Most human beings live in a corner of Asia. Draw a circle on a map of the world, stretching from Pakistan in the west to Japan in the east and from Mongolia in the north to Java in the south. You will have encircled only about a tenth of the planet, and yet inside that boundary lives more than half of the global population.
The people who inhabit this circle will determine the course of the 21st century. This is not triumphalism, but math. Asians’ spiraling need for goods is already transforming economies in Africa, Latin America, and the Antipodes. Their steep rates of growth bedevil climate change negotiations. Their popular culture floods digital streams around the world. Their deepening pockets tilt the balance of the international art market. Their languages swell in popularity in the schools and universities of the west. Though Barack Obama has been distracted from his much-vaunted “pivot” by persistent conflict in the Middle East, Asia promises to be the main arena of global diplomatic and military strategy in coming decades. Nowhere is the future of liberal democracy more in the balance than in Asian societies from Iran to Malaysia, where the imperatives of economic growth and social “stability” war with demands for political freedom.
The symbol and site of these epochal transformations is the megacity, or newly swelled metropolises with populations over ten million — or so argues “Megacities Asia,” an exhibition of 11 artists from China, South Korea and India at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A paltry 3% of human beings lived in cities in 1800; now, over half the world’s population lives in urban areas, with Asian metropolises leading the way. Nine of the ten most populated metropolitan areas in the world are now in Asia (the one exception is New York). Paris, the largest metropolitan area in western Europe, which gave us the flâneur, Walter Benjamin’s arcades, and the first inklings of modern urbanism in the late 19th century, languishes in 29th place, just below the Chinese port of Tianjin.…
Any city is first a material encrustation, defined by the density of its built environment, the profusion of its goods and wares, the immensity of its waste. Ai Weiwei’s celebrity offerings are outshone by the work of less renowned artists excavating the matter and muck of the Asian megacity. Venu (2012), by the Delhi-based artist Asim Waqif, is a thicket of bamboo, tar, and rope, materials indigenous to Indian architectural traditions. Trained as an architect, Waqif grew disillusioned by Delhi’s rush to steel and concrete; in a tropical climate, he concluded, it’s more sensible to build with mud and bamboo. While materials and techniques are changing inexorably to match “international standards,” the bamboo scaffold—cheap and easy to set up—remains a fixture of Indian urban construction. Waqif’s installation reprises that scaffold and invites viewers to pass through its enclosed center, where hidden sensors trigger an array of city noises. Dangling cloth ropes that brush against the viewer heighten a feeling of transportation to the heart of an urban jungle, beneath the eaves of strange trees.
In Asia’s megacities the currents of economic, political, cultural, and ecological change converge. It is, of course, dangerous to generalize across the sweep of metropolises; the gargantuan will that dredged Shenzhen into existence from a cluster of villages in the Pearl River Delta is diametrically opposed to the laissez-faire urban chaos of Mumbai, where slums wash up against skyscrapers. But anyone who has spent time in Asian cities as disparate as Shanghai and Delhi will recognize the inescapable churning and utter helplessness of change. I remember, on two visits to Beijing, the total inadequacy of maps in navigating the city; whole districts had sprouted where they did not exist on the page, conjuring the Borgesian impression of a city being constantly rewritten. Or in India’s coastal cities of Mumbai and Kolkata, for instance, the unequal structures of the global economy expose their seams in the architecture of gleaming malls, car showrooms, and high-rises shadowing shantytowns and garbage dumps. One feels the respiratory power of these cities, the way they inhale and exhale people from the hinterland, consuming and pumping out shipping containers on the great maritime networks of the world. These vast, impersonal forces are far more opaque in the west, where debates on gentrification in London or New York — witness this spring’s “occupation” of the Brooklyn Museum, a half-serious protest of board members’ real estate developments — seem almost quaint by comparison to the diurnal convulsion of Asian cities.…
What seems to be an utterly modern condition can have far older roots. Thirty minutes away from the MFA, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, an exhibition explored the period when Asia was first hitched to the expanding economies of Europe: the early 17th century. “Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age,” co-organized with the Rijksmuseum, is also a story of sweeping urban change, one that recounts the coming of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to what is now Indonesia, China, Japan, and India. As the VOC began to dominate, by force, the early modern Asian economy, Asian producers were compelled to turn away from local markets and to make goods — porcelain, fine textiles, lacquered commodes—tailored for European consumption.
Amsterdam was transformed by the Dutch trade in Asia, growing from a muddy town of 30,000 people to a metropolis of over 200,000 within a century. The city’s iconic semicircular canals were planned and built in these trade- backed boom times. “Oriental” tastes burrowed firmly into Dutch appetites and sensibilities; Asia impressed itself upon the city not simply in macroeconomic terms, but in the array of luxury goods that swept into the foyers, wardrobes, and pantries of the Dutch home.
The VOC was in effect the world’s first multinational corporation. At the height of its pomp it employed 40,000 people, had a fleet of over 100 ships, and maintained 600 stations around Asia. Critically, the VOC was not the project of a royal sovereign, but a publicly traded company, backed by shareholders. Its success — yielding an astronomical annual return of 18% to its investors — encouraged the development of a Dutch middle class for whom the products of Asia were in high demand.
Much of “Asia in Amsterdam” explored how Asian motifs filtered into Dutch art, via shrewd pairings of European paintings with the Asian objects they represent, including delicate porcelain bowls, ornate fabrics, and statues of Chinese deities that were popular in the bureaus of Dutch burghers. The still life, elevated from a minor discipline to a high art in 17th-century Holland, often featured evidence of Asian goods. Numerous examples of paintings by Michiel van Musscher, Frans Snyders, and Willem Kalf showed Asia’s intrusion into the domesticity of the Protestant Netherlands. A splendid example is Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Peacock Pie (1627), in which a stuffed peacock with a flower in its beak and its legs in a pastry lords over a dining table spread with a nautilus shell from the Indian Ocean, blue and white china, and pebbles of nutmeg, pepper, and other exotic spices.…
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