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The Meaning Behind Ding Yi’s Crosses

Author: Liu Chun 2017-08-20

The reason I chose to use crosses is precisely because they are symbols. They can be taken to mean all kinds of different things.…  I hope that people can focus more on the colours, lines and overall structure of my paintings, rather than search for some hidden meaning. It is only by forgetting about the ‘meaning’ that the viewer can more freely accept the new feelings that my paintings create. – Ding Yi

Ding Yi’s crosses are all about redefining the world around us. As for any other piece of knowledge, the crosses hope for some kind of conjecture or explanation that connects them to the world. The crosses are a lively reflection of reality. By painting them, Ding Yi is seeking out the mysterious and intangible. Although Ding Yi’s paintings might appear stultified, conceptualised, and overly symbolic, they actually have no connection to either traditional disciplines of thought or modern fashion. Ding’s crosses emulate the quest for innovation in modern and contemporary art. At the same time, such innovation has a connection to ancient, immortal spiritual matters: the ‘deeper experience’. It is because of this spiritual connection that the same object can be viewed by different people and experienced in different ways. Moreover, these differences are the only means by which one’s individuality can be preserved and expressed. Ding’s life work has been to discover such differences, and to convince others that there are “different” ways to see the truth. Such individual differences are the freedom of the spirit: the most fundamental of all freedoms.

It has been thirty years since Ding Yi’s first cross, 十, appeared on his canvas. He repeatedly emphasised that his crosses do not symbolise anything. They have no meaning; they are simply a mark. Later on, Ding added an ‘X’ on top of his once simple crosses to form the mark 米, the Chinese character for ‘rice’. This innovation made Ding’s symbols more defined and fleshed out. Ding Yi named his works shishi (literally ‘the cross symbol’ or ‘Appearance of Crosses’), and the cross has become a byword for Ding himself. Like a scientific or technological question, Ding’s crosses remove all feelings or passions associated with art, leaving only calm and focus. With the creation of the 米 mark, Ding Yi’s art at once evolved from, but remained inspired by, his original seamless, interconnected cross patterns. Ding began to transition from simple 2D designs to a more layered format. Later on, he created canvases covered in tens of thousands of crosses. His precision created an entirely new form of painting, discarding the rule book and restrictions on traditional painting, and injecting a burst of life into Chinese modern and contemporary art.
The word shishi was originally a printing term, and it is now a symbol for precision. Ding Yi’s choice of the cross represents his devotion to mathematical levels of precision in his work. He wants to express a clarity and precision while avoiding ‘meaning’ or particular concepts. The cross is a symbol for the visual expression of reality as it is, as precise and complete as the formula 1+1=2. From a minimalist perspective, Ding’s art fuses repetitive work and subconscious psychological experience. Ding’s apparently simple but actually highly repetitive creative process is absolutely crucial for the artist. Ding hand-paints each cross, a simple mark, over and over to create the final piece – thus combining simplicity with repetition. Ding’s repetition is in fact a sort of betrayal of minimalism; the innate contradiction between the simple and the complex in Ding’s art has led to his trademark crosses, and has ensured that the cross will continue to be constantly expanded on and developed in the future.
Ding Yi’s cross is a form of expression that carries absolutely no theme. It is universally recognisable, devoid of any cultural significance, ideological judgment or connection to society. In his earliest work, Ding Yi used a ruler to map out the precise position of each cross before painting. His art looks like some sort of scientific diagram; it has the simple, direct spatial data structure of a grid. His crosses, painted to equal proportions and closely linked together, are defined by their position in their row or column; every kind of characteristic, type and value is represented somewhere in the grid. The grid itself is a numerical way of expressing the allotment of space; within it, each cross expresses a non-geometrical identity. Ding Yi hoped to escape all thematic or cultural factors, and thereby restore painting to its purest form. This is the true intention of the artist. Ding Yi then began to use multiple layers of colour, with diagonal lines and added perception of depth on his crosses. This new technique made his artwork ever more complex, replacing his once simple images with multi-layered ones. Put another way, Ding Yi’s original minimalist style evolved into a highly complex visual effect. In Ding Yi’s cross paintings, ‘complex’ is not really an idea so much as an experience. It testifies to the changes in life. It was still later in Ding’s career that his meticulously planned ‘coincidences’ began to adorn his canvas, creating fuller, complete images. It has always been my view that Ding Yi’s art is the sort one can only define after he has produced it. He has never stopped experimenting and improving on his crosses, restoring art to a very simple visual structure. Ding’s constant, tireless repetition of the same objects or connected objects is meaningful because it demonstrates the boundless cycle of reproduction in life. For this reason, Ding Yi’s crosses represent a certain attitude: dogged persistence and a willingness to blaze one’s own trail. Compared to the quagmire of the contemporary art scene today, Ding Yi’s almost religious zeal and the steadfastness with which he recites his artistic scripture are a rare gem.

What exactly have Ding Yi’s crosses given us? Figurative expression or abstract expression? Or perhaps just some chintzy cloth? None of these answers are what’s most important. Ding Yi had to innovate in his art by crafting his own artistic language and escaping the influence or interference of every kind of ‘ism’. By so doing, he was able to avoid mimicry or reliance on Western modernism. Ding Yi has managed to transcend figurative painting and open up a dialogue with different cultural phenomena. His crosses may have no connection to reality, but they do express a perceived reality. Ding Yi has become one of the great cultural icons and individual artists of the post-reform and opening-up era; he is a symbol of the avant-garde in China.
One particularly accentuated part of Ding Yi’s artistic language is his devotion to proportion and order. He values continuity and a modernist feel; he likes to plan and assemble the different factors on the canvas, maintaining or disrupting its balance. In today’s era of advanced technology and digitisation, the information contained in Ding Yi’s crosses can be more quickly, conveniently, systematically and efficiently read or transmitted. The arrangement of space is another crucial element in Ding Yi’s cross paintings. The connection between each symbol and the painting as a whole affords the finished work a constant, unprecedented power. By perceiving the hidden information on the canvas, the observer sees not just the crosses, but a whole world.
Painting his crosses entails monotonous, dry, even boring work for Ding Yi. Such work requires rationality, dexterity and patience. It also demands a high degree of self-control and endurance. Ding Yi must wipe his mind blank of all distractions so that he can return to a place of purity and calm. When he paints, it is as if he is creating a picture – it is a meticulous task that requires many different tools and skills. Ding must not become excited or passionate – what is required is a clear head and mechanical step-by-step approach. Before beginning each new Appearance of Crosses, Ding Yi must re-enter the same state of mind that he employed for the previous work. It is for this reason that Ding’s cross paintings are like one never-ending journey. He must design the evolution of each piece in the series without a moment to catch his breath; for were he to stop, that would signal an end to his repetition and his changes. Such a situation doesn’t bear thinking about.
Technically speaking Ding Yi is not actually a minimalist, so it is a misnomer to define or judge his crosses in that light. The only traces of the minimalist about Ding Yi are in his way of thinking and his simplistic symbols. However, when one examines his artwork and continuous, thorough experimentation, Ding Yi’s crosses in fact require a complex, complicated process. Furthermore, that process is a long-drawn out and testing one. Therefore, there is no true Minimalism in Ding Yi, because his apparently simple paintings mask such a complex, slow process. Each cross is a standalone unit; when the crosses are joined up, they create a rich image. Ding’s crosses may seem subject to restrictions, but when they appear on the canvas in their thousands, the individual power of each is released. In other words, Ding’s will of iron becomes all too apparent through the repeated crosses, which offer the viewer a new visual perspective. The viewer is not only invited to admire the paintings; they are overwhelmed by a wave of information. The more imaginative of us will be able to find our own life experiences, and even our outlook and values, in Ding Yi’s art.
Ding Yi arranges his identical crosses in a completely even structure. This creates a strong central theme and visual imagery. The even distribution of his crosses also creates an impression of order. In such a context, the crosses exert a concise power; whether viewed as simple or complex, they have a solemnity that cannot be erased. Ding Yi’s later work is marked by strong contrasts and vibrant colours; the crosses cause the eye of the viewer to dart over the canvas. Some of the crosses glint and shimmer, evoking the power of life and the tensions of modernisation. Sometimes, Ding Yi’s images appear to split into different sections, and you feel like the world is spinning or floating – you can feel very dizzy. This is all part of Ding Yi’s complex and fluid visual effect. If one considers this aspect of Ding’s painting, it could be said that there is no ‘figurative’ or ‘abstract’ to discuss. There are only Ding Yi’s crosses, his special visual symbols that he uses as a new bridge towards understanding and perceiving the world. I should note that I have never advocated discussing Ding Yi’s work in terms of ‘time’ or ‘stages’. This is because Ding’s work is so characterised by its repetition and simplicity. The whole intention behind Ding Yi’s crosses is to create complexity from repetition. His evolution from simple to complex is a strategy, while the repetition is a magnifier or a positive energy. When repetition becomes a driving force, the meaningless begins to have meaning. In Ding’s paintings, all meaning is explored and endlessly repeated.
If art is all about respect for people and things, then one must accept the spiritual purpose of man. Therefore, if we can remain respectful, then the path into Ding Yi’s world and the meaning of his crosses lies open.

Ding Yi’s crosses can be interpreted in two polar opposite ways: as abstract, and as figurative. Each individual cross is certainly figurative – in the professional printing sense of a tangible, visual symbol. On the other hand, the constant evolution and expansion in meaning of the crosses on Ding Yi’s canvases blunts the crosses’ figurative meaning, and they begin to overflow with abstract information. One might say that ever since his first ever cross, Ding Yi has had nothing to do with figurative or abstract painting. Instead, he has attempted to break through the dry, boring, monotonous process of painting his crosses to search for an evolution in painting itself. The result is ‘art that does not look like art – an art stripped of all technical skill, narrative and painterliness.’ (Ding Yi’s words). Everything began with the crosses, those simple and meaningless symbols.
Ding Yi’s crosses are neither servant nor ruler: they are simply a medium. Because of this, Ding Yi himself has adopted a moderate point of view, but is very strong-willed about keeping to it. His crosses do not have any intrinsic meaning; instead, they gain meaning through Ding Yi. For Ding, the most important question is how one can liberate all the constituent components of art from their respective frames, then deconstruct, assemble, and rebuild and thereby create a new whole. By harnessing a kind of balance, Ding creates an eternal harmony. As Ding himself puts it, ‘When I first began painting the crosses, I felt a secret thrill, because nobody could understand my paintings. They thought the patterns I created were a chintz design, but that [confusion] was exactly what I wanted. Hans van Dijk understood my paintings; after he had seen my works in the exhibition [in Shanghai Art Museum in 1988], he made a special visit to my studio in 1989 and we had a long discussion about structure and spirituality. Our talk that day had a far-reaching impact on my work after that…Art is only art when it’s not like art. I’m certain that to make a breakthrough, one needs to include other elements.’
Over the past thirty years, Ding Yi has had one thought on his mind – the repetition of his crosses. Throughout this arduous process, Ding Yi has not succumbed to any mythical lure; the repetition, day by day, year by year, has become second nature to him. For Ding, the meaning of the crosses is about repeating that deceptively simple symbol. Painting the crosses has become an instinctive behaviour for Ding; it has become his lifestyle, and a force from which he draws strength. Throughout these three decades, Ding Yi has laboriously treated each and every cross, over and over again, employing all his focus and his energy. The painting process has also given Ding Yi something new: he has been constantly reaffirming his values and the meaning in his life. Time has proven that the crosses are Ding Yi’s whole life. For the past thirty years, the evolution of his crosses has created new objects. Via constant experimentation, Ding Yi has found a means to truly express himself. He can move freely from one Appearance of Crosses to the next, continually surpassing himself and making breakthroughs. He has proven that painting is not just about painting itself, but about the connection between painting and something outside of painting. Ding Yi’s crosses express neither grief nor joy, neither pain nor happiness; they are nothing but a simple form of painting that is relevant to modern and contemporary art. I think this is what is at the core of the crosses: a rejuvenation of painting and creation of a visual text that provides unprecedented viewing and food for thought.
The crosses symbolise Ding Yi’s journey towards his final destination, but also a journey away from that destination. His paintings move us towards a place where we will have to overcome obstacles in our own minds. At the end of the journey is a spiritual way of living that can give the individual a fuller, stronger life.

One might say that Ding Yi’s crosses provide a nuanced backdrop to the constant, high-speed development of Shanghai and its changing landscape. The crosses are also a potent symbol of the city. When one loses oneself in the charm of Ding Yi’s crosses, one can find the joys, aspirations, worries, confusion, despair and hope of the city’s inhabitants. Sometimes, the crosses depict something that is understandable and yet unexpected. At other times, the crosses are like a game; or a deceit. No matter what, however, by observing Ding’s represented world, we gain one extraordinary, unexpected visual experience after another. As Ding Yi himself says, ‘in my early days I was an unwavering rationalist painter. I would never let any feelings enter my painting. Now, the sentimental element of my painting is becoming stronger and stronger. I have also wondered why this is…I’m not trying to paint individual crosses; I’m trying to paint each Appearance of Crosses work as a whole. Mainstream Chinese painting, perhaps, has a stronger emphasis on content and ideology; you have to be very clear about ‘what this painting means’. But I want to go against the grain in this sense. My crosses are a kind of ‘nothing’. They are simply the smallest part of a completed work; that completed work is what I am trying to express.’
If Ding Yi’s cross (十) is a mother, and his ‘X’ is a father, then when they cleave together into the rice character (米), it is a completed whole that has its own meaning and sound. In this way, the new character has original meaning, a definition and extended meaning. Everything begins to come into focus. What Ding Yi has done is to slowly turn the focus of his artwork and experimentation from the surface to the core. Ding Yi has transformed artistic concept into a purely visual manner, and then infused this visual manner into his concepts. The result is that concept and technique merge into a complete, indivisible whole. For Ding Yi, each work is a challenge. As critic Ji Shaofeng has noted, ‘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 is in one way led on by his own crosses, into the distant unknown. We have no way of knowing how his journey with his crosses will end. Nevertheless, I am certain that Ding Yi’s crosses will remain as instants in time rather than a story with an end. Each one of Ding’s artworks is an important link in a long and slow process. Without this basic understanding, there is no way one can judge or comment on Ding Yi’s work. Therefore, we must think of all of Ding’s art as a continuous whole; each new piece is the stepping stone for its successor, and the means by which the crosses series lives on. Each Appearance of Crosses becomes one moment in the crosses timeline; each work has its own unique value. All of this is the meaning of Ding Yi’s crosses over the past three decades. This is also the core of Ding Yi’s spirit.
I think that Ding Yi’s crosses do not exist as part of the natural world that we can perceive; rather, they are everywhere in our world. The crosses are a myth, or a story stretching into infinity. Like a magician, Ding Yi continually produces new ‘tricks’. Every day, a crazy new thought pops into his head, resulting in new changes that are expressed on his canvas. This process of transformation is what is so captivating about both the artwork and the artist. Ding Yi is well aware of how his own allure, together with desperation in the void and his own shortcomings, dogs his every step. He must make his crosses part of every moment of his life in order for them to flow freely, cleverly, powerfully and full of charm from his brush. Ding Yi’s crosses are an independent element in painting; they can represent the noumenon. Everything is the result of the will of the artist; like a plant, which requires the nurture of earth and the natural elements, Ding Yi’s crosses twinkle with the power of their creator.
Ding Yi’s colours seem truly alive. In the words of Paul Klee, ‘Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it.’ In Ding Yi’s images, light and colour are brought together and unified effectively. One often gets an impression of spontaneity and fantasy from Ding’s paintings. At the same time, those paintings are designed and crafted to the most precise standards. Ding Yi manages to create glimmering and astounding images. When Ding Yi takes up his brush, there is an unbroken continuity from the image in his mind to the colours on the canvas.
Thirty years ago, Ding Yi’s crosses were cold and meaningless. Thirty years on, those same crosses have begun to heat up, afforded meaning by the transformation of society. Ding Yi created his crosses to fulfil his own spiritual quest, but the crosses are not part of the material world: they are art itself. Perhaps, Ding Yi’s journey is a progression from blind fascination to nirvana-like peace with his crosses. The most precious aspect of this journey is the fact that Ding Yi has never lost his way or deviated from the orbit he set himself. Ding has forged a place for himself in the history of Chinese modern and contemporary art. In this long journey, Ding’s crosses have only a beginning, not an end. I firmly believe that Ding Yi’s crosses will endure, strong and full of vitality, into the future.

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