Ding Yi’s world of imagery not only poses difficulties in terms of description and interpretation. On top of these, there is the mystery and fascination created by the halo of Ding Yi’s crosses. The paintings viewers in for an ever closer look, again and again.
The crosses are indisputably a symbol of Chinese contemporary art. For several decades Ding Yi has persevered with his basic theme. Although it may seem simple in the extreme, there is a richness and compulsion implied beneath the clean surface. To have a reading of the crosses is to read Ding’s art. To understand the crosses is to enter Ding’s mind. Precisely because of his decades-long crosses quest, Ding has managed to stand apart from the crowd. His crosses have allowed Ding to reinvent and surpass himself. The crosses are the linguistic symbol for Ding’s visual narrative; they are not just a symbolic expression of Ding’s observations of contemporary society and life. Behind his crosses is also Ding Yi’s subtle, meaningful train of thought. The crosses are a genealogy, a structure of knowledge, and moreover a set of values. When Ding Yi takes his crosses around the world, observers experience an open, passionate, fast-paced and dramatic China. “Re-appearance of Crosses” will give viewers an insight into Ding Yi’s spiritual quest and concern for culture against the backdrop of the new social order.
Tracing the evolution of Ding Yi’s visual expression shows that throughout his over thirty year long career in art, Ding has remained inconspicuous, calm, and strict and exacting, challenging himself through his crosses of different sizes and materials. Such a spirit has been evident since his early experiments through to his later glory – there is a consistency from the first decade through to the present, and may well continue into the future. The ever-changing crosses are a window onto Ding’s rare taste, his passion, and his fantasies. The viewer meanwhile is struck by Ding’s desire to escape, his spirit, and a visual narrative logic that runs through from creation to symbolic meaning.
1. Escape from the Strictures of Realism
When interpreting Ding Yi’s work, particularly his crosses, it is imperative to place the artist in his historical context. Otherwise, it would be difficult to grasp the meaning behind the crosses. When realism becomes the overriding fanfare of a society; and when definition of an artist by one’s subject materials becomes the mainstream, for a young artist with dreams, such an artistic context is no doubt one filled with confusion and searching, particularly so given the changes brought about by China’s reform and opening up. One must be mentally prepared or equipped with the right knowledge. By now, China’s Scar Art and Rural Realism have become trends of the past. With the influx of Western modernist thought, Ding Yi was drawn to Utrillo and Cézanne. The former’s simple style and Cézanne’s multiple perspectives not only infected Ding, but also inspired him to explore to the core of art. When the 85 New Wave movement was spreading across the country, Ding was not at the forefront, but he did participate in a low-key way. For instance, he did attempt to challenge stultified restraints by means of behavioural art. Two of his works are exemplary of his artistic mindset during the 1980s: his 1985 oil-on-canvas Breaking Tradition (123 cm x 93 cm) and the 1986 oil-on-canvas Taboo (84 cm x 84 cm). These two pieces viewed today seem awkward given the artistic context of the time. These works are full of hints at the future Crosses theme; they are a departure from the realist focus on reproducing typical people and objects in a typical setting and have no subject narrative. The abstract structure and lines of colour are deeply set within the picture. This gives them structure, power, and feeling, but there does not seem to be any particular content. It was precisely Breaking Tradition and Taboo that inspired Ding’s later cross works. It is not difficult to understand therefore that when Appearance of Crosses (1988, acrylic on canvas, 200 cm x 180 cm) in primary colours was unveiled, signalling the beginning of Ding Yi’s later fame and glory, just how daring and precious his earlier explorations were. Had Ding Yi continued along the realist trend, or the mainstream narrative structure, it is unlikely that there would be the open, calm and free-spirited Ding Yi we see today. Breaking Tradition and Taboo very early on hinted at his ambition to shake off the system, and his passionate efforts to escape uniform narratives.
2. 1960s Spiritual Mindset
Ding Yi has all of the symptoms of the generation born in the 1960s. For decades, Ding Yi has not tired of repeating his crosses, which have become iconic for all of us born during that period. The crosses represent not only Ding Yi’s personal career trajectory, but also the key to his visual semiotics. The crosses have even become an important symbol of contemporary art. Using his simple, direct and orderly system, Ding Yi is a silent and traceless witness to our era, our city and our lives. Between the apparently meaningless crosses, there is not only a restoration of form and spirit to painting; there is a spiritual power and a rare international relevance.
Study of artists like Ding Yi has become a phenomenon that is gaining ever greater recognition in academia. Ding, who was born in the 1960s, is clearly different from his predecessors like Xu Youhan. Ding has none of their sorrow or heaviness of heart; on the other hand, he lacks the carefree, game-player attitude of today’s forty year olds. Ding is like others his age: a transitional object from an era of transition. On the one hand, Ding has traces of idealism and heroism, exuding a determination to be more than the ordinary. Ding’s candid, sincere visual self-expression allows the viewer to experience via the abstract narrative the vitality of Ding’s generation and their sense of responsibility to pass on their ideals. Ding Yi and those of his age are consciously infecting our era with their passion. A look at Ding’s cross narrative is a clear insight into the mindset of his generation and their unique take on culture. In the editors’ note for the “1970s Special Issue” in Jintian magazine by Beidao and Li Tuo, there was a particular explanation of the significance of the 1960s generation for Chinese society. It is therefore not difficult to see why Ding and his peers have been able to become the powerhouse of Chinese contemporary art. Beidao and Li Tuo wrote that, “we refer here to a fairly specific group of people: mainly the generation whose teenage and early adulthood was during the 1970s. This generation grew up during such a special historical period, shaping a particularly special group of youth. It was precisely this generation that played an extremely important and special role in Chinese history after the Cultural Revolution.”
Clearly, Ding Yi is an important member of this group. His fate and experiences – or, his crosses – are of course intricately linked with changes in society, politics, the economy, and culture. Ding’s crosses also give the viewer an impression of the changes in lifestyle and thought brought about by the transformation of society. Ding Yi’s emphasis on freedom and independence, particularly the search for a free style of living behind his art, is certainly of important inspirational value.
3. From creation to symbols
Ding Yi’s persistent painting of crosses has allowed them to gain an ever-stronger symbolic logic and everyday quality, becoming ever more visible in the public space.
From the perspective of linear narratives in art history, Ding Yi’s cross art can be clearly divided into different periods. The appearance of his crosses in 1988 was the period during which his narrative style and concept crystallized. There were also early industrial elements, such as the reliance on rulers, straight lines, and tape. By 1991, Ding had abandoned his pursuit of precision and smoothness in favour of an informal painting style. In 1993, Ding tried to break taboos of material, beginning to experiment with marker pens, fountain pens, pencils, ballpoint pens, chalk, charcoal, unbordered linen, cardboard, origami paper, graph paper, and photocopy paper. In 1997 came an important breakthrough for Ding: he drew his crosses directly on tartan. This greatly expanded the horizon of his crosses series and added a specific cultural element. Ding abandoned his limited painting and began to paint whatever he wanted. By 1999, he had added fluorescent and gold colours to his art. Ding began to refocus the visual impact of his work, and moved away from introspection on experience or drawing, to an active response to life in the contemporary city. In 2015, Ding’s “What’s Left to Appear” solo exhibition at the Long Museum included a huge, striking cross strongly reminiscent of woodcarving. Viewers had a strong sense of Ding’s struggle to overcome personal constraints with his crosses series.
The reason for this plumbing into the history of Ding’s career is twofold: it is helpful for readers to understand Ding’s crosses; and it allows the reader to focus on Ding’s journey from drawing to symbols.
Throughout Ding Yi’s long portrayal of his crosses, viewers can see the dense line-up of the crosses and sense the collision, order, and rhythm within the grids. There is also the palpable power of the crosses: the structure of the art – round, square, or rectangular – is all determined by these simple and inconspicuous crosses. The repeated appearance of these crosses portrays changing visions and moods, at different times, places and seasons. Ding’s crosses appear in plural: although they are a repetition of the same singular, their fascinating repetition is a joy for the viewer. Ding Yi manages in a creative way to fuse the context of visual psychology and the city, with viewer and artist, and artwork and its context.
Although in terms of visual expression, the crosses are always set to appear in their monotonous form and there are strong echoes of the artist’s design, they nonetheless excite the viewer. Viewer and artist meet on the cross-grid canvas and unconsciously enter the same realm: the “Cross Space”. Meanwhile, Ding continues to inject his own passion and thinking into his crosses, never tiring of creating his rich and dazzling, mysterious realm.
There is also a provocative introduction of temporal, spatial and emotional elements into Ding’s spiritual realm. His crosses do not appear to have uttered their last word – they seem to contain an infinity of treasures, drawing him in forever. The crosses also seem to point to a series of meditation and sudden inspiration. Each one of Ding’s cross-pieces appears to indicate an extraordinary adventure. By reading the crosses, the viewer understands the closeness (and distance) between Ding Yi and this world. Behind the simple representation of the crosses, there is indeed a glimmer of a rational thought process. The same style, using different materials and paints, and different perspectives, make the crosses unpredictable and mysterious.
Countless crosses shimmer, while the flickering of the colour itself shakes every visitor to the crosses exhibition. Furthermore, between the painting and the viewing of Ding’s crosses, there are many chance and unintended effects. This is the reason why Ding Yi and his viewers can maintain their passion when it comes to the crosses. The highly structured artwork necessarily leaves the viewer thirsting after space. The crosses place the viewer on the top of a building looking down at the entire city, seeing the streets, people moving, and cars flashing by. The moving city, roads and people are fused together – with the action of the crosses, they become another factor altogether, dancing like the notes in music and evoking associations to irregular heartbeats.
It is no exaggeration to say that by means of his crosses, Ding Yi is expressing his passionate regard for urban society. Within the limits of the space on his grids, he attempts to express something that is without limits. Within his apparently simple style, one can find a path to the heart of art.
Ding’s grids allow him to move as his mood takes him across the canvas without any preparation, and to express precisely what is on his mind. As the viewer moves across the grid, they can experience Ding’s outlook on the world and art, and the diversity of the city, society and the individual.
The deep and mysterious cross grids also express, in addition to space, ideas about time. There is neither waste, nor surplus narrative, in Ding Yi’s grids. Instead, the crosses are expressed, observed and experienced directly. This presentation of the crosses attracts passing visitors. While they are rooted to the spot, they experience a sense of nostalgia that swims around their mind and sparks a passion for life. These simple and ordinary crosses are precisely the medium through which one can understand Ding Yi’s outlook on life and his consistent pursuits in art.
4. Both escape and release
Ding Yi may be a practised hand at his crosses by now, but when it comes to dealing with the success it has brought or the hopes of the public, Ding has retained a rare cool-headedness and discipline. In an opportunistic society and city, restlessness and anxiety eat away at every individual. The snare of materialistic desires has an ever greater hold over contemporary urban society. When citizens pursue the gratification of these desires with all their might, and when their goal proves unattainable, their lives are taken over by anxiety. It is evident that Ding Yi has a keen insight into the changes in human character in a society of desire; he has remained detached from the success that his crosses have created. By controlling the rhythm of his crosses, Ding disciplines his own desires. His grids are rare in their richness and boundless imagination; the pure spirit and raw power of his artwork offer countless possibilities for life, and force the viewer to reflect on the spatialisation and order brought to our lives.
Ding Yi constantly uses his fascinating crosses to recreate one familiar scene after another. The canvas and his scenes, together, spiritually draw together the viewer and the artist. Ding remains a low-key and thoughtful, but enthusiastic, participant in Shanghai’s strong local identity and its fast-paced development.
Ding’s cross art draws inspiration from the city in which he was born and bred. However, his visual expression is clearly about more than just present Shanghai. Ding’s crosses provide a blueprint for the future development of the city, giving a surreal feel to his work – showcasing an extraordinary visual experience amid ordinary expression.
Returning to the fluorescent phase in Ding’s crosses: it was a combination of the fashion of a city with the lustre of the orient. The different fluorescent crosses have an apparent aura of the baptism of Chinese culture from an agricultural to an industrial civilization. Ding’s cross grids project images of passion and pace, neon lights, and overpasses; interweaved with the breakneck speed and frenzy of the transition from rural society to urbanized settlement.
As society restructures, Ding Yi uses his crosses to represent the pace of the city and its diversity; this theme is also an inexhaustible source of inspiration for his crosses in the future.
Given all the above factors, it is clear why Ding Yi’s crosses have been able to remain popular up to the present day: Ding has always put himself in his viewers’ shoes. He considers both the relationship between his different artworks, between his art and his viewers, and his art and its champ. He has turned his fascinating repetitions into an art of the greatest simplicity, while absorbing into inconspicuousness elements that many believe to be serious. For instance, after the disappearance of political idols and the rise of the temple of capitalism, for people who have gone through joy and then despair, mixed with boredom, or anxiety due to being controlled by an ideology, Ding Yi’s crosses have an understandable humour. Also present in his art is the joy of the craftsman, mixed with Ding’s personal happiness and relief. On top of these, his grids display an effort to shake off the constraints of everyday routine and fossilised ways of thinking.
Through his crosses, Ding Yi shows his viewers the wisdom of melting away narratives with his lack of narrative; deconstructing style through the absence of style; fading away individual character through the lack thereof; dissolving the collectivised experience by means of individual economy; and replacing meaning with no meaning. Ding’s crosses are an avenue to portray a world more real than reality: the fast-paced, changing society that he experiences.
Ding Yi’s crosses are already there. They appear to remind him time and again: “You need to think about what to do next.” Perhaps what we see is merely the presentation of reality – when in fact, outside the cross grids, there are many unknown factors and hopes. This is no doubt the inspiration for us in “Re-appearance of Crosses”.
1.30pm, 25th March 2016
Hubei Museum of Art