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In Conversation: Artist Ding Yi and Curator Alexandra Munroe

Author: Alexandra Munroe 2021-05-07

Alexandra Munroe:
I would like to start with where we are right now. We are just beginning to emerge with vaccination after fifteen months of the Covid-19 global pandemic, when the world became united in a single, immediate, and visceral emergency.  There was great sorrow, tremendous loss, anger, but also a new sense of a shared humanity. What have you learned from the new level of isolation? And going forward, how can and must society evolve in response to this historic “pause” in globalization?

Ding Yi:
I actually discovered that the main part of my life has remained more or less the same. Almost every day, I’ve spent over 10 hours a day working in my studio, often completely alone in the West Bund compound of studios. So strangely, that context gave me this perfect opportunity to devote myself to work.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted many questions that have impacted my work. How has Covid affected the possible future of globalisation, the art world, and contemporary Chinese art? Would that movement be forced to be stopped by the pandemic? I’ve also been thinking about the political, social and economic future of China as well as China’s integration into the entire globe. Would that be devastated by the pandemic as well? We’d also need to rethink the relationships and the communication between artists. Previously, I’d done some interviews where I made projections of the development of art in the future, but this may have all been changed by the pandemic. I think the pandemic has made art also feel more important because art can have a positive impact on people’s lives and thinking.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a trend of art in China becoming more and more a part of the popular culture, the entertainment industry. Would the Covid-19 pandemic generate a shift in focus towards more theoretical or philosophical thinking about art? About, for example, the relationship between art and human destiny?

I agree, it’s also been a very intense period of work for me. I feel anyone involved in a creative or scholarly position has had the privilege of experiencing this pandemic as a kind of sabbatical, a time with oneself.
Some of us feel that for the first time we are ‘living with time’ or ‘living in time’, time has taken on a very different substance during the pandemic. Has the isolation impacted your experience of time?

Ding Yi:
I think that, during the pandemic, time is on everyone’s mind.
If we look at the initial or the early period, I think most people had this feeling of confusion or uncertainty because they weren’t sure what to expect or what is going to happen. So time became a concept almost impossible to define. During the middle period, people were filling their time. They were optimistic that they would regain their freedom. And in this late stage, optimism is the prevailing feeling.

I’d like to think that all these periods have their own historical significance, because we are faced with this unprecedented global incident and it’s required thinking about the future. We’ve told ourselves that we are never going to go back to what it was like before, that we need to start something new: a new model of work or a new model of communicating with each other. We need to rethink the way we create our work and the way we communicate with others.

I’m going to move on to talk about your art and your practice. Much has been written about the consistency and rigor of your painting process, using two essential signs: + and x. In 2007, you said, “There is something about art in it, but there is also something from industry, design and everyday life.” Can you elaborate?

Ding Yi:
If you look at the pattern of crosses and the Appearances of Crosses series that I’ve been working on, it all started in 1988. A few words about the Chinese contemporary art first: if you look at the whole development of Chinese art, a global contemporary art movement started to take form in 1979, and it really peaked around 1985 and 1986 with this new movement of art.

To contextualize, these works were created in the context of China beginning to implement the Open Door Policy in 1978. A lot of artists were trying very hard to express what they felt their inner selves were through their art. But I was worried about this kind of overexpression, in fact I wanted to do the exact opposite of this, to resort to an extreme rationality instead to express myself in my art, which is why I created my first piece of ‘Appearances of Crosses’ in 1988. My thinking was, I wanted to go back to an original state of art, and use this to restart the contemporary art scene in China from a state of origin.

That is why I decided to use the pattern ‘x’ in my first Appearance of Crosses series, and the choice of the ‘x’ was deliberate in that I wanted to avoid any reference to what the reality was, in fact much more than avoidance I wanted to erase the work’s relationship to the actual world. I wanted to be purer, to define my practice as more or less formalistic. Back then, I felt that artists in the Chinese contemporary art scene were all on the verge of playing with the (Communist, Chinese) ideology. I wanted to do the opposite, to find the assets or the true nature of art, which is why in my early work I only used primary colors: red, yellow and blue.

Back then I was influenced by the abstract and contemporary artists in the West, and I wanted to create a sort of breakthrough for my art practice, which is when I found a way to combine art and design. During that period of contemporary art in China, the way artists used their brushes was obviously represented in their works. I thought I should abandon all these, so the crosses represent a very rational control of movement instead of the free movement of hands and brushes. Yet the colors were chosen very spontaneously, based on whatever I could get my hands on, and used without any planning. I did this to break away from the constraints of the conventional idea of creating a painting.

You’ve written that you approach each painting like the Game of Go. In Go, what you have - conceptually but also visually - is a mutable grid. The grid itself is immutable, but the action and the placement of the pieces make that grid mutable and also active. Do you still think about it in that way? What is the meaning for you?
You have also written that it is about how to strategize and win the composition, which I think is a really interesting concept. I don’t know any other artists who have described the approach to an abstract composition as winning.

Ding Yi:
The composition is the common denominator between Go and my working process. As an artist you need to think about how to compose a piece of work before you can do anything else - it’s the most important thing. If you compare my works with the board in the game of Go, you can see the game is essentially a confrontation between black and white players. This confrontation between players can create a powerful visual result.

As in the game of Go, I can start working from any point on the canvas. Sometimes I might start at the centre of the canvas, other times I’d start from the upper left hand corner and work my way diagonally across. I have to use one colour for the first layer and another colour for the second layer, so it can’t be finished in one go, only layer by layer by layer.

I never start with a sketch, but no matter how big the piece is going to be, I have a very clear idea of the composition in my mind. For example, I would decide that I am going to start from the upper left corner and then work my way down to the lower right corner and once I have a clear idea about it, I will start the process. This avoids the getting out of control that is commonly associated with sketching beforehand. So that’s the method I’ve developed and found very effective.

I think it is such an interesting contradiction inherent in the work. Between the eradication of ‘art’, as you say, to eradicate the overly expressive, and then on the other hand, the tradition of abstraction that we have in the west, which is heroic and even ideological. There is this sort of deliberate eradication of that intent. And yet the final creation is so sublime, and it has space, and it even has emotion and it certainly has abstraction.

Ding Yi:
That’s true. In the past, I had different periods where I focused on different things, and I always found new ways of expressing myself and showing a new language in my work.

You have described your methodology, of intense and consistent process of building form, signs, colour, brushwork around a single unit +, as “enlightenment.” In Japanese this is Satori. it is a very profound concept and a very essential concept in Chinese culture. How would you describe the link between Buddhist “enlightenment” as laid out in the Heart Sutra, and your practice and methodology? This term enlightenment is a concept that is associated with spiritual enlightenment. I want to understand what you mean by your choice of that word. Is it in a conventional context that is close to the Buddhist interpretation? Or have you, as a contemporary artist, stretched that definition to a new kind of experience?

Ding Yi:
Although I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t have much expertise, it’s fair to say that Buddhism is a part of life for Chinese people because Buddhist thought and meditation have always been with us. So its impact is strong.

Enlightenment, for me, is more about being totally submerged in what I do, in order to be able to release this spiritual power or condition that is represented in my work. For example, for a relatively big piece of work like a big painting, it often takes over a month to complete. Every day I would need to go to work on that painting and repeat all these relatively simple actions or movements, and each movement has a different phase in the life cycle of the painting.

During these different phases I would have different experiences and feelings in terms of my thinking, language and how I wanted to express myself. All these elements don’t come together immediately: they are the results of long-term process of condensation or accumulation. And in the end you end up with a piece of work that you’re satisfied with. That is the process of enlightenment for me.

Sometimes my mind would go completely blank, there are distractions, I’d think about questions that are not related to the current piece of work that I’m working on, or I’d think about ideas like philosophy, life and politics, etc. But all of these seemingly irrelevant ideas actually have an impact on how the painting would turn out in the end.

【1:04】That brings us to your current work. You have worked in series over your 35-year career, since you first launched the life-long Appearance of Crosses body of work, in 1988. And it looks like your recent series has something to do with scale, it is really enormous.

Of course, this scale is part of your trajectory from your smaller works on paper in the 1980s to stitching together tartans in the 1990s to get larger and larger surfaces. And in 2005, for your exhibition at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, you made a constellation of canvases to fit the structure together. So what is now the appeal of scale for you? And how does the composition function differently when it becomes such an immersive presence?

Ding Yi:
The Appearances of Crosses, starting from 1988 to now, has lasted at least 30 years. I’d categorize them simply into three different phases corresponding to different viewpoints. In the first, I looked at objects horizontally or face to face. You can see this in my early works featuring three primary colours or the works that are created on tartans.

In the second phase there was a change in perspective, prompted by the changes in the urbanisation process brought about in China, particularly Shanghai. This is why I decided to adopt the bird's eye view: looking from updown to the urban landscape. During that decade also of work, most of my works used neon colours and included a great amount of information: references to the explosive development of urbanisation, the commercial cultural economy that is everywhere in china and the ubiquitous lighting installations popping up everywhere across the country.

Since 2010, I’ve been working within a third phase where I’m adopting a viewpoint that looks up towards the sky and the greater world. It’s a way for me to think about the stars, the Internet and the cosmos. In the past two or three years, I’ve adopted new ways of expressing myself. A number of exhibitions explore the idea of light, like Scintillement微光, a 2014 solo exhibition in Paris. There are also two exhibitions about halos or highlights.

Focusing on light often makes me think of scale. In recent works that are currently being shown in major art museums across the country, sometimes scale my way of confronting the enormous space in these institutions. In my solo exhibition in the Long Museum in Shanghai, I discovered all these huge gallery spaces, and I decided to create ten really huge vertically shaped works which responded to the big and hollow gallery spaces. The scale also allows me to include more ideas and think about more powerful global issues.

One of the things that has always really interested me about your work is that to me you do not code as an artist from China. You’re deeply embedded in the history of contemporary Chinese art and the avant garde and you showed in the 1989 show at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing No U-Turn, you have been a central figure in a network of artists including Yu Youhan , Xu Zhen and you have taught for 25 years. Your position in the Chinese art world is completely historic and yet your aesthetic, practise and methodology to me feel not coded with China the way many other artists are focused on China as their literal subject, or focused on globalization as their literal subject. Your work is independent of that in my mind.

In 2007 you published an essay called ‘Deconstructing the Abstract’, where you wrote that the meaning of traditional culture is challenged by contemporary society, that globalization makes traditional culture ‘unreal’. Can you elaborate on that comment, and explain what the relationship between contemporary society and traditional culture in China is for you?

Ding Yi:
To answer your question, we need to look at the development of education in China. Ever since the May 4th Movement in China, the education system has adopted the Western way of education, meaning that science has been the dominant subject in the Chinese education system. Anyone who has been educated in this system has been more or less impacted by it, and they’re always led to believe that globalization for China’s integration is the end goal for the country.

We all grew up in such a system, and for quite some time now many Chinese people have a better understanding of Western culture than their own tradition. Because of the impact of globalization on the traditional culture, it would be a good idea to return to what is going on in the ground and return to reality. This may sound like a paradox. I was impacted by such a system. During 1986 to 1990, I studied in a Chinese painting department, which helped me become rebellious and resistant to the so-called traditions of so-called “Chinese paintings”. Ever since 1990, I decided that I wouldn’t become obsessed with the traditional culture or cultural values associated with this visual tradition. For me, my works are a way to respond to what is happening on the ground in China, in reality and in the present day. I’m more interested in artists' values that are global in nature, which is why in my practice I’ve worked hard to avoid being labeled and coded as a Chinese artist.

You have been interviewed hundreds of times, Ding Yi, over the last three decades. Is there a question you wish I would ask?

Ding Yi:
If you look at the development of contemporary art in China, it has a relatively short history. I think it’s happened hand in hand, over the last four decades, with China’s reform and opening up (to the West). If this has an impact on my generation of artists, it’s because we are here today thanks to more than four decades of very rapid development in the country. It’s a completely new experience, one of a kind. This context of rapid social development has had an enormous impact on the way I create my works and on my thinking on art. It’s a completely unique experience, one of a kind, and it’s what has made contemporary art in China what it is today, and it’s also become the major source of inspiration for Chinese contemporary artists.

What comes to mind is the exhibition we organised at the Guggenheim museum in 2017, ‘Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World’, which featured a beautiful early work by you. I curated that with your great friends Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru. We made an argument about particular trajectories within art and China in the era of reform and globalisation. We came up with a very particular period that Ding Yi has already mentioned, that nobody had ever presented before within this forty year span, between about 1989 and 2008.

1989 is not only important for China because of Tiananmen Square protests and because of the pivot of the Open and Reform, towards a very focussed economic reform away from liberal form towards a purely economic reform which had huge repercussions. All the changes that Ding Yi is talking about came about through those policies. Of course, 1989 was also the dawn of globalisation. It was when GPS was invented and when the Internet was established as a commercial product. It was also the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the East-West war, end of the Cold War and the postwar world order.

We chose 2008 as the end of this period because of course the Chinese Olympics which was a huge marker in the rise of China as a global power, of course with all the changes that Ding Yi has described living in and of coming of age within. But 2008 is also a global year, just like 1989 is a global year in history of our age, because it was the financial collapse which was a complete reset and prompted re thinking about the positive qualities of globalisation. It was a big movement that stimulated populism and very strong leftist movements in the west that were critiquing globalisation and a return to the local, a return away from those positive systems that Ding Yi was talking about. I think that China experienced that too, so that was a product of my research. I am still very close to many of these artists, I continue to read and I think that Yuk Hui is brilliant and I have read all of his writings and I follow the influence that he is having within China very carefully.

It’s also the argument that I have been having my entire career, for 40 years. Looking for and revealing these other forms or systems of intelligence and world-making that don’t necessarily overtake or destroy the West, but are radical in their own right and have a unique insight, and contribute to a world chaos of culture. Not a single culture or a monolithic culture. And that all my work has been trying to feed that chaos, good chaos, natural chaos. So I think Ding Yi’s work is so important in this conversation and I am deeply moved by it and I think it is so beautiful. I love the huge works, I want one! People need to see them.

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