from Asia (we are talking, folks, about well over half of the world’s population), but by the thousands of families and students born in Asia or of Asian descent who live here and make up a huge part of who we are, as well.
I hope, too, that it’s a message the MFA repeats, in different registers, again and again and again.
At Museum of Fine Arts. April 3 through July 17. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.