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The Reception of Ding Yi and the Framework of Chinese Art History

Author: Shane McCausland May,2015

One impulse in studies on Ding Yi’s art by specialist contemporary art curators and critics has been to link his forms and practice to artistic developments seen in the West, notably modernism and abstraction over the course of the twentieth century, and also to China’s New Wave in the mid 1980s.1 The connection with Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), acknowledged by Ding Yi, has been fruitful. Indeed, it was within the seeming constraint of the grid that Mondrian discovered an autonomous space, a state he likened to the freedom experienced by a dancer who is, paradoxically, locked into the fixed sequence of steps and moves of a particular dance. Ding Yi’s tartan phase offers a link -- if only by a conceit -- with dance, since tartan is Scottish and Scots wear tartan at ceilidh dance parties. Mondrian’s artistic development from early part-abstracted works of trees (1908-12) to late city-grid works like Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942), can also offer a model for Ding Yi’s development from provisionally abstracted, antagonistic works of the mid 1980s, such as Taboo (1986), to the more regular grid paintings of the 1990s and on, related to the urban footprint and visual ambience, showing the appearance of crosses. This metropolitan working environment that the two artists have in common has been noted.2 Still, Ding Yi’s grids have followed their own trajectory of transformation over the years, from the tartan-like narrow-gauge grids of the 1990s; to the grid networks that are disrupted, challenged or reformed by fluorescent colour patterns of larger crosses, squares and other shapes in the 2000s; to the more distanced, nocturnal palette and occasionally chaotic and disintegrating grids of the 2010s. Most recently, Ding Yi has again been paired with Sean Scully (b. 1945), and they have discussed Mondrian.3 The essay by Tian S. Liang in this volume presents a thoughtful critical assessment of this discourse to date.

It was not for any facility with all the details of twentieth-century modernism, expressionism and abstraction that this curator was engaged to work on the What’s Left to Appear exhibition at the Long Museum (West Bund), nor for any track record of theoretical or metaphysical speculation of the aesthetics-oriented kind sometimes characterized as 'gazing at ether’, wang qi 咡氣. My reactions to Ding Yi’s work are, rather, primarily informed by disciplinary experience of the deep-rooted cultural patterns at play in the cultural tradition of China -- perhaps one could call these humanistic cultural archetypes that have had their manifestations in China.4 To effect this approach, I would not assert that Ding Yi should be understood as 'a Chinese artist’: that is surely an element of identity which it is for him to determine, and he has, describing himself as not a Chinese artist and not a modernist but an 'internationalist’.5 It is just that I recognize patterns in his work that may be linked with 'the Chinese tradition’ as I understand it from prolonged engagement with both the art-historical canon and also the wider visual world encompassed by the notion of visual culture.  


As an art historian, I am less concerned with this-ism or that-ism as a way to characterise 'influence’ (that pernicious concept) or the development of a movement or mode per se; what interests me is the special visual world to be found in art’s formal content and my basic approach to this world is post-formalist interpretation which lies, in David Summers’ sense, beyond the rise of Western modernism in the field of visual studies.6 This is my point of entry into the work and it also shapes my concept of how the work might be curated and displayed in the gallery context. Still, some critics would deem solely visual engagement with artwork too narrow insofar as it does not address the wider and documentary elements of contemporary practice that are regarded as essential for a full understanding of artistic projects and the popular participation of audiences in them.7 For contemporary art I have to concur, since here I necessarily contextualize Ding Yi’s work beyond the purely formal image.

How might we consider positioning Ding Yi’s art vis-®§-vis this history of calligraphy and painting in China? Art historical approaches to modernism and abstraction in China may be helpful here, without prejudice to their foundations in a mainstream intellectual tradition -- one seemingly alien to the present context -- in which paintings could function as 'images of the mind’ 心印 (xinyin), as media in an idealized antiquarian mode for lodging or inscribing of ideas 写意 (xieyi) about the ethical cultivation of the self. There are various channels by which particular concepts or modes from the past have been related to our modern situation. Firstly, discussing the painting concept of xieyi (literally 'describing the idea’, i.e., expressively rather than figuratively oriented brushwork) in the art of reforming modern artists Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and Sanyu (or Chang Yu, 1901-1966), Eugene Y. Wang has explored how 'sketch conceptualism’ (as he translates xieyi) functioned as a 'modernist contingency’.8 Essentially, as a sinological concept, xieyi was a convenient mode or contingent means whereby the self-consciousness and individualism of Western modernism might find a native equivalent or counterpart in the East Asian tradition, at a time (from the 1920s) when ink painting was starting to make more serious waves, critically, in international circles across East Asia. Secondly, even if the modern reception of Chan (or Zen) in East Asia has been characterized by fundamental divisions as to its nature and existential status,9 nevertheless, qualities of Chan or Zen painting, such as randomness, deception, ambiguity, instability, abstraction, emptiness and change, have for some decades excited Western art historians who have cherished Chan art’s non-conformity and multi-dimensionality as antidotes to the synoptics of modernist Western art history.10 Regarding Ding Yi, no doubt the abstraction of Chan could be mooted as a 'post-modernist’ contingency but that is not what I propose here. The point here is that even if the notion of a wide range of continuities from China’s past in the present is problematic in a post-modern context, still, the epistemological foundations of culture cannot be wished away. This would particularly be the case with China, where a predisposition towards a long-sighted view of history has enabled popular traditions and values to perdure while polities come and go in cycles.  

How might we characterize, then, the historical position of an 'internationalist’ practice based in Shanghai, such as Ding Yi’s? Is Shanghai, in this context, just to be seen as modern and international? Discussing the repression of modernities in literature in late imperial China, the era of Shanghai’s emergence as a world city, David Der-wei Wang has referred to the pervasive hold of the idea of belatedness, a sense that in modern China one is not in time for history but late for it, always looking back.11 Despite the introduction in Republican China of a heritage model based on a modern Western one, in which the past was a separate, distinct (and even museum-displayable) entity from the present, the idea of the past as something immediate, as a living tradition inscribed or embodied in the social fabric as in the built environment, was never fully displaced. Scholars in China today are exploring how traditional Confucian notions combining place with ritual, custom, social relations and identity, might be re-established as parameters for the spatial governance of China’s tangible heritage.12

So, it would be crude for China’s past simply to be pitted against a modern, international present in a binary opposition which serves only to stress the distance and irrelevance of the past.13 The present link between art and Chinese medicine provides a way to understand and sidestep this problem, since traditional Chinese medicine makes little sense, if any, within a Western clinical framework and yet it works everyday for millions of people in China, East Asia and the rest of the world. Some artists have linked art and medicine, recognizing both as being ultimately for the individual and public good. Cai Guo-qiang’s (b. 1955) so-called gunpowder medicine, like moxibustion or acupuncture for denizens of the city, literally highlights the popular and beneficent powers of art, while celebrating the Chinese invention of pyrotechnics. Similarly, Ding Yi’s art, echoing the square grid-form for the city laid down in the Confucian classics, provides a conceptual roadmap for the inhabitants of the city and has beneficent qualities. Without prejudice to the free agency of Ding Yi’s art within the international contemporary art scene, I wonder how any links we may see between Ding Yi and China’s cultural heritage might work as heuristic tools to bring new perspectives on his artwork.

What links are there? Returning to the visual, some have observed the power of a Ding Yi canvas to work on the viewer as if it were a moving digital screen, displaying an endlessly changing visual form of, for example, chaos theory. Computer programmes input with the so-called Mandelbrot set display an endlessly self-transforming spade-shape (Fig.1). Similarly, Ding Yi’s canvases appear to evolve visually, as the eye roves over, across and among the components, making surprising connections, one after the other -- and sometimes reverting -- between forms, spaces, depths, surfaces, colours and so on. His linear forms, even if the artist claims to be free of the burden carried by traditional calligraphic technique, necessarily recall the hard-won but, at best, lightly-worn qualities of leading historical scholar-artists, who were both calligraphers and painters (Fig.2). Even if there is no formal representational value-set inherent in Ding Yi’s linework (that is to say, the lines do not represent anything other than lines forming crosses, which we are to understand as neutral forms without any linguistic or visual semantic burden), nevertheless, he cannot escape the fact that there is a long-established formal language at play within the culture in which he was born and raised: lines are not just outlines, one might say, they do also embody figurative linear qualities, often with properties like pulsating energy, speed and momentum, tensile strength and suppleness, transparency, volume, round or flatness and so on. These are some of the basic connections I will touch upon in what follows.

We begin with formal transformations. Part of the human response to abstract forms like Ding Yi’s grids, particularly if informed by the critical tradition of Chinese calligraphy, is to try to make visual sense of them, or, at least, to identify and recognize the forms as, in part, carriers of visual information relating to material or other characteristics like weight, size, density, strength, elasticity, tone, colour and so on. In part, it may be the individual viewer’s degree of recognition of the known or familiar in a particular canvas which determines how the visual effects embedded in the grid will become, in the sequence wherein images come into the foreground of one’s attention, focal or resting points. Shapes, patterns or colours will come to the fore usually one by one, picked up by the eye and transmitted from the retina to the mind, without recourse to the articulation of language; after a moment, this perception will gradually give way to another, related on some level, be it through adjacency or parallelism or a visual theme or other characteristic. There is some anecdotal evidence (I have tried it once) that the sequential pattern, whereby the eye moves after a pause from one perceived dominant form to the next emerging one, is shared by individuals starting from the same agreed motif. (In curatorial tours I mean to test this further.)

In this sense, the experience of gazing at Ding Yi’s canvases is almost like watching a slow moving picture or film, but not entirely. A crucial difference is the interactive element, the option of spectator decision-making in this process, and in that respect Ding Yi’s work discloses itself, rather, in the mode of a Chinese handscroll, which has to be manipulated back and forth by the viewer, a choreography shaped by the interaction of the viewer/handler with the artwork and its artistic content. Scholar-artists in China have long played with the potential inherent in the scroll-painting format to choreograph visual experience in paintings and to suggest levels of 'meaning’ or create open-ended visual experiences. An example from the mainstream tradition selected somewhat at random is Xia Chang’s 狦篟 (1388-1470), Spring Rain on the Xiang River ▲盻蔬景迾◎圖橙, dated 1455, in the Museum of Asian Art, Berlin.  In the 'opening’ reading, from right to left, the picture-scroll is revealed to record or visualize a journey upstream through rocks and bamboos, actually and figuratively towards the source or origin of the stream. In the 'closing’ or downstream reading, from left to right, the spring or source, standing for the purity of antiquity, gradually becomes more distant and belated, the stuff of Confucian nostalgia.14

Obviously, Ding Yi’s works are mainly square canvases. Yet, his scrolling works on paper, which unfold both like handscrolls and like concertina albums work like this, including 23 Circles (23 ge yuan), Draft crosses (Shizi cao), 26 Circles (26 yuan), all of 2009, and Order in Checkered Number (Fangge shuzi xulie) of 2011 (Fig. 3). One could also include the silkscreen work, The Round of Twenty Three (2011) in this group. Forms appear to wax and wane across the 'lifetime’ of the scroll, which can be read right to left and left to right, with no obvious forwards or backwards direction. The situation of Ding Yi’s grids in time, whether in works on paper, tartan or canvas, echoes the cyclical pattern of Taoist concepts of nature and the cosmos as constantly developing through stages of growth and decay, waxing and waning. Consider that in pre-modern art in, say, depictions of water, a wave is not just a wave but the interplay of a gust of wind and a current of water or else part of a pattern of two tides in a day that over a lunar month become springs and neaps. In Ding Yi’s handscroll compositions, the transformation of the forms is governed by the waxing and waning order in which they are recorded horizontally on the paper. This suggests a developmental or cyclical process in the spectator’s reception of other parts of the oeuvre too.

Looking at the hanging paintings and drawings, it is a moot question whether there is a predictable pattern or nature to this process of serial revelations in time. Today my eye might be drawn, first, to effects of transparency in the brushstrokes, which to me might recall calligraphic effects like 'flying white’ 飛啞 (feibai); that might lead to the sudden awareness of a particular colour among the grid lines, which could in turn draw attention to a pattern of dots or squares. 'Negative’ spaces, like the 'blank’ space around a character in calligraphy, then become positive spaces, an effect that may been seen particularly in early forms of calligraphy like seal and clerical scripts (zhuanshu, lishu), which emphasize design effects over linear ones due to the relative stiffness of early brushes compared with the more responsive and supple brushes introduced in the post-Han era, the dawn of the classical tradition. Small forms may reveal, or be perceptually transformed into, large ones via unexpected shifts in the comprehension of scale and dimension. Does the flow of discovery, which can be exhilarating and surprising, differ on different days and between individuals? What factors -- environmental or emotional -- might determine the sequence in tandem with the revelatory power of the artwork itself? Considering the environmental question, what might the effects be of immersion in multiple works within open or enclosed spaces, as in the exhibition, What’s Left to Appear? These are all open questions.

Let us come back for a moment to formal marks in art and their status as bearers of artistic content. Calligraphic qualities of brushwork may well have been the most privileged forms of artistic selfhood in pre-modern art in China. In this sense, they were formal abstractions built into, onto or around the figurative content of an artwork if it were a picture, or the textual frame of a work of calligraphy or the building fabric in garden design or architecture. The generation of formal content in the calligraphic brushwork of the elite worked primarily through the effect of referencing -- either via figurative qualities of the line or else potentially by referencing recognizable pre-existing and value-determined forms in the repertoire.15 And we may remark that Ding Yi has set out to neutralize readings of his art in this traditional, mainstream fashion.  

There is another characteristic, distinct from referencing, to the basic formal motif of the cross in Ding Yi’s work: it is also a recursive motif. Recursion is a remarkable effect that can occur in language (explored by Noam Chomsky), music, mathematics (e.g., the Sierpinski triangle; Fig.4) or images (e.g., the Droste effect; Fig.5) whereby a motif or feature (sometimes the whole image) is repeated on a proportionate scale within itself. The Sierpinski triangle is an example of fractal recursion, where the shape of the original triangle is, through the application of recursion, composed of repetitions of its own form in ever diminishing proportion. Recursion happens in Ding Yi’s art when he uses a combination of single crosses (or squares) at a local level to build up larger images of crosses composed of crosses within a painting, such that the smaller crosses are recursive components of the larger ones (Figs 6 and 7 ). What is unusual in Ding Yi’s art is the appearance of competing, interwoven recursions in a single canvas. Recursions like these contrast with the effect of a figure or a trope, which refers to or represents something not present or else outside itself, as a traditional painting of bamboo, for example in Xia Chang’s handscroll cited above, might conventionally signify Confucian humanistic values of constancy and benevolence (evergreen), integrity (tendency to uprightness), moderation (evenly spaced nodes, jie 节) and so on. Similarly, 'centred-tip’-style calligraphy by Zhao Mengfu might refer to the classical tradition of epistolary calligraphy descending from the 'sage of calligraphy’, Wang Xizhi. By contrast, recursive motifs tend to have multiple repetition and self-referencing as their fundamental order, often for the sake of emphasis. At the same time, the recursive quality of crosses and grid squares does not preclude them from also being geometric transformations such as reflections and translations.

How might these conventions of self-consciousness in the basic linear forms of art provide a framework for reading Ding Yi’s antagonistic forms and brushwork? In one sense, his art might actually be regarded as a logical historical development of the practice of maverick artists celebrated for the self-referential quality of their lineament, from Gu Kaizhi (c. 344-c. 405) in the early medieval era of individualism to the eccentric Chen Hongshou (1598-1652) and beyond. In the case of Chen Hongshou, who was active in the late Ming in the cities of northern Zhejiang, although renowned primarily for the 'lofty and antique’ quality of his ink-outline technique (gaogu yousi miao 詢嘉蚔絲鏡), he was a master of referencing patterns and textures of all kinds of materials using just the effects of ink on paper.16 Yet, his painting was not just brushwork: his eccentric and often witty approach to composition embodied an element of selfhood, just as the grid idiom does for Ding Yi.  

If we try to link Ding Yi to a moment in pre-modern or late modern art then it makes sense to explore his early predecessors in Shanghai. It is no surprise that Chen Hongshou was one of past masters admired by leading artists of late nineteenth-century like Ren Bonian (Ren Yi, 1840-1895), who was arguably a Shanghai artist rather than °Æa Chinese artist’ working in the vibrant urban context of electric lighting of public spaces, a burgeoning entertainment industry, illustrated magazines and daily publication of the news by telegraph.17 Ren Bonian openly incorporated into his painting all kinds of visual references and effects redolent of Shanghai’s fin-de-si®®cle modernity, from mimicking the shallow depth of field characteristic of studio photography to calligraphic surface abstraction in the manner of the Yangzhou 'eccentrics’ to western techniques like shading that had been widely current in China for a century. Jonathan Hay and Roberta Wue have both remarked how the appearance of dynamic, close-up views, foils, screens and unexpected angles and sightlines in Ren Bonian’s painting worked like a coded representation of experiencing life in the city, echoing the speed, height, lighting and random character of urban encounters.18 An example is the circular fan painting, Lotus and Mandarin Ducks of 1879 (Palace Museum, Beijing) (Fig.8). Among the surface abstractions Ren created was a kind of collage technique whereby he laid down discrete flat layers of bright colour seemingly in the surface layer of a painting. In Lotus and Mandarin Ducks, the brightly painted patterns of leaves and plants, flattened up into the picture plane, are combined with eye or sightlines into and around the composition, including across the surface to involve the observer, effects echoed in Ding Yi’s art.
Noting a liberty in Ren Bonian’s art to work in the surface with colour, wash and line concurrently with volumetric representational methods begotten of western ocular science, how might that inform us about the treatment of visual effects like screening, depth of field and line quality in Ding Yi’s art, where motifs lie at, near, in, across or all about the picture surface? Patterns such as are found on textiles or decorative surfaces have long entranced artists all over the world. A peculiarity of their representation in early modern China was the flattening of fabric and drapery patterns up into the picture surface, rather than bending them volumetrically in three-dimensional space around the body forms they clothed or three-dimensional spaces they filled, the better to render the overall pattern of fabric or design.19 The task falling to the observer of such patterns is to make visual sense of a flat, sometimes grid-like pattern and the outline that may define its outer limit and contain it; to combine these pieces of visual information in order to 'read’ a form as flat or else three-dimensional and volumetric or otherwise. The conventional use of flat patterning in pre-modern painting is evidence of an expectation of sensible visual interpretation on the part of the observer, informed by human experience of being the world and by default cultural expectations of self-cultivation.

Put another way, formal information supplied as being in the picture plane awaits proper interpretation on the part of the reader. Discussing Ren Bonian, who created similar kinds of puzzle for new urban audiences of Shanghai, Roberta Wue has argued that their appearance in his art was not inaccessibly highbrow but was geared to enchant and beguile a wide range of urban audiences, not just the elite.20 One can still see a Ding Yi grid as an homage to Mondrian, privileging the western modernist connection, but these juxtapositions with surface effects in art from Ming-Qing China open up another valid order of reception, which reassuringly assumes a satisfactory degree and facility of visual literacy on the part of the spectator.

Ding Yi himself calls attention to spatial and perspectival effects in his work, so let us consider further some of the relationships and positions his work engenders from the point of view of spectatorship. What is the active field in and around the grid-form artwork? The grid acts like a visual screen, even if latticed and not opaque, such that the distance between the observer and the grid on the canvas is clearly one active space and its dynamic is along the line of viewing between the eye and the canvas, perpendicular to the picture surface. The sense of space beyond the grid may also become a focal point in his paintings, whenever, during the state of visual absorption, the focal distance of the observer’s eyes fixes at a free point beyond the grid. It is a delightful conundrum that although the spectator may feel her eyes are focussed on the horizon, still, the forms in the painting close by appear to be, at the same time, in sharp focus. One might conceive of the line of viewing (from eye to canvas and into the infinity of spatial depth behind the grid) and the canvas as forming another, recursive + (cross). The horizontal line of viewing is conceptually fairly stable, being governed by the spectator’s standpoint on the ground and the canvas’s position on the wall. However, the plane of the grid represented on the canvas is not so anchored, which has a bearing on the figurative position of the observer. The grid’s (or the +’s) symbolic neutrality gives no clue as to what plane or planes it ought to exist in, although a modern eye might tend to conceive of it in a kind of frontal vertical plane, similar, for instance, to the way the letters on this page exist in words and phrases in a lateral spatial relationship to each other, perpendicular to the line of sight of you, the reader. Probably the same situation would obtain if one conceived of the + as, say, a Nestorian cross or the Chinese character shi 十 (ten). But why should language-derived images determine this conceptualization of space and plane?

Nowadays philologists recognize that the earliest forms of writing (in the ancient Near East) were not linguistic or verbal, but in fact pictographic, implying different points of observation.21 This legacy may be more obvious in Chinese than in other language systems. If one thinks in terms of the total history of Chinese calligraphy (not because of any methodological advantage to a search for origins but because of that immediacy of the past we have noticed in China’s culture), the cross form could certainly be conceived as an image seen from a bird’s eye view, from above, looking down. This is, for instance, the case with the not dissimilar form of characters for constructed things such as fields, tian 泬 and carriages, che 車. The character tian 泬 is similar to a modern plan view in architecture, in which a building is seen from above -- and in this case tian 泬 is remarkably close to the plan view of the grid structure of the Long Museum (West Bund), as well as to some of Ding Yi’s grid squares. The latter character che 車 is read pictographically as a carriage or cart for oxen or horses: the vertical line is the axel shaft; the two horizontals are wheels; the 堇 shape is the car for the load mounted over the axel. Still other characters combine idealized conceptual and spatial relationships: the role of a prince or ruler is embodied in the vertical stroke of the character wang 卼, which connects the three horizontal realms of the cosmos, heaven above, earth below and humanity in between. Such observations lay the grounds for diverse spatial readings of Ding Yi’s forms informed by China's cultural patterns.

Let us step back from individual marks to the collective by considering, in calligraphic lore, the moment when calligraphy was transformed into an art of the thinking man. The famous 'Battle-formation of the brush’ 筆陣圖 (Bizhen tu) attributed to the 'calligraphic sage’ Wang Xizhi’s (303-365) teacher, Madam Wei (Wei Furen), offers another avenue for consideration of the mechanism and function of Ding Yi’s planar structure. The battle-formation is an image of the grid structure into which characters in an inscription were positioned, and its character, zhen 陣, a pictographic image comprised of ranks or banks (fu 筌) of war chariots (che 車), is a figure of the visually active grid-like structure within which Chinese characters are arranged on a surface in an inscription. Wang Xizhi’s artistic contribution was to have naturalized the art of calligraphy despite this grid stricture, by reframing the grid according to the characters, as it were: allowing the density, visual simplicity or design potential of individual characters to determine their own transcribed size, scale and dynamic, thereby refashioning the grid according to the now noble and sagely (and no longer scribe-like) art of writing. In the Zhao Mengfu example, the sense of the grid is a vestige, a convention broken (repeatedly, with each act of copying) by the calligrapher’s liberty to write characters proportionately small or large according to perceived natural principles. In some sense, Ding Yi is also doing this in the ways he endlessly reprises and recolours the grid in response to both life experience and to the grid’s own development in his oeuvre as an artistic idiom.

Stepping back even further from the grid to consider spectatorship, there is one even older piece of calligraphic lore that Ding Yi’s art calls to mind, particularly the group of new works from 2015, mounted in the central cathedral nave-like gallery of the Long Museum (West Bund) for the exhibition, What’s Left to Appear. Measuring 480 x 240 cm each and painted predominantly in black with grids emerging in white and other colours, and incised through these paint layers to reveal patterns, these artworks recall ancient monumental stele which historically were made of dark stone and incised with calligraphic inscriptions. The new work could also recall the ink rubbings in intaglio taken as copies of the inscriptions on those stele, in which the grid/inscription is left in white against a black-inked background. The vogue for erecting such monuments began in the late Han dynasty and with it arose the custom of stele tourism, which later, from the Song period on, became a celebrated topic in painting, known as °Æpictures of reading steles’ (Dubei tu or Guanbei tu).22 Seeing visitors looking up at Ding Yi’s new dark artworks on plywood will inevitably remind anyone who has seen these compositions of that genre.
And if spectators are intrigued or puzzled by what they see, that too will reprise one of the famous historical incidents of °Ævisiting a stele’, when the notorious general Cao Cao (155-220) and his advisor Yang Xiu (175-219) encountered a stele erected to the °Æexemplary woman’ Cao E (d. 143) at Kuaiji, Zhejiang Province. Benighted and without a lantern, they had to feel the inscription by hand to read the main text as well as the famous puzzle incised on the back which, when solved, paid tribute to Cao E’s character and conduct.23 In °ÆDubei tu’ paintings of the later dynastic period, tourists are often depicted puzzling in front of a stele, a scene that may allude to the Cao E stele with its difficult riddle. To be sure, there was a serious degree of rivalry between Cao Cao and Yang Xiu over the interpretation of this and other verbal/visual/conceptual puzzles -- which may to some extent be echoed in exchanges among critics and viewers who have come to stand before and gaze upon Ding Yi's artwork.

As a curator, I hope that audiences of What’s Left to Appear will give Ding Yi’s work time with their eyes, generously, a bit like Cao Cao and Yang Xiu before the stele to Cao E and certainly long enough to note the somatic sensations and mental images resulting from prolonged visual immersion in the work. I am referring here to this mostly linear process of communication in time that takes place during absorption in the work whereby a seemingly unique visual dialogue occurs between the artist, as embodied in the painting, and the observer through the eye and visual cortex. Although there is a total lack of any obvious narrative in Ding Yi's work, nevertheless, the grids have an uncanny power to trigger reflections and thereby to recall memories to the mind of the spectator. It would be hard to say how individual or shared these reflections are. For example, the endlessly self-transforming nature of the forms and their power to engage the individual and suspend that person’s sense of °Ænormal’ time, for me, recalls something of the endlessly self-fashioning quality of magical, other worlds in pre-modern painting. In the cultural imaginary, audiences travelled to these immortal abodes in the eastern sea or paradise worlds hidden within the world, through stories and visual narratives. I know the iconography of the isles of the immortals in painting from long scrolls like the Isles of the Blessed by the Yuan-dynasty priest-painter Puguang. Viewing the scroll, one encounters island after island across a stormy sea, each island seemingly a transformation of the last, or else the same one endless self-transformed.24 It is a wonder that such generic forms as Ding Yi’s grids could produce such free and individualized responses, reactions that when they are articulated like this may be as enchanting to one person as they are tenuous, if not in fact meretricious, to the next.

I have picked up on quite a few resonances in Ding Yi’s work with °Ætradition’. If I relate aspects of Ding Yi’s work to that tradition it is not to say that this is the right or correct way to address his painting. Rather, it is a means to complicate our sense of what may be happening in it. In closing, I want to consider Ding Yi’s relationship to the very beginning of art as a self-conscious activity in China, a moment in time exemplified in painting by the Admonitions of the Court Instructress picture-scroll attributed to Gu Kaizhi in the British Museum. That artwork is a fine example of how a painting might reify the act of looking (in the so-called toilette scene, the women attending to their coiffures and putting on their make-up specifically draw attention to the superficial nature of physical beauty and fashion, which neatly parallels the admonition in the text to cultivate the inner self; Fig.9), and also reward looking and absorption, specifically in some of the witty references and allusions which spice up what could otherwise have been a humourless subject.

In the Admonitions, the charge or spark deposited by the painter in the traces has excited viewers for over a millennium. The sheer humanity of these sometimes conflicted individuals may be regarded as the embodiment of the first of Xie He’s six canonical laws of painting (liufa), namely that figures should have the quality of qiyun shengdong (°Æresonating with the spirit and moving as in life’). But even as this painter, who may be Gu Kaizhi, is seen to embody canonical norms in exemplary fashion, at the same time, he is a maverick who makes up his own rules by playing with and at times seeming to subvert the didactic iconography of these scenes. Arguably, these subversions (such as adding details not in the text or unexpected touches of realism and wit) are what make the painting so successful as a vehicle of admonition, or at least of drawing attention to admonition. There is a degree of complicity between the painter and his immediate intended audience which suggests that neither was necessarily bound to the normative (Confucian) rules of conduct, and that both delighted in a cult of individualism.

It seems strange to be invoking Xie He’s Six Laws in the context of Ding Yi’s work, which is post-modern and abstract. Nevertheless, in Ding Yi’s work we do find an extraordinary quality of animation, that spark of humanity alluded to in the term qiyun shengdong. Xie He’s criteria regarding composition and layout are also meticulously attended to. And as for Xie He’s sixth and final law of painting, copying and transmitting, Ding Yi’s work is the epitome of self-copying and self-transmitting to a degree where this becomes in itself an act of independence and autonomy for the human spirit.


1 E.g., Thibaut Verhoeven, ‘Seeing, rather than perception: Ding Yi’s paintings in the context of European ways of looking at art’, in Ding Yi, Specific ∙ Abstracted - Ding Yi solo exhibition (Beijing: Jincheng chubanshe and Xi Yuan chubanshe, 2011), pp 15-20.
2 Hou Hanru, ‘An Excessive Minimalist’, Ding Yi (Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, 2005), p. 14ff. The link with Mondrian is made, e.g., by Jonathan Watkins, ‘Foreword’, Ding Yi (Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, 2005), p. 5.
3 In the context of Scully’s recent exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing, the catalogue of which transcribes one of many conversations arranged by curator Philip Dodd between Scully and Ding Yi; Sean Scully, Follow the Heart: The Art of Sean Scully, 1964-2014, exh. cat., Himalayas Museum, Shanghai, and Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, Beijing (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2014); conversation on pp 72-83.
4 E.g., on Xu Bing’s Book of Heaven and China’s historical encyclopaedia and print culture, see Shane McCausland ‘Copying and transmitting, knowledge and nonsense: From the Great Encyclopaedia to the Book from the Sky’, in Nick Pearce & Jason Steuber (eds), Original Intentions: Essays on Production, Reproduction and Interpretation in the Arts of China (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2012), pp 236-63.
5 Sean Scully, Follow the Heart: The Art of Sean Scully, 1964-2014, exh. cat., Himalayas Museum, Shanghai, and Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, Beijing (Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2014); conversation on p. 83.
6 David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (New York: Phaidon, 2003).
7 E.g., writing of participatory art, Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory art and the politics of spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), p. 5.
8 Eugene Y. Wang 汪悅進, ‘Sketch Conceptualism as Modernist Contingency’, Chinese Art: Modern Expressions, ed. Maxwell K. Hearn and Judith G. Smith (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), pp 102-61.
9 Viz., debates between Hu Shih (1891-1962) and D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966); reviewed in the context of a doctoral thesis nearing completion on Chan/Zen painting by Malcolm McNeill 莫梅肯 at SOAS, University of London. See also Gong Xiu and Chen Jidong (eds), Zhongguo Chanxue rumen (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2009).
10 Norman Bryson, ‘The Gaze in the Expanded Field’, in Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988), pp 87-114.
11 David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
12 Z. J. Wu (Wu Zongjie 吴宗杰), ‘Let Fragments Speak for Themselves: Vernacular Heritage, Emptiness and Confucian Discourse of Narrating the Past’ (让碎片说话:乡土遗产、空缺与儒家历史叙述), International Journal of Heritage Studies, vol. 20.1 (2014), pp 1-15.
13 As Zizek argues, ‘Post-colonial ‘‘subaltern’’ theorists, who detect in the persistence of pre-modern traditions the resistance to global capitalism and its violent modernization, are here thoroughly wrong: on the contrary, fidelity to pre-modern (‘Asian’) values is paradoxically the very feature which allows countries like China, Singapore and India to follow the path of capitalist dynamics even more radically than Western liberal countries.’ Slavoj Zizek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (London: Allen Lane, 2014), p. 170.
14 Illustrated in full in Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall (eds), Ming: 50 Years that Changed China (London: British Museum Press, 2014), fig. 170.
15 An example might be Zhao Mengfu self-consciously emulating the style of Wang Xizhi in the Orchid Pavilion Preface in his famous commentary known as the Thirteen Colophons (see Fig.1).
16 In a late handscroll, Elegant Gathering of 1647 (Shanghai Museum), notably at the left end, different ink tonalities and textures evoke an extraordinary range of physical properties in things which representationally appear to be trees of dense or soft wood, dense pitted rocks and so on. These forms can appear like random formal structures on which to hang the virtuosic traces of his brush.
17 Yu-chih Lai, ‘Remapping Borders: Ren Bonian’s Frontier Paintings and Urban Life in 1880s Shanghai’, The Art Bulletin, 86.3 (2004), pp 550-572.
18 Roberta Wue, Art Worlds, p. 50, citing Jonathan Hay, ‘Painting and the Built Environment in Late Nineteenth-Century Shanghai’, in Maxwell K. Hearn and Judith G. Smith (eds), Chinese Art: Modern Expressions (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001), pp 60-101, reference to pp 78ff.
19 For example, works depicting female immortals from the studio of Chen Hongshou, such as one in the Yanhuang Art Museum; illustrated by James Cahill, The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), no. 3.36.
20 Wue, Art Worlds, p. 53.
21 Pers. comm., Gebhard Selz, 20th March 2015.
22 Clarissa von Spee, ‘Visiting Steles. Variations of a Painting Theme’, in Shane McCausland and Yin Hwang (eds), On Telling Images of China: Essays in Narrative Painting and Visual Culture (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2014), pp 213-36.
23 In Chinese: 黄绢、幼妇、外孙、齑臼 = 绝妙好辞.
24 A similar effect is seen in the complex and, again, self-transforming ruled-line (jiehua) architecture of the palaces on these islands in a mid-seventeenth-century Edo painting by the China School artist Kano Sansetsu, depicting Yang Guifei receiving the Daoist envoy of Tang emperor Minghuang: Kano Sansetsu 狩野山雪 (1598-1651) and studio, Song of Lasting Sorrow 長恨歌畫卷 (Jp. Chgonka gakan; Ch. Changhen ge huajuan), end of the second scroll, in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.

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DING YI 丁乙

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