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An Excessive Minimalist

Author: Hou Hanru 2010

Since the end of 1970s, China has entered a new phase in its history. Its efforts to open itself to the outside world, after decades of self-isolation, have created huge impacts on every aspect of its society, from daily life to the political system, from the economy to culture. Accordingly, a vital and exciting avant-garde movement in the visual arts, along with experiments in all cultural fields, has been developed across the country. Today, two decades later, one can witness the incredibly successful result of this movement. Not only has contemporary art gained a considerable position in the country's cultural map, with hundreds of events of different scales such as biennials and regular exhibitions in numerous cities, and a blossoming market supported by specialized and general media; also contemporary art from China has become an indispensable element in the current global scene and numerous Chinese artists are now active participants in major international events.

Shanghai has always been the test-ground of China's modernization. Before the 1950's, being the most "internationalist" city in the East – due to its semi-colony status – it was the most prolific place for cultural and artistic creation in the country. For the last twenty years, especially since the beginning of 1990s, the city has made every effort to rediscover this heritage and reclaim its leading role, prompted by the national policy to redevelop the city into an international metropolis, and a new driving force for China's modernization and integration into the global economy. Looking back to history, in fact, Shanghai's modern cultural legacy has never been completely interrupted. Instead, whenever occasions appeared, artists and intellectuals in the city have always tried to resume and assert their creative adventure. Since the 1980s, Shanghai has seen a dynamic revival of its modern and contemporary art creation. However, the Shanghai art scene, with its great tradition of civil society in which individual rights are socially recognized and diversity commonly promoted, has never really been a collective business claiming common values and language. Instead, it's always an open space for various expressions of different individuals, with exchanges and collaborations among artists being largely encouraged. It's a scene of fluid, smart, dialectic and dynamic networking and sharing without forcing anyone to follow any specific trend of fashion. An evolution of art languages occurs in the most natural manner, according to the choice of every individual.

It's in such a context that Ding Yi has developed his artistic career since the mid-1980s.He was directly influenced by an older generation that was struggling to reconstruct the memory and heritage of the old Shanghai modernism through exploiting new possibilities, exemplified by artists like Yu Youhan, Ding Yi's mentor, among others, during his early years. Of course, information and images of artists from abroad, from Mondrian to Barnet Newman, from Jackson Pollock to Andy Warhol, etc. also were influential, directly and indirectly. On the other hand, a remarkable independence has always been the characteristic of Ding Yi and his work. All their influences have been intelligently digested as implicit support systems rather then visible references. Ding Yi has successfully built up his own linguistic system and hence a distinct personal "brand". It's a genuine "Shanghai-nese brand".

It's true that China's contemporary art has been intimately related to the spectacular revolution of social and political reality. It's at first a manifesto of claims for freedom of expression and social change. However, whilst almost everyone has been involved with the radical cultural revolution of art language and its social influence in the most turbulent manner, Ding Yi has always remained distant from the turmoil of change. He stubbornly insists on his singular position and a unique language which remains very consistent. For most of his contemporaries, expressionist or realistic imageries have been the most immediately effective ways to convey political, cultural and personal statements vis-a-vis a rapidly mutating era towards modernization. However, Ding Yi, being in a minority of artists, prefers to stay aside and concentrate on a totally personal, and somehow eccentric, path of research.

From the mid-1980s, Ding Yi has been producing an immense body of "abstract" paintings on different supports, from canvas to cardboard, from readymade fabrics to furniture, using a great variety of painting materials from oil to acrylic, from charcoal to ball-point pen… He has even extended his practice to produce site-specific installation work for special architectural environments and public urban spaces as well as experimental architecture. His choices of colours likewise are diverse, ranging from quasi-monochrome to the most unexpected combination of tones, creating constantly oscillating impulses on our retinas and therefore highly pleasing perceptual effects. They are extremely beautiful. But the artist has never lost track of his own orientation and way of doing things, his own "Tao".

Ding Yi's paintings are indeed extremely repetitive and systematic. They are systematically compositions and variations of the same motifs: '+' and ' x' . All his works are multiplications and proliferations of these two very simple brush-stroked gestures. '+' and ' x' are actually the simplest signs, or the most basic elements, in colour printing technology. Certainly, this is a personal choice, quasi-obsessively, derived probably from his own youthful experience of working in a printing factory. Ding Yi appropriates these basic, "first degree" signs and transforms them into the essential structural motifs of his paintings, pushing them towards maximum diversification. Thus, cleared of any symbolic or narrative meanings, paradoxically they become the very unique content of his paintings. Ding Yi's engagement with these simplest marks is so determined, so totally obsessive, that the content of the paintings is rejection of content itself. In other words, the process of painting for him is no longer a research for any narrative or emotional expression. Instead, painting is reduced to its minimal state. There is a formidable dynamic created by the tension between the excessiveness of formal variety and the minimal nature of the structural elements. In a way, one can qualify Ding Yi's painting in a contradictorily combined term: Excessive Minimalism.

The overlapping of '+' and ' x' creates an interesting surface that is constantly oscillating between flatness and pictorial depth, a kind of tension between movements in two dimensions that becomes a complex three dimensional system. It appears to be absolutely, and even fundamentally, a serious investigation of the ultimate form of rationality. At first glance, it may suggest the frenzied obsession of Faust and Frankenstein in their scientific explorations. However, Ding Yi's obsession never results in a pursuit of the sublime or some universal truth and its entropic outcome of chaos. Instead, it's a way towards a personal cosmos of tranquility and eternal opening towards the infinite process of organization - disorganization - reorganization. It's always fluid and smooth, as a quiet but incessant brook, forming a seductive and rich texturality. It's a living body that embodies life itself in its most unadorned way. Looking closely into his work, one can be totally amazed by the silent energy, an extraordinary poetry, generated by the dialectic movement between the obsession with precision and the irregularities produced by the handmade-ness of his painting technique. It reveals his conviction that painting is a way towards the contradictory realm of truth, so that truth itself can never be reached. What one can do, and perhaps is obliged to do, is to approach it with all means possible.

Therefore, it's crucial to emphasize that Ding Yi's work is never a frozen image of the combination of these two motives. It's by no means a result of mechanical reproduction; instead always resulting from a lively process of hand-painting, with different materials. Very often, his paintings are actually accumulations of a kind of hand-writing, reminiscent of traditional craftsmanship, or, a certain Chinese practice of calligraphy and poems that are never separated from painting exercise......Ding Yi's insistence on the scrupulous process of making his paintings and objects by hand reveals a necessity to embrace time and space, and hence life itself, through repetitive scrutiny, analyses of the most basic forms and endless attempts to revitalize them through the most diverse and complicated organizations. Such efforts are not made to bring us to some other external world, with the satisfaction of conquering aspects of nature or society, as most of contemporary art does. On the contrary, they lead towards a kind of Inside, to an interior world in which the self is conquered. It's ultimately a spiritual form of living, a way to explore the meaning of life through negotiation with the emptiness of the content, to achieve a fullness of living experience.

Ultimately, we can perfectly understand that painting for Ding Yi is a life-long test for his obsessive determination. This determination is at first a permanent pursuit for a radically independent position in an art world dominated by another obsession: the obsessive longing for fashions and new trends. In the context of a society governed by the hegemony of the Image culture, or the spectacular, his choice to remain unchanged can be seen as a strong gesture against a mainstream. And this is particularly important in the light of the fact that Ding Yi has been struggling with such persistence at the frontier of globalization, Shanghai, where consumerist culture is rapidly becoming the dominant ideology. Emphasizing this point can help us understand more pertinently our present time, an age of globalization driven by the propagation of images and their fast consumption, amongst other things, and find more relevant positions of our existence......

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