The works are conceptual. They require words to explain. (That's just the way it is, Tom Wolfe.) A Beijing woman, Yin Xiuzhen (b. 1963), has combined broken-off sections of brick-wall rubble with bits of colorful clothing to make her statement. The bricks have been scavenged from very old buildings. The fabric has been imbedded in the rubbles’ cracks. It alludes the look of weeds growing up through cracks in walls and sidewalks, as they often do. She believes that clothing absorbs the human spirit and that infrastructures do, too. And like the weeds, she says, no matter what happens to buildings, sidewalks, clothing, human bodies, the human spirit will never die.
Asim Waqif (b. 1978) of Delhi, a former architect, has created an interactive enclosure, a taller than man-tall square structure made of crisscrossed bamboo poles and twisted cotton ropes reminiscent of scaffolding. Viewers are encouraged to enter it. When they do, they will hear odd, plaintive sounds or froggy, electronic beeps. The noises are caused by the viewers’ movements. Museum-goers are too passive, its creator said that morning. He encouraged us to fight against that tendency and get involved with the work. He wanted us to be curious and irreverent towards it. As we all tentatively weaved in and around it, he explained his piece's purpose. He wants it to represent the creative possibilities of simple, traditional building materials, ones that are no longer popular with today’s builders in his megacity, whose population has grown well past 10 million, to 25 million, up from a mere 2.3 million in 1960. Comparable leaps have been made by all five megacities represented in the show. Because of these unabated surges in peopling, there is confusion, chaos, and claustrophobia, including visual claustrophobia. The show's artists all seem to be trying to make sense of it while at the same time they try, like Waif, to hang on to memories and traditions of the past.
The provocative Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is the show’s most famous artist. One of his two pieces is called “Forever,” a freestanding, circular sculpture made of 64 interlocked Forever bicycles. (Pictured above, center.) It is one in a series of similar pieces he has made. The role of the bicycle has changed radically in China over the last 50 years. Once it was the means of transportation that poor Chinese families aspired to own. It was a status symbol, particularly the Forever brand. Today the automobile has replaced it as the most covetable object — to China’s peril. And it happened so quickly, within Weiwei's lifetime. The other piece by Weiwei, “Snake Ceiling,” is a serpent-like form of linked school bags suspended overhead in a part of the museum distant from the exhibit’s main gallery. (Pictured above, right.) Another phenomenon that occurred all too quickly in China, due to the population surge: the building of substandard buildings, one of which collapsed during a major earthquake in 2008, killing more than 5000 school children. The knapsacks represent their lost lives.
“Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons” by another Beijing artist, Song Dong (b. 1966), is a pyramid-shaped installation that has been set up in one of the MFA's Asian galleries. (Other pieces are being exhibited elsewhere in the museum, as well as outdoors and in the downtown Faneuil Hall area, several miles from the MFA.) Meant to represent a megacity apartment topped by a pigeon coop, it is surrounded by traditional Buddhist sculpture — and fits right in. Inside are places for sleeping. Museum-goers can enter the space on Wednesdays and Saturdays at specific hours. The same goes for the pigeon coop, which has been converted into living space by the fictional family. Like real families in Beijing today, when they run out of room below, they “borrow from the sky,” as the saying goes. Residents are not allowed to add square footage to an existing home, but they may occupy an abandoned pigeon coop. That resourcefulness in the face of megacity overcrowding is the meaning behind the piece's title.
A gloriously whimsical work by Choi Jeong Hwa (b. 1961) of Seoul is titled “Chaosmos Mandala.” (Pictured above, on left.) It fills an entire room with color and light. Reflective mirrors cover walls, floor, and ceiling. In the room's center is a huge, revolving multi-colored chandelier. The effect is kaleidoscopic, discotheque-esque. Everything shimmers, shimmies. A reproduction French provincial armchair is set off to one side. Viewers are encouraged to sit in it and have a picture taken or take a selfie. I thought of calling it “photo-op art,” as opposed to the “op art” of old. Hwa hopes those images get posted on the Internet, proving one of the main tenets of all his pieces. As he said through a translator: "Everything is art. Art is everywhere. You are art."