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Photograph: Nathan Keay, � Museum of Contemporary Art, ChicagoInstallation view of “Urban China: Informal Cities.”

"Urban China: Informal Cities," Museum of Contemporary Art, through Apr 3.


In China, people transform basketballs into water buckets and design their own sanitary pads. In Chicago, we use chairs to reserve snow-free parking spaces. “Urban China” makes our homegrown examples of what the show terms “successful informalism” look pretty damn pathetic.

Curated by Benjamin Godsill of New York’s New Museum, this exhibition is inspired by Urban China, a magazine, database and think tank founded in 2005. At the MCA, quotes and graphics from the magazine cover the walls of two rooms, augmented by a few artifacts, issues of Urban China and computers that allow visitors to flip through photos of 100 Chinese cities.

Give yourself time to look at the photos and peruse the magazines. The show feels confusing without them, due to the disjointed data on the walls: One section explains that urbanization in China has increased from 7.3 percent in 1949 to 45.68 percent in 2008—the fastest such process in history. Another describes the paper objects burned for dead relatives to ensure they’ll have a pleasant afterlife: The paper Rolexes and cell phones reveal city dwellers’ priorities.

One needs the photos and articles in Urban China, which is partially translated into English, to get a sense of how such intriguing facts relate to people’s everyday lives. Chicagoans probably aren’t ready to build their own homes out of salvaged materials, but “Urban China” proves human beings have a comforting ability to adapt.

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