Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO): I am curious about this idea of the cross, something which started in the late 80s in your work. I'd like to know how that position came about, particularly with reference to the kind of decisions artists in the west such as Daniel Buren and Niele Toroni were making in the sixties.
Ding Yi (DY): The cross is not so important to me any more. I am more concerned now with the composition of the whole painting, the development of the whole structure of the work. But in the 80s, when I started working with crosses, I was making a break with the Chinese traditional painting.
HUO: And were you influenced by the serial repetitive practices of artists such as Buren or did your cross paintings happen more independently?
DY: In the 80s, in China, we didn't know about artists like Buren.
HUO: In the beginning I understand that you made your own crosses, and then later you used more and more readymade crosses, ones you found in fabric patterns such as tartan.
DY: I made my first cross paintings when I was still in school, at the Shanghai Art Academy, when I was studying traditional Chinese painting. In 1997 I started working with tartan and by this time of course I knew about western conceptual art and minimal abstract art.
HUO: So you started with traditional painting and then moved away from it?
DY: I never really did traditional painting but I was in an environment that encouraged it. I try to avoid traditional things in my painting, and get as far away as possible from the genre of traditional painting. I used to like the work of Zhao Wuji, a Chinese artist who went to live in Paris during the 1940s, which combined painterly abstraction and a style of painting from the Sung Dynasty, but by the time I started doing the cross paintings I wasn't so interested.
HUO: And what was the very first cross painting you did?
DY: 1988. It was red and yellow with black crosses.
HUO: Your recent paintings have developed in an interesting way out of the work you were making on check or tartan cloth. It's as if you're working with a complex system, a system that seems to evolve in a certain way.
DY: In these last seventeen years or so the whole situation in China has changed enormously. The development in my painting might look like something simply happening on the surface, but instead it reflects the profound changes that are occurring in Chinese society. My ideas develop from those I gather from the whole world. Chinese artists of my generation are subject to many different influences, from traditional Chinese painting and Russian socialist realism, from western ideas through to greater historical forces.
HUO: Your new way of painting is very different. Still involving the cross motif, it's as if you are making maps of some sort?
DY: The new paintings are much more brightly coloured, going in two different directions, one involving irregular shapes, the other vertical structures. Perhaps from a distance the ones with shapes look quite chaotic, but when you look more closely you can see the basic structures, derived from the check pattern, and the fact that they are very exact.
HUO: The painted patterns in the new works suggest chaos theory. And, if as you say, your painting reflects larger social developments, the idea of a more chaotic situation in China right now.
DY: Concerning chaos theory, sometimes I'm thinking scientifically. More often though I'm thinking criticically about what it's like living in a city like Shanghai, where everything is a bit bright and loud. A lot of things here are really superficial – the lights, the appearance of the city as a whole …
HUO: What role does drawing play? Do you still do drawing?
DY: I still do some works on paper like drawings but they aren't preparatory works, they are works in their own right.
HUO: How about your link to graphic design? In a certain way you appropriate the tartan and check designs, bringing them into your painting through a process of displacement? Have you ever considered taking your practice in the opposite direction, back towards textile decoration? Would you ever collaborate with textile manufacturers, for example, or is that something you would refuse?
DY: I'm interested mainly in the mass production of textiles and the way that it fits in with contemporary culture. I don't think about being involved with making textiles myself.
HUO: How about architecture? You've designed a house I think.
DY: Sometimes my work with architecture relates to my paintings. On the other hand, sometimes it's very different are really. Working with architecture has its limits, whereas making art I feel totally free. Artists don't think about things in the same way as architects. I don't think that an artist can just bring his ideas and put them into architecture. If an artist thinks about making a building then he doesn't think about making art there. It is more a question of what to do with architecture in relation to its environment.
About the house I designed for the Helan Mountain project, every spring in this place the snow melts and there is a lot of water coming down. Often it floods and so I elevated the building. Originally it was raised on two low plinths but then finally, for financial reasons, a third one was put in the centre. I came up with the idea of having two blocks side by side on this foundation.
HUO: Was it the first time you made something architectural?
DY: Some time before I made a bridge in Pu Dong, about eight metres long … It was both sculptural and architectural, near a cHUOrch and a small river. My use of the cross there is symbolically significant, and yet it has nothing to do with the cHUOrch. For me, this bridge project is very important, part of a much larger scheme for which I proposed a lot of ideas. The ones realised were those that had a functional quality, bus stops and structures for an electrical plant … It is very difficult for art otherwise to get into this kind of environment.
HUO: Your architectural proposals are striking for the presence of colour. Your paintings now are very colourful, much more so than before. Some of your early paintings are just black and white. I am interested to know how you choose colour … is there a colour system?
DY: Early on, I was painting from what was inside me, according to my own development, my own ideas. But since 1999 I have been reacting much more to my environment, to things beyond me.
In Shanghai the colours on the street, in advertisements and so on, are fighting all the time. This is not a peaceful city. There is shouting everywhere, giving rise to excitement, and now I want my work to express this kind of reality.
HUO: What about Mondrian and his famous Boogie Woogie paintings, so much about city life?
DY: Recently I've had Mondrian constantly in the back of my mind.
HUO: You were quoted once as saying, "I am free from outside pressure. There is no interference with the outside". Then after 1999 the city pours into your work, but it doesn't eradicate your fundamental aesthetic system. So there is this strange tension between what is inside and what is outside.
DY: I maintain the system, as I react to the world outside, but then I'm not really entering into that world. It is more like I'm looking down from a high place.
HUO: Your technique is changing all the time. Your earliest work involved rulers and masking tape, but now your painting is more free. The rulers are no longer necessary. Could you say something more about the way you are working now?
DY: All the materials I use are interrelated. In the beginning I was painting on a smoother surface, and then later painting more roughly on check cloth and tartan. Perhaps in the 80s when China was still quite backward, artists were more interested in industrialisation. That was the time when I was using rulers and painting very exactly. I wanted to avoid personal expression in my paintings. Now the contrast between my personal life and the outside world is not so strong. Things seem more complicated to me now, as the structure of my work remains very strict but the surfaces are much freer.
HUO: It's an organised freedom? The connection with Mondrian intrigues me because his paintings were utopian.
DY: I don't think so much about the future. Rather I want to express what is here now, because that is what’s most important. China now, Shanghai now.
HUO: My last question is about slowness. Shanghai now is such an accelerated environment and your painting now reflects that fact, but the process is very slow. How long does it take you to make a painting? How many paintings do you make in a year?
DY: On average it takes me one month to make a painting. Of course I could paint faster but I like to keep it slow. Unlike those artists with a team of assistants I want to keep painting my paintings by myself from the beginning until the end. In this way I make them resemble the world outside.