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Crosstalk: A Brief History of Ding Yi

Author: Martin Herbert 2017-04-02

        In 1986, a year when he was majoring in Chinese ink painting at Shanghai University and occasionally engaging in performance art, Ding Yi made a painting entitled Taboo — in retrospect, it looks like a premonition. The painting, executed in fluently unbuttoned brushwork, features a central rectangle divided by an X, the subsections themselves teeming with smaller X’s. The twenty-four-year-old Ding’s style here appears indebted to German Neo-Expressionism, its mix of stern greys and warm metallic tones particularly recalling the work of Albert Oehlen and Martin Kippenberger, and Ding has said in interviews that one primary influence on the vaunted ’85 New Wave Movement in Chinese art was, indeed, Expressionism and its descendants. The other stimulus, he reckons, was Surrealism, which ‘offers a broad path in that it can be extremely abstract and filled with imagination.’1 In the ensuing years, as Ding developed a body of painting that displays the diverse associative properties of that one symbol — the cross — Expressionism would fall away; using that symbol over and over might even be considered the opposite of expressiveness. Abstraction filled with imagination, however, would become his mainstay.

        We might trace the X back further in Ding’s life, to the fact that as a young man he worked in a printing factory. In printing the X is used to measure up a surface, dividing an area into many squares through a distribution of crosses upon it. That is, we might make this formative autobiographical connection; or we might consider that the X, in the making of a print, stands in relation to whatever is printed as an open signifier, and indeed for Ding the appeal of the X is that outwardly it doesn’t mean anything. (He also decided to stick with it, so he’s said, out of a need to pursue simplicity, after simultaneously studying the Western art canon and traditional Chinese painting techniques, and wanting — if possible — to eliminate direct aesthetic influence from either side.) In his work, the cross can come to suggest many things at once, while being tied to none of them. X, like the factor it names, is multiform, slippery, near paradoxical: it doesn’t mean anything, yet somehow comes to encompass everything.       
        The year after painting Taboo, and while divesting himself of those vestiges of expressivity, Ding began the Appearance of Crosses series that would become his life’s work. Tentatively at first: Appearance of Crosses (1987), on paper, is a grid of rainbow-coloured cells — pointedly non-expressive in choice of colours — each containing a vertical slit. The scale is ambiguous, the painting abstract if somewhat urbanite, the brushwork tightened significantly. Two years later, Ding had found himself. Appearance of Crosses 89-7 (1989) is an intricate interlacing of upright and diagonal grids: white dashes percolate around a red lattice like perfectly spaced traffic, while each section of the matrix is filled with a nested pattern of darker diagonals, their centres glowing orange. The closest Western analogue here is, surely, Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942-3), Piet Mondrian’s nonfigurative translation of the excitement of New York, and the Dutch modernist was indeed an influence on Ding (who didn’t, in fact, completely manage to avoid being imprinted by existing art); equally so, as Manhattan was for Mondrian, was the vivacity and confusion of Shanghai itself. And yet this painting is not exactly of Shanghai (which nevertheless becomes a more overt point of reference later in Ding’s work). To a viewer, it might just feel temporarily like a refracting of the city and then revert to what it is, a highly controlled abstraction that would be unearthly if it weren’t — thanks to all manner of small variances in the brushwork, and despite Ding’s use of certain mechanical tools to downplay his selfhood — still visibly handmade.  
       Over the next few years, as if showing off a jewel’s facets, Ding would demonstrate the multiform associative potential of this structurally equivocal approach, putting enough clashing associations into his work that, contrarily, it had to read as abstraction because it couldn’t be all the things it recalled. While switching his colour emphasis to green in 1990’s Appearance of Crosses 90-5, he seems for a moment to suspend us over an evenly tree-studded park — until the painting goes back to being a grid structured on cross-based glyphs, albeit ones that almost look like refugees from an arcade game. Alternatively, the whole thing might resemble some kind of rug. The textile codification would be more emphatic in the following year’s Appearance of Crosses 1991-3, with its scintillating, Op-like interlace of hot colours woven amid a fine white grid. Containing all manner of complexly decentred patterning — some of which a viewer might ‘see’, some of which might merely be imagined — it looks like hyper-advanced tartan. And indeed, by 1997 Ding would be painting on tartan itself, and by 2008 he’d be collaborating with luxury scarf-makers Hermès.
        But it’s worth rewinding a bit here and then continuing chronologically to show just how fast Ding was travelling, how much he could pull into his seemingly tightly circumscribed orbit. The 1991 painting just mentioned has, I would say, no implicit scale: it just is, unless the scale is that of a piece of pre-existing material and this is a 1:1 copy of it. Another work of the same title, from the same year, looks like candy-coloured TV static and a rag rug at once, the brush marks — as ever, a mix of X’s and +’s — appearing woven. The vibe of balanced attention seems to be a product of Ding’s working method, which he’s compared to playing the game of Go — ‘from spot to line and line develops into pattern… take the centre, take the corner!’2 And while the work has a tonality, a bright, purplish-green, artificial mood, it also appears that you could locate any colour within its mesh, linking the work back to the earliest parts of Ding’s series, where he appeared intent on personality removal via a non-discriminating spectrum of colours as well as non-expressive application.

        It’s hard not to talk about what one sees — particularly as someone who doesn’t live in urban China and has only visited briefly — in these paintings, and hard to persuade someone else of your opinions’ importance. The perpetual interplay of various interpretations, though, might count for something. Appearance of Crosses 1992-15 (1992) suggests countless angelfish swimming in tight formation within a darkened aquarium, also stained glass, also a kaleidoscope — but that’s just me, and the colours, putting together completely unrelated worldly things. It’s a coloured grid, an abstraction. The things I see aren’t valuable — what might be, philosophically, is the painting’s ability to be many things at once, to suggest that differences between things count for less than similarities. (Ding mostly doesn’t push an explicit worldview forward in his work, but one might hazard that the concept of interconnectedness that runs through various Chinese metaphysical traditions is in there somewhere.) And what might really be important, on various levels, is that it all starts from one thing. Ed Ruscha titled a 1977 painting No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk. Ding Yi might say the same, but it’s not human talk — it’s that cruciform he began with, that little thing that’s become so big.

        If Mondrian did indeed have bearing on these works, another point of comparison — though not one Ding has brought up — might be the early work of Agnes Martin, not least for her ability to run virtuoso variations on the narrow theme of the grid. (See, from Ding, 1992’s Appearance of Crosses 1992-20, which switches into monochrome, black and white and greys with no drop in energy, and conveys a sci-fi feel.) The American painter’s work might also be recalled by Ding’s decision, around here, to pull back the edges of his grids so that they sit on the canvas, this being the reverse in fact of what Martin did herself: in the 1960s she went from ‘on’ to ‘all-over’. Appearance of Crosses 1995-18 (1994) exemplifies this new if temporary mode in Ding’s art, being a hot, orangey-red, wavering grid rendered in charcoal and chalk, an abstract sunset — or, again, condensation of metropolitan energy — whose edges peter out before the edge of the linen it’s painted on, conveying the illusion of a piece of woven fabric on a canvas surface. Instability, here, was being enacted on the level of the artwork itself. The word ‘appearance’ in the English translation of Ding’s standard title, we might note at this point, has itself a double meaning: manifestation, and also façade.  
        By 1997 the issues of ontology playing out in Ding’s art had been twisted anew. (Indeed, one thing that should be clear is that he is forever twisting his art anew: outside of his fixed icons, change is his main consistency — and this, we’ll see, also has worldly resonances.) Where he’d previously simulated tartan — or verged on doing so — now he was painting on tartan, a readymade colour grid that teases historical associations without resolving them, and raising the question of where his work began and the tartan-maker’s ended. Ding fills the Burberry tan squares of the plaid in Appearance of Crosses 97-4 in toothpaste shades, aquamarine and pink, and overlays them with a grid of tadpole-like blobs — an incommensurable field of associations once again, to the point that they begin cancelling each other out.

        Ding’s art was becoming, by this point, a self-reflexive system. Not only was he demonstrating how various one could be with a tightly attenuated iconographic range, he was also apparently reversing on — reacting to — himself. Up until now his paintings had taken one form and multiplied it; they’d been approximately symmetrical and distributed. By 2001’s Appearance of Crosses 2001-1 (still on tartan and predominantly green-hued if far from natural-looking) this was a rule ripe to be broken. The painting divides into two distinct halves, patterning playing out differently on each — the right’s distinct squares a little like regimented grave markers; the left, whose knotted crosses have a rotational feel, hosting another inset square with a shimmering grid of its own. He’d been painting crosses for fifteen years now. Each painting said that he needed nothing else.

        Those who believe that our world is, in fact, a simulation set in play by higher beings — not so far, of course, from a belief in God — sometimes point to the fact that all matter is at base geometric. Everything is made up of regularly shaped building bocks, and patterns recur — fractals, for instance — on different scales. One can make a more directly theistic response to this and say that nature is an endless recombination of basic elements — we’re composed of them and one day we’ll go back into the ground, return to the great circulatory system, and make more things, just as we’re made from former things — atoms dating back to stardust. Something of this reverberates through Ding’s paintings, with their insistence on simple building blocks to create a boggling multiplicity of results. Look at Appearance of Crosses 2002-2 (2002), another green-hued painting. (At some point, Ding’s palette gravitated towards red and green, the colours of the stock market. Naturally he said this was a coincidence.) Ask, first, where we are. Yes, we’re in a painting. But we could be looking down on a forest, we could have our noses pressed up against blades of grass, we could be looking at something digital, or something stitched, or something — of course — hand-painted. We could be looking at data. Truth be told, we’re really looking at crosses and mostly projecting the rest.


        That said, perhaps one should consider ‘absence of definite content’ as another nostrum Ding might be subverting. Abstraction, Mondrian would be the first to remind us, partakes of the world — he began with trees, after all — and one might consider Ding’s own rapid, self-renovating development of his painting as a kind of analogue for his home continent’s own transformation over the same period: a kind of meta-commentary, painting — once again — as model, this time on the abstraction-of-sorts that was China’s modernisation. One writer, meanwhile, describes the experience of a Ding painting — made in the world’s most populous city — as of being ‘shouted at by a crowd of people’3.

        There were more definite signs of rootedness, too. By 1998, he had begun to introduce neon colours into his work. This, he’s said, was a direct response to the urban texture of Shanghai, to the city’s rapid development in the ’90s as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, and its gaudy festooning with artificial lights, a literal beacon of China’s growth. To an extent, though, Ding had been thrust in this direction from outside. In ’98 a Canadian art historian had visited his studio and asked how his paintings could not be responsive to place at a time when the city he worked in was undergoing such extreme transformation, and Ding took this on board: ‘I felt before that my painting didn’t relate so much with the Chinese society I lived in.’4 Built into his use of a neon palette, he’s clarified, is a glimmering critique: neon light is not natural light, and the urbanisation of China’s cities — of which Shanghai is exemplary — is, he’s said, ‘not something rooted firmly in the ground, nor something with a solid core; it is a superficial thing.’5 That we might look at one of Ding’s paintings and ask what is really, solidly there, then, is no longer just a formal issue, but one that begins to loop the work back — once again — to the painter’s real-world experience: is this all a mirage?

        The paintings he made over the next few years thus perpetuate ambiguous multiplicity with latent reason. Most of all they deliver the effect of almost claustrophobic proximity and vaulting distance at once. We feel right up against bright lights (Ding’s colours are those of ‘Shanghai at night’, he’s also said6) and pressed against some kind of opulent, warmly coloured fabric (made in China?) and also suspended hundreds of feet above a landscape. The quirks of reception depend what kinds of imagery you’re familiar with, including technological ones. Appearance of Crosses 2003-9 (2003), another warm-toned number on tartan, features an asymmetric distribution of orange, yellow, red and pink regions made up of clustered coloured asterisks: it could be thermal imagery, on any scale. Appearance of Crosses 2008-2 (2008), with its popping, scintillating red and yellow rows angled on the diagonal, brings us back to jazzy cityscapes (also microscopic cellular images, also pure pattern making). If Ding’s city is now perpetually boogie-woogie-ing, that may not be all to the good; and that’s before we even get onto the new modes of vision. He’s also said that Shanghai makes him feel ‘spiritually lost’7 and that working with his cross-patterning, by contrast, restores to him a sense of calm. There’s an intimation in this, inevitably, that his art might do the same for a metropolitan viewer, harassed in similar if not equal ways.
        Yet too much information — too much directive-ness on the artist’s part — can kill a work of art. Saying that his art relates to Shanghai is already quite a lot for Ding, and I think he can say it because his art turns on a duplicity of appearances. It might be the writer’s job to say that such art feels continually relevant now because reality — not just in Shanghai — turns on the duplicity of appearances, and that the unpredictability of Ding’s images is our own experience of being in the contemporary, careening world, where the mask of civilisation seems to slip a little further each day. To whom is it due that in his works from about 2010 onwards — such as Appearance of Crosses 2010-2 (2010), with its big, glowing yellow central X — I start seeing the crosses as gun sights? In the same year, Ding’s palette shifts: it cools rapidly, the base turning darker and the lines going diagrammatic: in Appearance of Crosses 2010-16 (2010) we’re launched into fathoms-deep space criss-crossed by flickering lines in greens and indigos, like some kind of provisional machine architecture, a digital sketch of something, or a leap through hyperspace. All interpretations are entirely subjective, of course: the point is that Ding’s art lets them — almost makes them — exist.
        Yet we seem to be shifting here from a human vision to some kind of technocratic vision: Appearance of Crosses 2011-7, a myriad of plotted points in grey, white and black, scans as data (of what?) recorded by some inhuman agency, for an unknown purpose, and this covertness in itself has emotional weight; only Ding’s perpetually hand-applied facture keeps it in the human world, a world increasingly populated, as we know, by drones and self-driving cars and AIs in general, in which a progressively greater percentage of ‘seeing’ is done by computers. Many of Ding’s more recent paintings, made on basswood, seem set either at night or in the black infinity of the digital, or both — relays from a bomber hovering over a foreign land, or incomprehensible streams of information. Of late the tones — though still rooted in the reds and greens that have run through his work — have begun to recall camouflage. Needless to say that this makes Ding’s art timely, even four decades into his practice. The abiding marvel, of course — the sting of the work, even — is that he manages to achieve this replenishing relevance without fundamentally changing, only repurposing, the basic tool of his practice, that one iconographic symbol he began with: the printer’s mark.  

Martin Herbert

1 Ding Yi, quoted in ‘From Performance to Abstraction: A Conversation with Ding Yi’, 2015,
2 Ding Yi, quoted in ‘Ding Yi and the Impossibility of Abstraction’, Tony Godfrey, catalogue for Shanghart Singapore, 2011,
3 Tony Godfrey, in catalogue for Shanghart Singapore, 2011,
4 Ding Yi, quoted in ‘Ding Yi and the Impossibility of Abstraction’, Tony Godfrey, catalogue for Shanghart Singapore, 2011,
5 Ding Yi, quoted in ‘Ding Yi: I Don’t Know Whether This is a Golden Age’, Goethe Institute China, 2015,
6 Ibid.
7 Ding Yi, quoted in Mary Beth Stock, ‘Ivory Black: Ding Yi’, Art Asia Pacific, May/June 2015,

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