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Showing the World His True Self: Another Interpretation of Ding Yi’s Paintings

Author: Ji Shaofeng 2017-08-30

The name ‘Ding Yi’ is inextricable from his crosses. The moment one thinks of the one, the other comes to mind. Ding Yi’s crosses have now become his personal marker. Anyone familiar with Ding Yi will know he is not a great speaker. He neither chatters away, nor falters over his words. When you talk with him, you get an impression of warmth and elegance; nevertheless, Ding Yi manages to keep a certain distance despite his friendly demeanour. Ding Yi has exhibited his cross works at one international exhibition after another. He is constantly striving onwards with a passion that cannot be extinguished. His diligence and fire have imbued his cross paintings with infinite charm and mythic status. Almost imperceptibly, Ding’s crosses have become an uncontested part of the story of contemporary art.

Ding Yi’s crosses have enabled him to call forth an impulse that has lain tightly buried within him for a long time. Through his paintings, Ding gives us his autobiography, told from the viewpoint of a dispassionate bystander. Each crosses painting is a conscious expression of Ding’s spiritual journey and his experiments with visual effects. Ding has taken a thorny and lonely road –a long, uncertain journey in the service of his art, filled with both hope and despair. During the course of that journey, Ding’s crosses have not only allowed him to faithfully express his reflections on the life of an artist in contemporary society, but also to gradually reveal his true self, aided by his rational yet passionate visual storytelling.

On first inspection, Ding Yi’s visual narrative structure appears simple. A closer reading, however, yields the remarkable truth: that over the past thirty years, Ding Yi has persevered with his crosses and used them to weave a labyrinthine tale, exploring the relationship between man and nature, and the tangled web of relations in society. Ding’s crosses are also his form of resistance against the impatience and blind passion of today’s world, and against monotonous order and uniformity in an age of machines that render people unable to chart their own course, numb, and subservient. Ding Yi’s crosses appear simple – but they are actually complex; and his light imagery masks a serious intent. For Ding Yi, his crosses are a simple image that allows him to continually shape his self, and to explain how his thinking, lifestyle and artistic expression have all changed as a result of ‘new ideas, the advent of the image age, the rise of mass culture, and the onslaught of globalisation.’ Viewers of Ding Yi’s paintings are drawn in and influenced by them as they are forced into intense scrutiny, rethinking the destiny of the individual in a time of social transformation, the realities of China’s social development, and China’s constant efforts to integrate into the global order.

This process of reflection is the inevitable effect of viewing Ding’s crosses. There are in fact two kinds of art: ‘one makes people happy, the other is a highbrow art that exists for its own sake. The former is like the seasoning at a banquet, a thrilling dance performance, or the red wine that goes with a meal. Highbrow art requires a different form of representation: it not only gratifies the senses, but gives us food for thought. We are inspired by such art to consider the assumptions and questions that are normally eroded by everyday life. Highbrow art draws us away from the trivia of reality and away from the brink of boredom and blunted senses.’ Clearly, Ding Yi’s crosses trigger reflective thought (itself a form of representation). Between his apparently highly figurative crosses, Ding manages to transmit a rarely-seen line of abstract thought, and he finds an orderly balance between subjective control and laissez-faire. Ding Yi’s visual language is defined by basic components, structure, and brush strokes like his crosses or ‘米’ marks, which resembles the Chinese character for ‘rice’. The signs on his canvas are like a thick forest, with each tree very finely crafted and each set a strict distance from its neighbours. Ding Yi has based his work on these strict rules and on keeping himself to them – adhering to his own code – using them as a structure for his art, before beginning to experiment and innovate on them. Ding Yi rotated his symbols, or tested out new colours, and increased or decreased the urban element in his paintings as a scrutiny and reflection on urbanisation. All of these variations are a sort of dialogue of ideas with society, and an exploration of Ding Yi’s own feelings. Viewers of Ding Yi’s art will also discover that through these subtle changes in his paintings, Ding Yi reveals a true version of himself; a version eager to reflect and to present insightful ideas. Ding Yi’s paintings also show us that the artist is capable both of enduring the loneliness of his position and working against the mainstream, and of going with the flow of the times. Whether he is passionate or capricious, whether he is a carefree spirit or an idealistic, hopeful man, Ding Yi exhibits strict order and regulation in his crosses, but in everything else he demonstrates a great liberality.

The crosses are Ding Yi’s first artistic language of choice. They are the most basic building blocks of his expression, and a wholly new language. One can think of Ding’s crosses as both a simple pattern of brushstrokes, and as a basic structure. The crosses fully command the viewer’s potential ability to observe, and bind together the artist, the viewer, and the world around them. By so doing, a meaningful order is created in line with Ding Yi’s plan. By adjusting the relationship between the self, the Other, and the world, Ding Yi gives his viewers not only an exciting portrait of his crosses, but also a tour into the intricately organised maze of ideas on his canvas.

One can also subject Ding Yi’s cross paintings to rational analysis, and be rewarded. An examination of the relationship between the individual crosses, their shifting positions, spacing, order, and the way they mirror one another, quickly indicate that sometimes, Ding Yi resembles a farmer toiling away in a field of crosses. He toils and enjoys his work, and repeats it again and again; as the months turn into years, Ding’s stoic and defiant perseverance has become clear to the viewer of his work. Through his arduous journey, Ding has retained his faith, which carries an inexplicable sense of promise and quiet hope. Ding has discovered a visual language that is all his own, and which is difficult to copy. In his crosses, Ding has found a sense of cultural identity and thereby escaped monotonous narrative structures and ‘subject determinism’. He has found a way to leave behind ideology and political dogma, and remain quietly true to himself despite the clamour of the market around him. Ding has avoided ‘meaning’ and instead forged a meaningful, rational spirit. With each passing day, he updates his ideas and frees his mind. When we look at his crosses, we see through a window onto Ding’s emotion-based rationality, and the persistence, adherence to his principles, perseverance and refusal to compromise that underpin his rational order. It is not an exaggeration to say that had Ding Yi slackened the pace at any point, even for a moment, over the past thirty years, he would not be the man he is today. There would certainly be no Ding Yi legend either. It is precisely through the fine evolution of his crosses that Ding has surpassed himself time and again. It is clear that Ding Yi’s modest and reserved exterior reflects a similar soul. He is calm and unhurried. In the face of breakneck urbanisation and the anxiety of everyday survival, Ding Yi has moved from his earlier restraint to the relaxed poise he presents today. Furthermore, he is becoming more and more able to paint completely freely. He no longer has any reservations about letting his spirit wander or persevering with his mission. In his repetitive, but never boring and always fascinating work, Ding Yi finds a sense of fulfilment, and makes his true self ever clearer to his viewers.

There is a parallel between Ding Yi’s crosses and life itself. Although monotonous and full of repetition, Ding’s art fascinates us precisely because of those two attributes. Ding’s art has progressed from the simple to the complex, and then back again; from sparse to numerous, and back again; it includes an orderly reorganisation and laying out of its crosses. At the same time, Ding Yi’s startlingly calm manner and tempered temperament towards his art have continued unbroken for thirty years. One might say that every time he returns to the image structure on his canvas, Ding Yi discovers a realm for himself. Within this carefully crafted realm of crosses, and his never-changing form of expression, Ding Yi portrays the psychological changes caused by radical social, political, economic and cultural transformation of the country. He also provides a snapshot of China’s continuing evolution from a traditional agricultural civilization to a modern industrial power. He explores the atmosphere of newly liberated thought, new ideas, and tolerance after the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, as well as the helplessness and homesickness of those who have left their towns across China and experienced the lightning pace of change in the cities. He delves into the excitement and sense of drama created by all the overpasses and motorways or the neon lights. Through his paintings, Ding Yi depicts the frailty and lowliness of the individual against the vortex of social development and the march of history. Everything that Ding Yi has expressed in his paintings is completely new in the narrative history of contemporary art. Behind his crosses lie Ding Yi’s reflection on and distance from the social changes occurring; he employs a continually shifting rhythm to remain out of step with the humdrum beat of daily life. Ding has created a mental field with his crosses, infusing erudition and broadness of vision into an otherwise strictly limited structure. While Ding’s grids of crosses embody rationality and order, they also reveal flashes of the artist’s impulse and passion, his loneliness and perseverance. Ding’s crosses are now an ordinary and familiar sight, but he still succeeds in creating ‘an entirely new structure for understanding’, composed of the crosses’ weak physical, but strong mental, presence. To quote the artist himself: ‘I hope that people can focus more on the colours, lines and overall structure of my paintings, rather than search for some hidden meaning. It is only by forgetting about the “meaning” that the viewer can more freely accept the new feelings that my paintings create’.

Ding’s constant quest for change, and the constant transformation of his crosses, mean more than just a meeting of past and present, local and global, East and West, or traditional and contemporary thought. His paintings appear to have no meaning, but actually they represent an escape from and dissolution of meaning; his crosses seem to be arranged from a standpoint of emotion or sensibility, but in fact, they contain a rational order and passion. Moreover, the cross paintings retain an aloofness and a sense of calm. At the same time, they are a response to new challenges in an era where ideas are continually being updated. In other words, Ding’s crosses are relevant to the future: they portray the unpredictability and boundless potential of art in the future.

The crosses are being continually upgraded and improved on; meanwhile, their viewers hope for an ever better version of Ding Yi. Perhaps Ding Yi himself put it best when he said, ‘People tell you that you have to be very clear about “what this painting means”. But I want to go against the grain in this sense. My crosses are a kind of “nothing”. They are simply the smallest part of a completed work; that completed work is what I am trying to express.’

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