View of Song Dong’s installation Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons, 2005–06, in “Megacities Asia.”

The broad title of the MFA’s spring headliner belies the exhibition’s narrow focus. Far from a sweeping survey of art from and about Asia’s vast urban agglomerations, the show features work by just under a dozen artists, all in a single genre: found-object installation. Makeshift structures and environments abound, made from bamboo scaffolding, discarded plastic bags, bicycles, cheap plastic wares, and (in the work of three of the show’s four Chinese artists) architectural salvage.

It’s a genre appropriate to the theme: composed of urban artifacts, the works weave fragments into complex wholes, mirroring the city itself. Defamiliarizing the material culture of rapid urbanization, operating at the scale of architecture, they evoke the dynamic assemblage of urban development. The effect is amplified in the museum’s labyrinthine permanent-collection galleries, where a handful of works are scattered. Navigating the building’s twists and turns, passing through the graceful Korean collection only to abruptly stumble into Choi Jeong Hwa’s dizzying, mirrored Chaosmos Mandala (2016)—this experience feels urban. Crucially, the juxtaposition and disorientation reframes the larger collection: a way of seeing native to the street is smuggled into the white cube, and the museum performs amiably as a city in miniature.

One wonders, however, what was lost by passing over video, performance, and other approaches to this geography. The showcased genre emphasizes only certain aspects of hyperurbanism. Trading in texture and feel, these works are not particularly effective at revealing specific histories, politics, and policies driving the explosion of Asian cities—or the communities negotiating them. The show depends on the displayed works to represent its titular megacities, and the image produced seems incomplete, if not sanitized. While each artist responds to urgent social issues, without more explicit works to create juxtapositions and bring out these underlying concerns, the installations’ whimsical, experiential aspects mutually reinforce one another. An atmosphere of amusement prevails, threatening to drown out dissonant political notes.

There is also an irony to the exhibition’s design. While the pieces individually communicate a spirit of messy assemblage, those in the main gallery are installed with austere seriality, assigned large tracts of floor and segregated by ample white space in a layout with only a few obvious routes. The audience is also often guided around the edges of works rather than into them. Yin Xiuzhen’s Temperature (2009–10), a rubble field that spectators have had to traverse in other iterations, is presented on a platform. Song Dong’s Wisdom of the Poor: Living with Pigeons (2005–06)—a memorial approximation of the informal architecture of old Beijing neighborhoods, built from their remains—has inhabitable nooks that are open only during limited hours. In such instances, environments are reduced to sculptures, immersion to panorama. 

The most intriguing works are by artists less familiar to American audiences. The Korean group flyingCity spent six years embedded in a district of electronics chop-shops threatened by the development of Seoul’s celebrated Cheonggyecheon waterway, collaborating with an informal network of machinists to research and resist displacement. The resulting “Drifting Producer” sculptures (2003–09)—whirring, clicking, temperamental things that could pass for Tinguelys or outsider art—are just one set of artifacts from this project, which also includes maps, protests, and an industrial fair. The sculptures suffer in the gallery, isolated from this wider body of work and action, but wall texts breathe just enough contextual life into them to capture the imagination. Chinese artist Hu Xiangcheng’s Doors Away from Home—Doors Back Home (2016), a houselike installation constructed with materials from dismantled Ming- and Qing-dynasty homes, invites exploration, offering small chambers to move through, subtly threaded with fragile domestic objects—children’s stickers, worn comics—amid the more substantial architectural elements.

Any survey of Asian art today de facto involves megacities—that’s where the art centers are, after all. “Megacities Asia” highlights work that cannibalizes and mimes this ineluctable context, and the choice both lends the show consistency and limits it. It is, however, an important experiment for the MFA, a test of how encyclopedic museums might mobilize contemporary art within their collections and address pressing global conditions.