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Reading Ding Yi in the Art Historiographical Context

Author: Tian S. Liang May,2015

As one of the most celebrated abstract artists working in China, Ding Yi, and his works, have attracted considerable attention from curators and art critics in and outside China since the late 1980s. In 1988, three of Ding Yi’s earliest  ‘Appearance of Crosses’ works shown in the Exhibition of Today’s Art at the Shanghai Art Museum shocked local audiences because their idiosyncratic visual qualities.1 But such consternation has not, apparently, caused the number of invitations to exhibit that he has received to diminish. Since 1989, when he participated in the well-received group show China/Avant-Garde Art Exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing, Ding Yi’s works started to emerge onto the global art scene, first in Japan (with the Documentary Exhibition of Chinese Art of the 90’s, K Gallery, Tokyo, 1991) and then in Europe (with the China Avant-garde, Touring Exhibition in Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark and the UK, 1993), culminating in the 45th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale in 1993.

Throughout the last two decades, Ding Yi’s works have not only been shown in group exhibitions at numerous venues in East Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia, but 24 solo exhibitions, including the current one at the Long Museum (West Bund) in Shanghai, have also taken place across various cities in China, Singapore and Europe. In addition, through the activities of ShanghART Gallery which represents Ding Yi, his works have been acquired by leading international institutions and collections such as the Centre Pompidou in France, the Uli Sigg Collection in Switzerland, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, the M+ Collection in Hong Kong, the DSL Collection in Paris, and the Long Museum in Shanghai, to name just a few.

Such an international record of exhibitions and acquisitions of Ding Yi’s works has brought with it a certain scholarly focus on the artist. Accounts of Ding Yi’s biography and the development of his oeuvre to date have generally been conceived within the current discourse of contemporary art. Most of these studies are to be found in the catalogues of the solo exhibitions just mentioned, such as Monica Dematte’s ‘Simplicity, Complexity, Synthesis: Ding Yi’s Painting Process’ (1994) and Cao Weijun’s ‘The Magician of Crosses’ (2009) (reprinted in this volume, pp 127-142).2 Qian Naijing’s monograph Ding Yi, in the Contemporary Artists Series edited by the art historian Lü Peng in 2007, has also carefully traced Ding’s artistic development and identified his stylistic formation with five keywords: Manifestation (xuanyan), Freehand (tushou), Material Experimentation (cailiao changshi), City (chengshi) and Self-discipline (zilü).

Thanks to these thorough biographical studies, we come to know that Ding Yi’s trademark crosses gestated in the late 1980s when he was still a student at the Fine Arts Department of Shanghai University. Collectively, these biographically-grounded studies all recognize Ding Yi as a self-disciplinarian and define his artistic development as a constantly evolving process, while his painting practice has been described in terms of several more or less analogous themes, including simplicity, complexity, freehand quality and material experimentation (such as his use of tartan). Ding Yi’s works have also often been discussed in the context of the city in which he lives—Shanghai.  Ding Yi’s repetitive practice of painting crosses may or may not defy the conventional meanings ascribed to art in figurative or narrative contexts,3 but it is noteworthy that these biographical studies on Ding Yi have exhausted the abovementioned themes as critical tools to examine his works. Further, when interrogating Ding Yi’s works, most art critics and theorists have found themselves lingering in presupposed theoretical contexts: as Mathieu Borysevicz pungently observed, Ding Yi’s works ‘have more often than not been discussed on more or less the same terms (spirituality, reiteration, and [their] taciturn response to China’s social upheaval in the 1980s’).4

Drawing upon the ideas of ‘simplicity’ and ‘complexity’, Li Xianting, a renowned art critic in the contemporary Chinese art world, has proclaimed that Ding Yi’s reiterative grid-painting practice is a process of ‘accumulating simplicity into complexity’ (jijian erfan).5 This concept may be traced in Li’s essay, ‘Prayer Beads and Brushstrokes’, published in conjunction with the group exhibition of the same title at the Beijing-Tokyo Art Projects in 2003. In the essay, Li compared art with religion, arguing that between these two there was no difference, as far as the self-pacification of the mind is concerned.6 To that end, Li asserted, the artist's repetition of brushstrokes was somehow analogous to the repetition of turning the prayer beads or chanting the six-syllabled Sanskrit mantra Om mani padme hum by a Buddhist, as both are abstract and metaphysical and devoid any narrative meaning. Situating Ding Yi’s grid idiom in this spiritual context, Li viewed Ding’s painting practice as a form of meditation close to Chan Buddhism.

In the same vein, the art historian Gao Minglu placed Ding Yi’s works in a metaphysical context which he called ‘Maximalism’. Gao regarded Ding Yi’s crosses as a ‘precise manipulation’, to which the simple form of the cross ‘provides the possibility of continuous and monotonous manipulation.’7 Quoting the artist’s self-statement, Gao Minglu believed that Ding Yi’s experience of continuous work could garner him ‘spiritual release and inspirational experience’.8 Yet, it seems that no matter what terms they have used to designate Ding Yi’s pattern of crosses, both Gao Minglu and Li Xianting saw Ding’s continuous ‘manipulation’ of crosses as a tension between the individual motif and the whole structure of a painting, and they regarded Ding Yi’s painting practice as a spiritual act which pointed to self-discipline as understood in a religious context. With the in-your-face title ‘Repetitious Craze’, Wang Min’an, a cultural critic, emphasized once again Ding Yi’s repetitious act of painting crosses. However, instead of reading Ding Yi’s crosses in a spiritual context, Wang considered Ding’s practice of painting crosses as a cyclical mode of art production, such that each of the artist’s paintings‘ is not a finished project, never and ever, and forms just a part of a series of crosses which is a long-term painting process—removed from this viewpoint, his work would be meaningless’.9

Perhaps it is the paradoxical surface quality of Ding’s crossed-shaped motif that causes the binary of ‘simplicity’ and ‘complexity’ to remain as a linchpin in almost every study of the artist. Curator Hou Hanru’s frequently cited essay on Ding Yi, ‘An Excessive Minimalist’ (reprinted in this volume, pp 123-126) is no exception. Apparently opposed to Gao Minglu’s theoretical framework of ‘Maximalism’, Hou Hanru instead used the seemingly contradictory term ‘Excessive Minimalism’ to denote Ding Yi’s art practice (which is probably closer to Li Xianting’s theory of ‘accumulating simplicity into complexity’).10 Hou stated that for Ding Yi, ‘painting is reduced to its minimal state, as there is a formidable dynamic created by the tension between the excessiveness of formal variety and the minimal nature of the structural elements’11. That is to say, seen individually, each of Ding’s crosses is a motif that can be appreciated for its own succinct beauty, but once they have been composited by the artist in a systematic fashion in the picture plane, at that point, taken collectively, the overlapping crosses form an excessive surface that is suggestive of flatness or pictorial depth on our retina.

In fact, Hou Hanru’s essay explored Ding Yi’s art within a much broader context, extending to the wider societal and cultural landscape of China since the end of 1970s, and further argued that the city of Shanghai itself enabled Ding Yi to emerge as an individualist, because in Hou’s estimation Shanghai has had greater esteem for individual rights and cultural diversity, while the Shanghai art scene ‘has never been a collective business claiming common values’.12 It is important to note that Hou Hanru was not the only author to discern the significance of Shanghai as a constant fertile ground that has enriched Ding Yi’s art in so many ways. In the catalogue of Ding Yi’s solo exhibition, Appearance of Crosses from 1989-2007, Magdalena Kröner devoted a relatively lengthy essay to narrating the development of Shanghai as an art space since the late nineteenth century.13 With her erudite references to various cultural and artistic transformations that happened in the city—from the innovative painters of the Shanghai School in the fin-de-siècle period to the construction of futuristic skyscrapers in recent years—Kröner’s study on Shanghai is undoubtedly helpful for Western audiences with limited knowledge of China and its culture. However, it seems that in her scrutiny of Shanghai, Kröner did not particularly engage with the works of Ding Yi, which somewhat distances her essay from its context, given that it was after all published in the catalogue of Ding’s solo exhibition at Bologna, Italy, in 2008.

By looking closely at the artwork itself, Tony Godfrey explores Ding Yi’s works in relation to the LED lights of Shanghai, with particular attention paid to Ding’s fluorescent paintings (reprinted in this volume, pp 143-151). Previous biographical studies revealed that the initiative for Ding’s fluorescent works flowed from a dialogue between the artist and the art historian Serge Guilbaut from the University of British Columbia held in 1998 at the artist’s studio,14 recording the fact that Ding was challenged by a question: ‘The city [of Shanghai] is changing drastically; how come artists do not react?’15 According to Godfrey, this question made Ding Yi rethink and re-examine the city he lived in, and triggered his use of neon colours in the fluorescent series.16 Whereas previous studies had only stated this inspirational fact, Godfrey provided careful visual analysis of the actual artworks, stating, ‘we must always begin by describing the paintings and how they affect us’17. It is through Godfrey’s succinct enquiry into the choice of colours in Ding’s works that we come to recognize the distinctive visual dynamism of space, mood and pattern that are articulated through Ding Yi’s brushwork.

Ding Yi’s vibrant visual language thus also opens up the possibility of dissecting the importance of pattern in an art historical context, as Mathieu Borysevicz effectively did with his multi-directional exploration of tartan, argyle, check and gingham as a way to examine the geometrical elements in Ding Yi’s works within a wider discourse of art and pattern under a globalized framework.18 Departing from the same globalized stance, Demetrio Paparoni19 and Thibaut Verhoeven20 explored Ding Yi’s works from ‘a European perspective’,21 where Ding Yi was discussed alongside prominent Western figures in abstract art such as Piero Dorazio (1927-2005), Peter Halley (b. 1953), and Sean Scully (b.1945). Yet, it is worth remarking that these multifaceted studies on either the resourceful materiality or the transcultural visual appeal of Ding Yi’s work could only be realized because of the richness in Ding Yi’s work itself.

In Tony Godfrey’s detailed reading of spatial depth in Ding Yi’s painting, he briefly touched upon the issue of spectatorship, since he saw Ding Yi’s paintings as moving into the viewer’s space, to the extent that viewers respond physically to the paintings. However, Godfrey did not elaborate the importance of spectatorship, but rather he carried on to interrogate the choreographic movements of Ding’s painting process as a means to emphasize artist’s physical approach to paintings.22 It is through this uncanny visual quality in Ding Yi’s painting, together with the exciting exhibition space that it occupies, that the present exhibition aims to ‘probe spectatorship and the relationship of audiences with Ding Yi's work’23. With an elusive title, What’s Left to Appear, the curator of the current exhibition proposes to advance our understanding of Ding Yi’s art by suggesting multiple ways of looking and by inviting viewers’ deeper visual participation in the works, in order to prompt new responses to Ding Yi’s persistent search for the Appearance of Crosses.

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