THE cities we live in today are landscapes of ever-increasing contradictions: dense yet intimate, intimate but lonely, lonely and still some form of home to us. And then there is art; a space in which other spaces can be recreated, often with a continued sense of how we once experienced them. In an ongoing exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, 11 artists attempt to bring the two together as they sculpt their perceived urban realities of five of Asia’s megacities: Mumbai, Delhi, Seoul, Beijing and Shanghai. Titled “Megacities Asia”, the exhibition emerges as the largest contemporary show organised by the museum, and introduces Boston to the works of Indian artists Hema Upadhyay, Subodh Gupta, Asim Waqif and Aaditi Joshi.
“Megacities Asia”, which is on till June 17, has been put together after four years of research, travel and execution. As part of this, 19 large-scale sculptures and installations claim their space across the museum’s galleries, on its front lawn, and within the city. Open the doors to the main exhibition space, and Gupta’s trademark brass and steel kitchenware meets you in an arrangement spanning 40 feet. Gupta imports the Indian kitchen onto a museum wall with his setup of 48 kitchen racks, each comprising systematically stacked up pots and plates, spoons and glasses.
In a certain sense, Gupta’s piece — born out of his practice of found-object art — is most compatible with the exhibition’s criteria. “We were looking for artists that were using everyday objects in their work, and working through a practice of accumulation of things in their urban environment,” says Laura Weinstein, co-curator and the museum’s head of South Asian and Islamic art. Beyond a suitable form, Gupta’s work stands disconnected from the context in which it’s supposed to function. The artist’s piece symbolises family and community identities, evoke the densely packed urban neighbourhoods of Delhi, as well as question the threat of globalisation upon local traditions and values of food.
It’s in Hema Upadhyay’s installation that scale and size find significance beyond mere magnitude. Titled 8’x12’ after the average dimensions of a family unit in Dharavi, the boxlike structure is built to its original size, using the same materials employed by its dwellers: aluminum and plastic sheets, car scrap, hardware material, and other found objects. Viewed from the outside, the installation, titled Build me a nest so I can rest, appears as a large work of art, embedded in graceful, handmade detail. Step into it, and the same structure quietly shrinks into a space of claustrophobia and compression. Its short walls and ceiling — coated in tightly-packed, miniature representations of the city’s various buildings beyond Dharavi — offer a dizzying bird’s-eye view of Mumbai’s sweeping urban landscape, but not without keeping you grounded within the confines of its poorest homes first.
The MFA inherited Upadhyay’s second and final work of art undone; as separate parts of a piece that survived within her Mumbai studio, where she had been working towards its completion until her tragic death last year. Three hundred terracotta birds, created by craftsmen and later painted by the artist, now sit on a shelf in the museum. Hanging loose from each bird’s beak is a quotation describing the hopes and experiences of migrant lives in Mumbai. “She had intended to give us 100 sentences, but we had only received 13 from her by the time she died,” says Weinstein, who brought the piece together with the help of Upadhyay’s family and studio assistants, and after a discussion with Chemould Gallery’s Shireen Gandhy.
Amidst the exhibition’s other pieces are the two works by Delhi’s Waqif and Mumbai’s Joshi, both of whom respond to the consequences of rapid development upon the landscapes of their cities. Waqif, an-architect-turned-artist, laments the abandonment of bamboo as Delhi’s ongoing construction becomes a site dominated by high-tech building methods and materials. The artist’s interactive installation, Venu, aims to reassign lost value to the local material by building a structure from bamboo poles, while placing sensors activated by changes in light, weight, and touch within it. As visitors step in and out of it, their touch, shadows and speech cause it to respond with vibrations and sounds of its own. According to Waqif, the structure symbolises his vision for urban sustainability, in which tradition and technology should work in tandem.
Mumbai’s Joshi picks plastic as her choice of medium, in what seems — but only at first — a critique of the city’s consumerist culture and the impact of its resulting waste upon the environment. Joshi acknowledges the role of accumulated plastic in further aggravating the Mumbai floods in 2005. She eventually describes her artistic engagement with the material as a “search for beauty amidst trash”, asking her viewers to consider — and rather problematically — the impact of modern waste on her city, as though there could be more to it than pure environmental hazards.
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