In a huge, shiny installation now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, the artist Subodh Gupta riffs on the cultural adaptations that rural migrants have to make after upon arriving in a vast city like Delhi.
Metal kitchen racks, a space-efficient way to dry and store dishes, are a common fixture in homes in India. Gupta, who grew up in the poor state of Bihar and moved to Delhi at age 26, puts scores of the racks together on a single wall. Entitled “Take Off Your Shoes and Wash Your Hands” — the etiquette expected of a dinner guest — the artwork speaks to the challenge of creating the comforts of home in a metropolitan area jampacked with more than 20 million people.
A lot can and does go wrong in the world’s most populous urban regions, especially the ones that swelled to gargantuan size only in the last quarter century. But “Megacities Asia,” a fascinating new MFA exhibition featuring artists from Delhi, Mumbai, Beijing, Shanghai, and Seoul, highlights something else that happens when tens of millions people gather together in the same place:
There’s an explosion of creative energy.
“We don’t want to confirm people’s anxieties and fears about what these cities are,” says Laura Weinstein, the MFA’s curator of South Asian and Islamic art and one of two curators of the “Megacities” exhibition. “We want to show how multifaceted they are.”
If you live in an American suburb where building two or more houses on an acre is against the law, or in a city where even six stories of apartments are deemed impossibly dense, the scale of the developing world’s megalopolises is hard to contemplate.
The rise of these cities has prompted considerable alarm. “Urbanization — An Emerging Humanitarian Disaster,” declared the title of a 2009 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In his new book, “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us,” author Joel Kotkin — a critic of the recent push for greater density in some American cities — devotes a chapter to the downside of megacities. People streaming in from the countryside, he notes, encounter pollution, limited water supplies, woefully inadequate transportation systems, shoddily constructed housing in ill-governed informal settlements, and “health challenges that recall the degradations of Dickensian London.”
Then again, the problem isn’t megacities themselves. As long as people moving to these cities have better prospects than people who stay in their home villages, the mass influx will continue. The question is whether city governments have the foresight and capability to plan for it.
Many don’t, and the artworks in the MFA exhibition don’t skirt the problems that result. One piece by Mumbai artist Aaditi Joshi finds beauty in discarded plastic bags. A work called “8’ x 12’,” by the artist Hema Upadhyay, evokes the claustrophobia of Dharavi, an enormous Mumbai slum. Its title refers to the size of a typical dwelling there. Yet it also captures, Weinstein says, the undulations of the landscape and the strange juxtapositions of towers against makeshift homes.
“It’s a very successful sculpture,” Weinstein says, “one that shows there’s a balance between the chaotic and the ordered.”
More prosperous cities in China and South Korea offer a somewhat different set of experiences to residents. An artwork by Choi Jeong Hwa, for instance, takes inspiration from Seoul’s glitzy mall culture and involves a garish chandelier rotating in a room decked out in reflective Mylar.
Still other works speak a more universal language — the instinctive suspicion of real estate developers. The Shanghai artist Hu Xiangcheng uses windows and doors salvaged from centuries-old houses to build artworks that lament the replacement of traditional architecture with slick new buildings.
Weinstein and Al Miner, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art, spent three years identifying artworks for “Megacities Asia,” which closes in July. On Wednesday, the museum launches a series of public discussions about urban issues more broadly.
Regardless, this exhibition reminds us that even the vastest, most daunting agglomerations of humanity are more than the sum of their problems. These megacities are also places of improvisation, ingenuity, and even hope.