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Ding Yi’s “Appearance of Crosses”: From Spiritual Enlightenment to Conceptual Reflection

Author: Bao Dong Oct,2013

When Ding Yi begun to paint the first piece of the “Appearance of Crosses” series in
1988, there was no such call of “Cleaning up the humanistic passion” in the art world of
new tide, but he started to reflect on the thought of enlightenment that the ‘80s
generation had inclined to and relied on. The so-called “humanistic passion” --indeed,
“humanistic spirit”-- is the part of this thought. Observing the development of intellectual
history from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, we find that the important clue is the shunt of
humanistic language, which among the intellectual community, appeared as “the lost of
humanistic spirit” and therefrom inspired the discussion among intellectuals. But in the art
world, the clue could be found from the ideas of “Purifying language” and “Cleaning up
the humanistic passion”, and practiced concretely by Conceptual Art, Political Pop, and
Cynical Realism, etc.

From this angle, we can say the “Appearance of Crosses” initiated and promoted such
change. Ding Yi, a graduate of traditional painting and one important member of the ’85
Art Movement in Shanghai area, has tried to return to the original point of the question
through “Appearance of Crosses”. He chooses “cross” to escape the influence of
Chinese traditional painting as well as Western modern art, to come back to the painting
intention. Maybe Ding Yi is not fully self-conscious, but his “Appearance of Crosses” was
rather a straight method to abandon the condescending gesture of those intellectual
torchbearers at that time. In the art world, such condescending gesture was showed by
“rationalism” and “big soul”, and especially was showed in the emphasis on the “back
side” of the artwork. On the contrary, the “Appearance of Crosses” has no cultural
meaning; it does not refer to any social reality. It is just a term used in printing industry.

To Ding Yi, it is just like the Campbell's soup can or Coca-Cola bottle to Andy Warhol
——these things have lost their energy because people see them too often.
We cannot classify Ding Yi’s Painting into “Political Pop”, though they are in the similar
category in art history. But the differences between them are worth of further discussing.
Political Pop makes use of political symbols. There is a conspiracy between Political Pop
and the ideology it criticizes. The ironic effect of Political Pop relies on the official
ideology, only to solidify the original political structure. Ding Yi rejects any reference and
shows an uncooperative, independent attitude. If considering the irony of “Political Pop”
and the helplessness of “Cynical Realism”as a way to escape from “rationalism” and “big
soul”, we can say that the self-sufficiency of the form of “Appearance of Crosses” shows
an independence of conduct under the historical situation. Such attitude is still lack of
even today.

This self-sufficiency is different from the artistic self-discipline of modern art. Particularly,
we cannot classify Ding Yi’s work into the modern abstract art, whether the abstract
belongs to the “formal beauty” or to the Eastern mystic abstractionism. On the contrary,
the aesthetic subject of that half-modern, half-free abstractionism is what Ding Yi wants
to reflect on. Apparently, “Appearance of Crosses” doesn’t provide any “beauty”, or
image, though most of them are enjoyable. As a basic visual element, it has no aesthetic
depth and further meaning. In general, the meaning of “Appearance of Crosses” lies in its
commonplace and daily availability, even lie in its meaninglessness. This is a deliberately
meaninglessness, not a void. We will criticize introspectively through the experience of
this meaninglessness. If we have to use the word “abstract” to describe Ding Yi, we
should say it is a kind of negative abstract.

Furthermore, Ding Yi has been adopting “Appearance of Crosses” as a basic structure to
represent his methods and ideas. These daily symbols, like Jasper Johns’ flag, provide a
convenient topic, but they are talking about different things. What Ding Yi said includes
the control of the subject and the respect to the object, and the core is the tension
between control and freedom. Besides the limit of the “cross”, there are limits
everywhere, regarding methods, color, special media and materials, as well as strict
process of painting. These particular limits do not impede freedom, but become the
opportunities to promote freedom. The principle of “automatic selection of color” allows
Ding Yi to use the readymade colors only, so that he receives a freedom of no choice. He
gives up the stubbornness for a specific color. In other words, he respects the object, so
he himself gains more possibilities.

Under this condition, Ding Yi has been continuing his creation for more than twenty
years. He has never thought of stopping or giving up his way. It isn’t as difficult as people
may think. The “Appearance of Crosses” isn’t a enduring hard labor. Rather, every
painting is a process to break off the limitation and gain new ease. This ease doesn’t
refer to the skilled method. On the contrary, the skilled method is what Ding Yi wants to
discard. Ding Yi has been constantly trying new materials and new media--the painting
materials include fluorescent pigment, pencil, marker pen, chalk, ball point pen, spray
paint, etc; the canvases include check gingham, drawing paper, rice paper, linen,
corrugated paper, etc--to encounter new qualities and readjust the cognitive structure of
his own, so that we may confront the pure experience of default and imaginary symbols
through them. The limitation is for introspection, while introspection is a thing full of
experience. Although each painting will represent a final formal result, the process is
more important.

To switch the dimension of artistic practice from outside to inside, from grand,
uncontrolled spirit to specific, detailed idea, and to realize this idea in visual experience
and the process of it, to combine the idea and method into one finally, is what Ding Yi
insists and weighs in every painting. In this sense, Ding Yi’s “Appearance of Crosses” is
one of the earliest works to reflect on the thought and culture of the ‘80s. It is this art
experiment and practice of conceptual introspection that has changed the Chinese
contemporary art in a sense of art history rather than social history, and gave our today’s
narrative a self-conscious coordinate.

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