The Complexity of the Contemporary: “Megacities Asia” at the Museum of Fine Arts

“Megacities Asia: Eleven Artists Sculpt Urban Reality” is the Museum of Fine Arts’ newest contemporary exhibit, available to the public until July 17. It features works of art from prolific Chinese, Indian, and Korean artists that comment on the exponential growth and rapid industrialization that Asia’s largest cities have experienced over the last 50 years. Their works elicit awe, nostalgia, and heartbreak, all in one, and yearn for a past that is long gone while attempting to navigate the messy complexity of the present day. “Megacities Asia” is one of the most captivating contemporary exhibits I have ever experienced, so much so that I was compelled to return a second time to fully appreciate its complex themes. Its eleven works can be found not only in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery on the ground floor of the MFA, but also on every level of the museum, directly outside, and as far-reaching as Faneuil Hall in Boston (where you can take a selfie with Fruit Tree (2014) by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa (1961 – ) and be admitted into the museum for free). It is an exhibit that transcends literal and figurative boundaries. Do not miss out on seeing “Megacities Asia” – it is truly a spectacular experience.

Immediately upon entering the exhibit, it is difficult to miss Super-Natural (2016) by Korean artist Han Seok Hyun (1975 – ). Super-Natural is a towering monument featuring a huge variety of green-colored objects. It is meant to reflect the concept of “man made ‘nature,’” or the idea that, due to industrialization, the natural world and urbanization are now inextricably connected into a unique hybrid that only contemporary art could fully articulate. Super-Natural also expertly addresses themes of conservation: every component of the sculpture was donated by participants in Seoul, South Korea, and Boston, Massachusetts, and after the exhibit concludes, the MFA will reuse or recycle the donations. I particularly enjoyed this work because of the many themes it addresses at once, and because participants play a role in the creation of the sculpture, a concept that distinguishes contemporary art from many movements that preceded it.

Han Seok Hyun, Super-Natural, mixed media, 2016. Museum of Fine Arts. Courtesy of the artist. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

Immediately adjacent to Super-Natural is Build Me A Nest So I Can Rest (2015) by Hema Upadhyay (1972-2015), an Indian artist who was tragically murdered last year. The work features a series of terra-cotta birds arranged horizontally on pedestals of different heights. Each bird bears a strip of paper in its beak, each strip containing a message about moving to a new place, and the anxieties and aspirations that naturally come with that experience. The work is very personal to the artist, as it represents the commencement of her career in Mumbai. It is so relatable because its theme is universal: anyone who has left her home in search of a new experience can relate to it. I myself felt nostalgic as I glanced at the quotes and reflected on my own hopes and fears as I have traveled to new places throughout my life.

A story above the Gund Gallery is Chaosmos Mandala (2016) by Choi Jeong Hwa (see “featured image”). The work features a room covered in Mylar, a moving colored plastic chandelier that is reflected throughout the room, and a single chair placed just in front of the chandelier, which encourages the viewer to sit and become a part of the work of art. Chaosmos Mandala is meant to represent the natural elements of the world, with the Mylar becoming an undulating ocean and the chandelier becoming the cosmos.[1] The work represents a contemporary analysis of Buddhism, because each component of it appears interconnected and infinite.[2] The effect is a dizzying, overwhelming, and chaotic experience, as the work’s title would suggest, representing not only the principles of Buddhism, but also the experience of living in Seoul, South Korea, which has quickly and overwhelmingly transformed over the last fifty years.[3] Chaosmos Mandala effectively interweaves these complex ideas and also invites viewer participation, making it an enthralling work to experience.

Chaosmos Mandala_Cooperman
Kathryn Cooperman sits in Choi Jeong Hwa’s work Chaosmos Mandala. Kinetic plastic chandelier and Mylar, 2016. Museum of Fine Arts. Courtesy of the artist. Image per Kathryn Cooperman.

Each work in “Megacities Asia” tells a very personal yet universal story while weaving together a variety of themes and ideas. This is what makes the exhibit so complex, and at the same time so contemporary.


[1] Museum label for artist, Chaosmos Mandala, 2016, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 3 April 2016 – 17 July 2016.

[2] Museum label for artist, Chaosmos Mandala, 2016, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 3 April 2016 – 17 July 2016.

[3] Museum label for artist, Chaosmos Mandala, 2016, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 3 April 2016 – 17 July 2016.

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