A Radical Concept: The Project Behind Radical Return

Photo Credit: Tony Luong

By Zoe Allen
Boston University News Service

Radical Return, an exhibition that features the work of 36 Chinese and Chinese American artists, is wrapping up its stay at both Boston University’s Stone Gallery and the IS A GALLERY in Shanghai. 

The show is the first exhibition presented by Radical Characters, a “study group and curatorial project that explores the relationship between design and culture in the Chinese and Chinese American community,” according to the exhibit home page.

It was jointly curated and organized by Mary Y. Yang, an art professor at Boston University, and Zhongkai Lai, the director of IS A GALLERY.

Yang said that every project that Radical Characters has initiated is inspired by the Chinese character “汉字,” or “hanzi.” The name of the group is also a double entendre.

“The word ‘radical’ means being radical as an adjective, but also, in Chinese characters, a ‘radical’ is a part of a character that could be repeated,” said Yang. “And characters meaning a Chinese character, but also a character as a person.”

For Radical Return, every artist was given the character “hui,” which means to return, and is also aesthetically represented as a square within a square. Photo Credit: Zoe Allen

Radical Characters posted an international call for submissions for the showcase from anyone who self-identifies as a Chinese or Chinese American graphic designer or artist. They prompted the artists to use the character “回,” or “hui,” as a grid and respond, both visually and conceptually, to what it means for them to return to their own artistic practice. 

The character takes on multiple meanings aesthetically as well as vernacularly. Yang said that “回” means to return, and also to reply, to circle around and to turn around. 

“The first character that we started to use is this character called ‘回,’ which means to return. It’s a square within a square,” Yang said. “So we thought there was a lot that you could draw from this one character, whether it was visually because it’s two squares embedded in one another and also running in parallel with one another. But also, thinking about the history of how this character has evolved and conceptually to think about different ways of looking at return.” 

Radical Return is on display through December 12 at Stone Art Gallery in Boston. Photo Credit: Tony Luong

Yang co-founded Radical Characters late last spring with Li. It was conceived because the two of them, Yang being Chinese American and Li being Chinese, were interested in finding a way to feature Chinese and Chinese American designers and building a platform to highlight and bring these artists together. 

“We started it really just out of our curiosity and thinking about cultural exchange and our own practices,” said Yang. 

Yang also said that Radical Characters is inspired by what lies beyond the physical nature of Chinese characters. 

“A Chinese character has so much embedded meaning in it and looking at the history of how one character has developed over time. Why is it designed the way it’s designed? Is it meant to look like something or is it meant to really dig deep at a certain concept?” she said.

Radical Characters focuses not only on cultural exchange but on the exchange between physical spaces. This led to the simultaneous exhibitions in Shanghai and Boston. Their goal was to make Radical Return site-specific while also having the two sites communicate with each other. 

Radical Return is on display through December 20 at Is A Gallery in Shanghai. Photo Credit: Junli Chen

At the Stone Gallery, the work is on the walls and intentionally tries to make the experience educational, featuring a middle space with a curated set of books about Chinese typography and graphic design.

At IS A GALLERY, all of the works are on the floor, in what Yang described as a maze-like formation, to encourage visitors to also walk around the work and to create their own path through the gallery. 

“We thought it was appropriate to have this partnership between art galleries in Boston, which is a really great cultural and academic setting to be in and also in Shanghai, China, which is also a huge city where the arts play a big part in the culture of the city,” said Yang. “But also thinking about how the two physical spaces can be hubs and thinking about how physically they should work with one another and be in conversation with one another.” 

Radical Characters plans to continue with iterations of the project based on Chinese characters, including exhibitions, publications, lectures and workshops. Radical Return is on view at Stone Gallery through Dec. 12 and at IS A GALLERY through Dec. 20. 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.