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Ding Yi and the Impossibility of Abstraction

Author: Tony Godfrey 2011

Many years ago I saw a video of the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti working on the clay of a portrait bust. His fingers would push in the cheeks of the bust and then, as if in an essential response, he would pinch a section of the neck, and then again, as if some invisible balance had been destabilised, adjust a lump on the back of the head. Everything was connected. An action on one part of the sculpture would make another action elsewhere necessary.

Initially it seems hard to think of an artist more unlike Giacometti than Shanghainese Ding Yi. The one made figurative sculptures at the height of existentialism in Paris, the other abstract paintings in Shanghai beginning in the Deng Xiaoping era. But two key things are remarkably similar in their respective works. Firstly, they both make work about the city and human life in the city. Secondly, that when they work they do not complete one section by one section methodically, but try and treat the whole sculpture or canvas as one interconnected whole where their sensitivity to the inner mood or life of the sculpture or painting beneath its skin means that a touch in one corner requires an adjustment in the centre or on the other side.

Ding Yi describes his working method as like playing Go. 'I am not painting in order,' he says. Sometimes I put one point here; sometimes I start to put another point on the other side of the painting.' From spot to line and line develops into pattern. I structure my painting like playing Go. Take the centre, take the corner! I paint the middle part as the first place. This is quite like a Go game strategy. But I don't play Go myself. After I finished the big frame, I go back to the big square; I would put something, symbols or cross, not knowing yet what or which colour. Maybe the white here doesn't need to be so white after I finish the work, so I can paint them grey. Sometimes the opposite, I increase the whiteness of the white frame.'  His approach is to deal with the detail but always with a sense of the overall feeling.

In short, Ding Yi's need is to deal with the organic complex he can sense whilst wrestling with the facets or details of that whole. "A grid filled with crosses", which is what his painting essentially is, does not sound like a formula for a complex picture. And why, indeed, does he need to focus on any of the details when each will be nothing more than just another cross? Couldn't his assistants fill them in for him?

'I have an assistant now,' he admits. 'He helps me to stretch the canvas. Before that I always stretched my own canvas. But for the actual painting I will never use an assistant.'  Everything depends on the touch of his hand, on how his sensibility mediates both with his intention and what the materials before him, be they paper, canvas or tartan, somehow suggest.  

Perhaps people do not think of him as an intuitive artist: as he himself notes, many people think he is just doing the same painting over and over again. But the work is complex and there is a good deal of variety in his work. Each painting is very different. Indeed, and this is important, each cross is unique to some extent.  

What are the ingredients that make up this complexity and this variety? They are the scale, the vectors within the grid, the colour, the materials and the marks themselves. Undoubtedly however it is the colour which, especially in the recent paintings, strikes us first: for example when I visited his studio and stood in front of 2010-9 I felt as if I was being shouted at by a crowd of people, or hit by a barrage of orange and red. It was the visual equivalent of that moment when one opens the oven door and a wave of heat bursts out on one of that overload of sound that composers and music arrangers from Wagner to Phil Spector have termed a "wall of sound".  One instinctively steps back in recoil.

Scale matters here too: 2010-9 is a very large painting! It is one designed for a hotel lobby and intended to make a powerful effect from a distance. 'These three canvases will be put on the wall behind the reception facing the main entrance. You need to walk quite a distance to get a close look of the paintings. Because of their size and colour, they are stunning to the eyes.' The lines appear to be going up and down vertically like the neon signs one sees in Asia  on corners - or like the digitalised display screens in the movie The Matrix. When I describe the base colour of the painting as shocking pink he corrects me: 'No! Neon pink and red. The pink colour is inspired by the city I live in. In Shanghai things visually are amazingly big, stunning and always shocking. I created this artificial space with advertising colour to reflect the situation of Shanghai.'

There are cultural differences here, as he notes, 'Last time when I had a show in Cologne in Germany one viewer asked me why I painted so bright - it seemed so surreal for a European. But in Shanghai no one reacts to this stunning colour. Such colours are everywhere; they are Shanghai reality.'  

These colours almost physically push you back: they create space, or rather; it seems these rows of colours and crosses move out into the space between viewer and wall. In this they operate more like American Minimalist Dan Flavin's neon light pieces than traditional painting: they do not create a fictive window with an illusion of space behind: they create space in the room. The space however fluctuates, for the rhythm of the crosses and the intensity of the colour varies a good deal. This only becomes apparent when we have overcome our initial assault by neo-colour. The closer we get and the more we get used to the vibrancy of colour the more detail and variance we realise there is: the vertical sequences can, for instance have between one and fourteen or more crosses in them. There is no repeated pattern. And, moreover, this seemingly relentless vertical movement is interrupted by squares that may be up to six by six crosses big and which, in addition, are orientated on the edge of the cross or rather than the centre. Being so skewed they seem to hover in front of the vertical columns. Indeed the crosses themselves are very different one from another: sometimes they are made with one colour, sometimes two, sometimes three. If we get very close we discern they are all slightly different: they are clearly hand painted.

This is a far from detailed formal description: there is an awful lot to see! What may have initially seemed almost mono-tonal and merely brash transpires to be exceptionally complex and subtle. It is is not the same as Frank Stella's 1964 dictum. "What you see is what you get". Whereas American abstract painting of the Sixties (Stella, Noland, etc.) emphasises the simple gestalt of the work to the point of reducing it to something depressingly like a corporate logo, Ding Yi, like those others who have sought to reinvent abstraction in recent years, emphasises complexity and the detail.

Different colour combinations create different moods. For example, in contrast to 2010-9, look at 2008-25, a predominantly green painting. It is calming: the rhythms are gentler; there are just a few casual chords of filled-in black squares. The movement however, is not up and down, but towards us, into our space: single isolated crosses shine at us like stars appearing in the night sky, or like bubbles floating up to the surface of a pond and popping.

Or again, in a very different recent painting 2011-3 colour creates a different mood and a different space. The viewer's sensation is rather like that of looking down on the earth, as in an aerial photograph. We have a sense of hovering. The larger squares of white, black or green hover above the areas of white, black or grey crosses that themselves seem to hover above a black/red surface. This sense of hovering, of being affected phenomenologically by making us seem slightly out of our body as if we were levitating, paradoxically involves a more heightened awareness of our body.

Colour creates space and mood - our responses are part cultural, part ergonomic, part intuitive and poetic. Even though Seurat and Signac, the masters of Neo-Impressionism and specifically pointillism in the late nineteenth century, and whose work can be usefully related to Ding Yi, used colour theory and method, they ultimately relied on an intuitive, poetic sense of what was right.  Like Ding Yi's their work began very much as a response to the dynamism of city. In searching to express the vibrancy and vivacity of the new urban life they ended creating works of radiant stasis - a paradox not dissimilar to Ding Yi's work. Theirs was a way of painting that seemed highly scientific but that in practice was all about mood and temperament (Seurat, calm, restrained; Signac, assertive, dynamic).  Signac's paintings unlike those of his sometime tutor Seurat were increasingly bright, even lurid. His 1892 painting Woman at well was subtitled "decoration for a panel in half light"  He designed colours that would seem to glow in the half-light, indeed in his later work Signac sought to reinvent colour as radiance or light - and it is here especially we find a concordance with recent work by Ding Yi.

If the first sensation of looking at a Ding Yi painting is colour the final sensation, as we get up close, is of scanning the myriad of cross marks that compose the surface. He is the artist of the cross, just as Seurat was the artist of the dot. Yet that does not tell us much, anymore than saying Robert Ryman is the artist of white or Daniel Buren is of vertical stripes. It is a condition, a given, like the notes a composer make music out of. When in 2005 he responded tartly to an interviewer, 'The cross is not so important to me anymore. I am more concerned now with the composition of the whole painting, the development of the whole structure of the work,'  he was seeking avoid being trademarked with the cross as Yu Minjun is with big teeth or On Kawara is with dates.

Ding Yi has on more than one occasion noted that his teacher Yu Youhan 'taught us to figure out what Cezanne was. At that time to be able to understand Cezanne was a watershed. It was extremely important.'  A painting is a conglomeration of marks, never more so than in Cezanne where the directions of those marks (the vectors) create the painting - much as breaths complete a life. Each mark is in isolation dumb, but seen with others its nuance becomes apparent.

When we first draw, as children, with pencil, crayon on paper or with a stick in the sand, the first mark we make is a line; the third type of mark is an O - a line joining itself up. The second mark we make is of two lines crossing X. (Imagine how very different Ding Yi's work would have been if he had opted for the O. The circle is enclosed; the cross reaches out like atoms seeking molecular involvement.) His basic mark is as basic to our hands as breathing is to our lungs.

How do we write about abstract painting? Just as American abstract or formalist painting of the Sixties turned out to be a cul-de-sac, so formalist writing as epitomised by the followers of Clement Greenberg turned out to be a dry, academic and limiting discourse. Attempts to write about abstract painting in the light of French theory (Derrida et al.) have led to writing that is even more arcane and also chronically divorced from the actual physical experience of looking at the individual paintings one by one. We must always begin by describing the paintings and how they affect us. Metaphor may be important here: one area in which formalist writing was blinkered was in denying the variable associations painting entices from us. We understand the world by making comparisons. We experience the world through our bodies more richly if we accept synaesthesia, the way the senses blur together, rather than strait-jacketing ourselves in the modernist notion of the purity of any specific medium. The nature of the mind is associative or metaphorizing: the notion that abstraction can be pure and without associations is a myth.

Of course, we also have to understand any artist partly in relation to other artists. All abstract paintings reference the history and legacy of abstraction: Ding Yi's those of Mondrian most specifically. But crucial to the development of abstract painting in the last twenty years has been the desire to re-instate the detail, to recapture the delight possible in detail and complexity. One could instance the Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes who has absorbed elements from beyond the Rio carnival to create abstractions of great energy and complexity; the paintings of Ethiopian/American Julie Mehretu that reference city plans and geometry to produce highly complex fictive spaces. Nor should we forget Gerhard Richter whose abstract paintings at their best have both structural complexity and emotional resonance. Letting in the impurities of the "real" world, implicitly or explicitly, has been crucial to most of the best work in recent years: witness American David Reed's use of the filmic and the uncanny or Jonathan Lasker's use of doodling. Complex, even problematically inconsistent space as in German Albert Oehlen's work is where the future seems to lie, not in the flatness emphasised in that American formalist writing that once dominated and then stifled abstraction.
We are talking about re-instating the emotional, and reaffirming the way abstraction exists in the world between the world and a viewer. As we have seen Ding Yi's paintings move into our space. We respond physically as if we were dancers to music. This is an art of the body, where we responds not just with flickering eyes but body and feet to move in and away from the enticing details. Furthermore, this is an art of the body in that it is made with hand and fingers and bears their traces.  It is important that Ding Yi makes his own painting, that they are highly autographic.

His physical approach to the painting is like that of a geologist measuring a rock face, looking for fissures and flaws and other accidents of formation: 'On the top of the painting, I stand on a ladder. In the middle part, I stand. The lower part sitting and the lowest part, I have to sit in a crouch. My motion is also up and down.' He traverses the painting face, making and adjusting cross after cross, eyes close to the surface, intent on each detail, each cluster of incidents, but always with a sense in his mind of the "whole thing". But there must be pauses and breaks: working this close to the canvas, especially when he is using the neon colours that assault the retina, is tough on eyes and concentration sapping. He says he cannot work for more than two hours in a stretch.

Ding Yi started to paint with neon colours in 1998. 'I felt before,' he said, 'that my painting didn't relate so much with the Chinese society I lived in. I enjoyed painting my own world, my own experience. It was in 1998 that I had a talk with an art historian from the U.S who was visiting my studio. He compared the art by Shanghai artists in 1998 with the art in Paris in the 1930s. He wanted to know why artists in Shanghai were only revelling in their own personal world but didn’t make any comment on the world they lived in. "The city is changing drastically: how come artists don’t react?" he asked. His question made me think and looked at the city I lived in. It pushed the trigger of my neon colour series.'

The lights of a city move. They turn off and on, they flash and flicker, on, off, on, off... the LED signs move rapidly from side to side, or from top to bottom, lights swing up and down the facades of buildings. The colours change - green to blue to purple to... These colours and lights shout for attention: they blink ever more ferociously in a bid for our attention. The lights of a city seek to outdo each other: to be brighter. They seek to invade our eyes and mind. Even if we close our eyes the afterimages are still there on the inside of our eyelids. The Asian cities, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, are perhaps the brightest in the world.

'Shanghai is special for me,' Ding Yi said. 'Shanghai sends signals to people, to the cities around to look up to it, to make their tomorrows like Shanghai's. It is commercial, it is business, it is noisy, dirty, dizzy, chaotic and fast forwarding. In my paintings I don't necessarily want to emphasis these characters. I want to keep a neutral attitude to look at my city and depict the city as it is.'
I commented, 'That is rather like some of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist painters in the late 1800s. They stepped backward and looked at the city in a rational way, using optical effect to describe the modern city.'

'I step backward too.' Ding Yi replied. 'But sometimes I am more participating too. I want to express this feeling about the city. I want to describe the disorder of the city. I make paintings really chaotically. But I always have a rational control. I am not just depicting what I see. I often reflect on what I have seen and try to get into something deeper in my spiritual world. I can feel spiritually lost in my neon lights. I want to get back to a state of mind that is mine, that is calm, that is a bit away from the reality. But I can't really go back to the same state of mind as before.  I am searching for something that is floating about this world here.'

The most commonly used metaphor to explain abstract paintings is music, but as Ding Yi says that he has no ear for music, that he is effectively tone deaf, perhaps we should call it "silent music" or music for the tone deaf. It can be like chanting or sometimes like elaborate counterpoint.

After spending a week in the countryside Ding Yi notes that he feels very lonely: 'I need the noise and I need the city beat. I am a city boy and a city artist. I was born in downtown Shanghai and grew up in different parts of central Shanghai. Do you know what I do when I paint? I always put on a radio and always I choose a talk program, as if I need the sound of a human voice. It doesn't matter if it is a man's voice or woman's voice, nor does it matter what kind of program it is. Sometimes it is news and sometimes a serial. But the strange thing is I can't stand for a real person to sit beside me talking whilst I am painting. So what the voice is actually saying never comes into my mind: I just need the company of the voice.'

So, given this perhaps a better metaphor for his work is noise - specifically the noise of the city. The noise of the city is that of a constant hubbub, which we can hear as a constant, albeit fluctuating, background, or else, should we concentrate, as a collection of many individual sounds: a street vendor shouting, a car screeching to a halt, two women arguing over the price of some vegetable, a child crying, the TV in the next flat.

If sound is a metaphor for sight, then the city at night present us with a constantly and rapidly changing sequence of sound-scapes or exceedingly complex chords. One can never grasp any one combination of colours and lights before it had been replaced with another. You are more aware of the lights changing than any one momentarily held pattern. But in these neon paintings of Ding Yi the pattern is one enormous, complex chord that is held in perpetuity. One becomes acclimatised to the volume and can go in close to look at some detail knowing that the other details would not change as actual musical notes would change in time. One can linger. The painting is in stasis.  This stasis is the moment of reflection for the hurrying man.

Why does he use the word "appearance" to describe his works? Perhaps because his work can be like breathing - If we look at the three scroll pieces - a form he reiterates in woodcuts - the motif is like a shape coming up from the depths of a pool to the surface, displaying itself and then slowly returning, receding from sight. Appearing and disappearing. The pulsation of these canvases, with their fluctuation of marks, is like breath, their rhythm is like the rise and fall of the chest.

Here when we say "these are animated surfaces", or "how vibrant they are!" we impute life to them as if they were skin or some living membrane. Perhaps above all we associate colour with light, and light with life. And again, we associate life with feelings. These are on the whole, with all their complexities and various moods paintings about intensely felt experience.

He loves his own paintings. When we asked whether like Barnett Newman who loved his own work he too likes to be photographed in front of his painting he mused, "I like Newman's works. I love my own works too, like children of my own. I don't want to give my paintings away, or sell them. Yes, I always feel regret that I didn't take more photos with my painting."

It has often been noted that Ding Yi's paintings look like aerial views. Less often noted that in those, such as 2009-4, where the colours and marks form into clumps or groups it is like an aerial view of people massing in and moving over a public space - a square or plaza. And here, once more, I am reminded of Giacometti and his sculptures of people walking over city squares. They are highly abstracted stick figures, a formulation Giacometti used to emphasise how people exist in or interact with space. Giacometti's art was not just about the city, but about being in the city, of moving through architecture. This is true too of Ding Yi: but his city is one of the twenty-first century. Perhaps no-one has abstracted and yet made more palpable its nature as well as he has done. Perhaps no-one else has yet made such beautiful meditations on it.

Unless otherwise stated all quotes are from an interview by Tony Godfrey and Wang Kai Mei in Ding Yi's studio 3rd May 2011.

As one who saw the 1994 retrospective of Mondrian at the Gementemuseum in Holland where the works were shown unglazed and in overhead natural light I know Mondrian's works are filled with pentimenti and tentative brush-marks. In reproduction Mondrian seems systematic; in the flesh the paintings show signs of a search for balance and harmony that was clearly in fact intuitive. ;When I was young, I liked Mondrian, I also liked early works by Frank Stella. Mondrian gave me the inspiration of painting squares.'

The term wall of sound is often used to refer to the way jazz musician John Coltrane bombarded the ear with rapidly played notes or the way Phil Spector orchestrated pop music, such as the last album of the Beatles, with many instruments as though the term was first used in 1874 to describe Wagner's use of a large but hidden orchestra.

I write as an person from England where LED and neon signs rarely move vertically.

Signac would refer to his later work where he used small dabs or blocks of paint as "divisionism". The best texts on his work are in the catalogue for the 2001 retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais, Paris and Metropolitan Museum, New York.

These were also two artists with a passionate commitment to utopian politics. Their critic confederate Felix Feneon had attempted to blow up the future king of England with a bomb, but sadly failed. Signac's funeral in 1935 was the occasion for a mass march of the French Communist Party. They argued that the new way of seeing and representing the world was a parallel revolution to that proposed by the anarchist and communist movements. As Signac wrote in 1902  "Let's liberate ourselves! Our goal must be to create beautiful harmonies." op. cit. p. 16
Op. Cit. p. 14
Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist - originally printed in Ding Yi Exhibition Catalogue at Ikon gallery, Birmingham, UK, 2005, reprinted in Hans Ulrich Obrist: The China Interviews. Hong Kong/Beijing, 2009, p. 146
from a 2006 interview with Zhao Chuan. quoted in "The Magician of Crosses" by Cao Weijin. in Orange Book. 2010. p. 236
The two chapters on abstraction in my book Painting Today, by way of playing on this two way process of refusing the world of association and accepting it, should have been entitled hardcore abstraction and impure abstraction. The chapter titles were changed to Pure Abstraction and Ambiguous Abstraction against my wishes by the publisher.
In a famous 1967 article - "Art and Objecthood" - attacking minimal art formalist critic Michael Fried decried it as "dramatic", which was of course true and a key aspect of it.  

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