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What’s Left to Appear: Ding Yi and Immersive Spectatorship

Author: Shane McCausland 2015-04-22

As spiritual guides or shamans of our time, artists are the ones who maintain intense visual focus on the state of the individual across notions of ethics, health and the intellect, who perceive patterns, trends and transformations in the world and in society and who interpret them by forging new idioms, though often in dialogue with our wider cultural inheritance. The forms they create enable or, indeed, provoke us to observe and negotiate the emerging concepts and values of humanity, and we would be foolish not to take these highly creative individuals as our guides. Ding Yi is one such artist. In his case, artistic forms appear that are beyond language and text, at times extremely challengingly so: his forms and idioms are abstract, largely geometrical and devoid of narrative or figurative content, defying conventional questions like °Æwhat does it mean?’. Yet, Ding Yi’ s perennial idiom -- the grid -- speaks to a context in place and time, through its associations with the frenetic communications networks and distinctive fluorescent coloured lighting of contemporary urbanism.

What’s Left to Appear celebrates Ding Yi’s large-scale new works of 2015, along with select thematic groups of works going back to the 1980s, on display in the Long Museum (West Bund) in Shanghai. Mounted over the ground and mezzanine floors of the Museum, a massive space of almost 3,000 square metres enclosed by smooth, grey concreteAs spiritual guides or shamans of our time, artists are the ones who maintain intense visual focus on the state of the individual across notions of ethics, health and the intellect, who perceive patterns, trends and transformations in the world and in society and who interpret them by forging new idioms, though often in dialogue with our wider cultural inheritance. The forms they create enable or, indeed, provoke us to observe and negotiate the emerging concepts and values of humanity, and we would be foolish not to take these highly creative individuals as our guides. Ding Yi is one such artist. In his case, artistic forms appear that are beyond language and text, at times extremely challengingly so: his forms and idioms are abstract, largely geometrical and devoid of narrative or figurative content, defying conventional questions like °Æwhat does it mean?’. Yet, Ding Yi’s perennial idiom -- the grid -- speaks to a context in place and time, through its associations with the frenetic communications networks and distinctive fluorescent coloured lighting of contemporary urbanism.

What’s Left to Appear celebrates Ding Yi’s large-scale new works of 2015, along with select thematic groups of works going back to the 1980s, on display in the Long Museum (West Bund) in Shanghai. Mounted over the ground and mezzanine floors of the Museum, a massive space of almost 3,000 square metres enclosed by smooth, grey concrete walls that rise high before curving inwards, this is the first solo painting exhibition in the Long Museum (West Bund), which opened in 2014. Ding Yi is a deservedly well-known artist and this exhibition is a fitting celebration of his new work in an exciting yet still largely unfamiliar space. But the event is also a prime opportunity to exploit the raw potential of this new space for installation design and to probe spectatorship and the relationship of audiences with Ding Yi’s work.

The title, What’s Left to Appear, speaks to the show’s context and curatorial direction. It presents the exhibition as a moment in Ding Yi’s development. This is a large, immersive show, but it is not a retrospective: there is much more work to come from Ding Yi. The show is, in addition, intent upon interrogating and broadening the scope of audience relations with the work. That audiences °Æparticipate’ in the production of context and meaning in the display and consumption of contemporary art is nowadays a commonplace, even to the extent that we can speak of post-participatory art.1 Yet, the specific context of this show invites a pause to consider the degree, quality and depth of audience experience with particular focus -- as the title What’s Left to Appear suggests -- on how and to what extent the eye of the spectator mediates that experience.

Since the late 1980s, Ding Yi has been painting crosses: his series of paintings, whether predominantly black, based on tartan or else elaborated in intense fluorescent colours, all bear the title Appearance of Crosses with a date. The cross, whether a °Æ+’ or an °ÆX’, is a motif that the artist has declared is a formal mark without meaning, while the context of this work is the industrial-paced development of the urban environment in post-socialist China. Central to this exhibition is the group of new works from 2015, created almost 5m high. These plywood panel paintings, structured as always by Ding Yi’s trademark grid idiom, are richly textured with thick layers of lacquer-like paint and scored through with woodcutting tools to reveal thin but searing layers of bright colour beneath. Concurrently, displays of earlier works on canvas, tartan and paper are mounted thematically in the varied adjacent spaces. The exhibition features, in all, over a hundred paintings and drawings on media including wood, canvas, tartan and paper, from the collection of the artist and ShanghART Gallery and from institutional and private collections, including the Long Museum itself.

A private venture, the Long Museum is a new kind of art space in China. Patently, it exemplifies the government's new policy mix, designed to expand museum capacity in the country, whereby private citizens are not just permitted but indeed encouraged to found their own institutions. The first Long Museum was established in the Pudong new area of Shanghai; this exhibition is held in the second, West Bund branch of the Long Museum, designed by Atelier Deshaus and constructed on former wharfs on the bank of the Huangpu River in Xuhui District, a site recently used for the 2010 Expo and which now falls within the emergent West Bund Cultural District. Situated between two decommissioned cranes, now painted bright orange, the Long Museum architecturally reprises the industrial grey concrete infrastructure of the wharves and docks it largely replaces. The Museum’s founders, husband-and-wife collectors Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, house and display here parts of their own collections of art, which cover pre-modern, modern, revolutionary and contemporary art.

This exhibition is one of a sequence of displays in 2015 showcasing the work of Shanghai’s leading contemporary artists. This initiative evokes the modern city’s heritage as the culturally and commercially vibrant centre which, in its early years, produced innovators whose art tended towards intensely colourful abstraction like Xugu (1823-1896) and Ren Bonian (1840-1896), painters who were, at times, left reeling by the insatiable demands of local audiences on their creativity and productivity.  Like those predecessors but distinct from many of his contemporary peers, Shanghai’s contemporary pioneer of abstraction and fluorescence, Ding Yi, creates his paintings by hand without teams of studio assistants.

The exhibition explores the untapped design potential of the Long Museum’s display areas with the aim of providing a distinctive environment for lingering and looking, a cultural garden for an immersive experience of Ding Yi’s work, one intended to delight audiences familiar with all but Ding Yi’s new work and to draw in new audiences for whom his work is as yet strange or mysterious. As such, an aim of this exhibition is to explore how a viewer’s desire for meaning that can be explained in words or language might be reworked, or even displaced by, a framework which promotes open visual engagement with the paintings -- another facet of the title, What’s Left to Appear. This is a phrase that visitors may wish to keep in mind when faced with the paintings: it is a question or a statement, rather than an answer or explanation, and conceived to prompt free discovery and exploration in, around and through Ding Yi’s visual world of grids and colours. Though the paintings appear static or fixed as images, in a Chan or Daoist paradox, as soon as the spectator takes up a relational or dialogic position they begin to self-transform. Their potential as nourishment and guidance for the spirit awaits only the reciprocal patience, commitment and indulgence of the viewer.

Ding Yi may regard his work as °Æartless’, that is to say, his forms and iconography are pared back to basics (lines, dots, grids) and to the simplicity of the techniques and media required to make these. Still, the new work displays considerable virtuosity in his command and deployment of a growing range of techniques associated with the grid idiom. He has brushed thicker paint layers -- green and blue or else vibrant red and orange under black -- onto a plywood base, which he has also carved through, like a woodcut artist. To be sure, the act of cutting away with a stroke of the arm, using a V-or U-shaped printmaker’s awl, through the painted surface layers to the wood medium below, begets a line as a record of the movement (Fig.1). The linear components of the grid, be they painted or cut, are beautifully modulated with thickening and thinning profiles, with transparency, roundedness or depth, or with supple or taut qualities as in calligraphy, even if Ding Yi dismisses his lineament as not °Æcentred-tip’ (zhongfeng) -- a byword in the lore of brush calligraphy for being technically complete. But the carved line is a multiple technique, destroying and removing paint and wood only to simultaneously create by revealing hidden layers of colour down to the wood base below, in another of these Daoist or Chan contradictions, intense and yet playful, to be found in Ding Yi’s work.

The result is that Ding Yi’s grid, in the new paintings, becomes even more rich and complex as an artistic framework, one enabling further exploration and revealing new qualities and characteristics. These, mediated by our degree of generosity to the work with our eyes, prompt fresh reflections in the mind and sensations in the body that are unfamiliar yet exciting and recognizably of our place and time.

The plan of the Long Museum reveals a grid structure that is, serendipitously, in tune with the grid structure of Ding Yi’s work: the main, rectangular building to the north-east, housing the display galleries, is comprised of 9 x 6 squares, with the side of each square 8.4m in length. By contrast, a characteristic of the interior of the Long Museum, taken as a whole, is the surprising variation of aspects and spatial relationships, lateral vistas and balconied viewpoints, something that also chimes with the internal visual dimensions in Ding Yi’s work. Taking a cue from the plays of surface and depth, form and colour in Ding Yi’s painting, the exhibition in its design element delves into this display space, with a keen eye to its potential to complement but also trigger new responses to the artworks. The layout features coordinated thematic sets and groups of works from the oeuvre: the new work in the central °Æcathedral nave’ is the large-scale dramatic starting point and frame of reference; added to this are the adjacent galleried rooms, °Æchapels’ and passages of paintings, which vary by theme, unfolding to the roaming visitor like turning over leaves in a painting album, scrolling among scenes in a handscroll or lingering among beauty spots in an artfully appointed garden.

The exhibition, What’s Left to Appear, is immersive in that the galleries of the Long Museum, like a blueprint for a garden of culture, provide varieties of space for the display of works individually and en masse so as to stimulate connections among and between individual paintings and groups of paintings in enclosures and along pathways which may be high or low, wide or narrow, bright or dim. There are light, high, open spaces for the new and other large works: here, grid squares in the paintings are individually discernible at eye level but at greater heights, where detail is lost to the naked eye, the grid squares fade into a diminishing maze, as might windows on a skyscraper. All around, fluorescent works, dark-themes works, small-scale works, composite arrangements or stand-alone works meet sympathetic environments enabling even viewers familiar with Ding Yi’s paintings to encounter new links with them individually, severally and collectively.

About the Curator: Shane McCausland is a researcher of art history and a curator specializing in the arts of China from medieval to contemporary times. Since 2009, he has been an academic at SOAS, University of London. He was previously deputy director for collections and curator of East Asian art at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. As an undergraduate, he read Oriental Studies (Chinese) at Cambridge University and received his doctorate in art history with East Asian studies from Princeton University with a thesis on Zhao Mengfu written under the supervision of the Shanghai-born scholar Wen C. Fong 源聞. He has organized many exhibitions, including a major loan exhibition from the Shanghai Museum to the Chester Beatty Library at the time of the Shanghai Expo in 2010, entitled Telling Images of China: Narrative and Figure Paintings, 15th-20th Century, from the Shanghai Museum 鏡繪笢國, in collaboration with Shan Guolin and Ling Lizhong. He has also published many books and articles including, most recently, The Mongol Century: Visual Cultures of Yuan China, 1271-1368 (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). Chinese editions of his books on Mongol-Yuan art and on the calligraphy and painting of Zhao Mengfu are forthcoming.

1 Marko Daniel with Lu Pei-Yu, Claire Shea and Wenny Teo, °ÆWe Have Never Participated: Social research and post-participation°Ø, The 8th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale: We Have Never Participated Exhibition Guide (Shenzhen: OCT Contemporary Art Terminal, 2014), pp 4-7.
2 For a new study see Roberta Wue, Art Worlds: Artists, Images, and Audiences in Late Nineteenth-Century Shanghai (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press; Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2015).

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