Ever since the May Fourth movement in 1919, modern Chinese culture has been palpably consumed by radicalism. The development of the arts in China has been accompanied by calls to “live for art”. Although such radical leftist ideas were officially designated after the new socialist government of the PRC in 1949 as a brand of political ideology with accompanying rights, they have continued to exert influence as a revolutionary cause. This has led to many artists concentrating on art as a means to reflect reality as they believe modern culture can be used to provide answers on history, current events and everyday life. Art is inevitably a tool to understand future trends as well. At the same time, with revolutionary zeal, art also focuses on the expression of metanarratives, as well as the most urgent ethnic and class tensions dividing society today. Art, whether as a mirror to the current situation, or as a production of metanarrative, is the inevitable result of the humiliations suffered by China in recent history and the continued emergence of crises in the contemporary era. Art’s dual role in the modern era has therefore been shaped by these factors and is a hallmark of the modern age. However, it bears considering that another tradition has been obscured by the left: that of “art for art’s sake”. This perspective on art has not found ground to stand on in the modern era in China, and has been consistently marginalised in China’s art circles. But besides the modernities of enlightenment, rescue and reform, there is one branch of modern aesthetics that has continued to exert an influence on society. Since the reforms of the late 1970s, Chinese society has become more complex and diverse. In particular, trends of globalisation and marketization since the 1990s coupled with the breakneck speed of Chinese economic development have shaped society in ways that differ greatly from the modernity espoused by the May Fourth movement. Any attempt to continue to view China through the May Fourth lens, therefore, can give only the vaguest impression of lives lived in a globalised, market-oriented, and sometimes uncertain China. The creation of contemporary art in China has become so colourful that it has carved out a realm of its own parallel to mainstream realist art. This development of contemporary art is a pertinent symbol of Chinese culture in the twenty-first century; the weighty responsibility of artists to create art “for life” has been quietly taken from their shoulders, and there appears to be an objective basis for the study of pure art. Art is becoming itself once again. That is not to say that art exists outside of everything else, of course, but that perceptions and expectations of art have evolved. Art must change with the times.
When Ding Yi’s work is placed into the broader context of modern and contemporary Chinese art, an interesting connection becomes apparent. Ding’s art focuses on the endless conflict between the individual and reality. His crosses, whether + or ×, are an expression of his understanding of this relationship as well as his artistic signature. In a way, Ding’s crosses are a clever invention: they take the focus of his work away from unproductive dead-end musings on individual existence and defamiliarise viewers. The crosses appear as the product of a deliberate plan – or not. By avoiding excessive focus on everyday experiences, Ding manages to create pieces in which reason triumphs over wanton sentimentality. His paintings thus appear both orderly and unordered, realistic and unrealistic, and have a structure of overlapping fragments. Viewing his paintings, one gets a real sense of his constant abstraction of ideas and association with new ideas. Ding Yi transcends both the debate over how “lifelike” painting should be, and the simple dichotomy of reality and fiction. The repetition of the grids of crosses in his art seem to bring space and time to a stop – or to blur the lines between the two. By so doing, Ding Yi creates a sense of uncertainty and unpredictable change. Such uncertainty is not merely formal for Ding Yi: it is a true expression of his own experience and ideas, and a testament to his dogged perseverance with (or extreme focus on) his art. The value of Ding’s work is not to be found in simple parallels with reality, but rather in the projection of his own views. Ding Yi in fact appears to flit between “art for life” and “art for art’s sake” – and it’s a transcendent position that mirrors the synapse between each cross in his paintings. I believe that Ding is trying to create a return to metaphysics – the origin of art – and get back to exploring the relationships between mankind and thought, painting language, art, and life-as-survival.
Although Ding Yi has never delivered an explicit manifesto of his ideas in over thirty years of work, his philosophy is nonetheless apparent – and it comes from real experience. His ideas reflect the unease and confusion we have as humankind with reality at different stages of history; our aimless drifting through different philosophies; and the chaotic nature of reality. Ding Yi has chosen to tear up a considered expounding of his thoughts on history and society today, and replace it with his highly abstract crosses. Ding’s method can be seen as an unwillingness to let go the connection between image and thought, or as a new way to express one’s ideas. Ding Yi has created a brand-new language that can also be interpreted as a rejection of “narrative”. An artist’s philosophy may contradict itself, but while people’s lives may appear to diverge on the surface, in fact we are beginning to converge. Ding Yi’s crosses (十) are not just simply the fixed Chinese character for “ten”. The crosses also represent a sort of surrealist softening of outlines – they break down life’s complex relationships into a series of fragmented grids and then join them together again. One gets the impression that Ding Yi has captured the sense of our time; he has depicted the darker side of the vitality of the new era, and focused a spotlight on the cold detachment, monotony and lack of individualism that have been created by the present environment. In particular, Ding Yi draws attention to the drought of visual solace in modernism as an opening to a broader discussion on what he sees as the questionable nature of modern, inorganic lives.
Ding Yi’s art has consistently involved the production of grids of multiple crosses, whose plurality points to the standardisation, copying and repetitive nature of modern industrial civilization. The production line, modern high-rise buildings, commercial products and mass media etc. are all products of a standardised, scaled up process. mass-produced masks are the hallmark of our modern society, and it is precisely this hallmark that delineates classical temperaments from modern temperaments. Our modern lives are orderly and are constantly kept that way. Every life is a mechanical, repetitive existence like the social identities and roles with which we are all labelled. These labels are in some way concentrated and reflected in the grid pattern – they represent how we really live our daily lives. The more relevant art is to current social issues, the quicker it loses its meaning and the lower the technological barrier required becomes. These limits of standardisation and scale are writ large in Ding Yi’s work. They can even cause distortions or interference that jostle us out of our preconceived trains of thought and accepted norms, and take us on a quest to find the natural melodies of imagery or those naturally derived from it and thereby arrive at a visual field that is composed of analogy, symmetry and balance. Ding Yi’s visual language is like dust, or like the field lines in a magnetic field, coiled around the appearance of an image. Ding Yi has complete control over his work: the detachment, order, and pace of his works are all reflections of his deliberate intent or perception. In terms of imagery, the richness or density of the crosses in Ding’s paintings and the impression of rational order both work to bring a concrete element to the otherwise abstract nature of Ding’s work. There is a strong impression of levity, non-action and Zen calm. Ding is clearly trying to give a spot to East Asian philosophy and weave it into his paintings in terms of the balance between intention and meaning. This in turn makes his art purer, simpler, and more refreshing for the viewer.
As a stalwart practitioner of abstract art, Ding Yi is guided by the tenets of abstract art before his brush hits the canvas. He has continually explored new routes in his art. In my opinion, the difficulty for abstract art lies in whether or not it can have any revolutionary effect, because the formulae or models used in abstract art are now highly mature and settled. However, this precise formulaic maturity has little directly to do with contemporary relevance. A fascination with simple “abstractness” is a sort of escapism – an escape from the state of contemporary culture. This escapism is also the only contemporary expression of such abstractness and as such is one of the challenges facing abstract art in China today. Often, what really propels fundamental change in abstract art is not one particular area. Ding Yi has clearly already come to this conclusion and is undergoing a metamorphosis in his work accordingly. Ding Yi has selected new materials in his cross paintings – from canvas to patterned cloth, and cardboard; from oil-based paints to acrylics; from charcoal, chalk, and oil pastels to ballpoint pen; from black and white to colour and fluorescent, and even other media such as sculpture, installations and architecture. These innovations in his work have helped Ding Yi bring his crosses into the public spaces of the metropolis. In his own behaviour, Ding adapts in line with his mood: he repeats his work with crosses, creating outlines, using addition of colour wash or chuji techniques that require an element of the spiritual. By so doing, Ding takes the ceremonial parts of everyday life and transforms them into a form of art. The contemplative aura created by Ding’s crosses is like a monk or nun’s meditation chamber. The claustrophobic effect produced by looking at the myriad of crosses transports the viewer to a special place psychologically where they can come closer to ancient traditions and oriental philosophical ideas such as enlightenment, meditation, contemplation and non-action. When the viewer of Ding Yi’s work considers it in the context of these ideas, contradictions are discovered and made more clear, as is the integration between stillness and motion, cold detachment and passion, simplicity and complexity, and sparsity and density. In the context of Ding Yi’s integration of these very different ideas, one gets a strong impression of the restlessness beneath the calm surface, the passion masked by a cool exterior, or the permanence in constant change. When one places Ding Yi’s art in its cultural context, Ding Yi can be said to be pushing the envelope through personal example in terms of how art is defined within artistic circles. He is in fact making art more accessible to a lay audience, using his repetitive, monotonous, and even absurd method in his everyday work and leaving a trail of works in different media behind him. I believe this kind of artistic method and form are a sort of experiment or exploration; they are a contemporary departure from the traditional path of contemporary art. Of course, there are many ways in which one might make such a departure or innovation, but Ding Yi’s chosen path might be able to shine a light on how traditional art can remain relevant and contemporary today. This exhibition of Ding’s work is about far more than the visual tension created by a mixture of media. He goes much deeper and conducts a measured analysis of human issues of spirituality and existence. Ding Yi certainly has a keen understanding of, and willingness to leverage contemporary art to reconstruct cultural values in the contemporary context.
Ding Yi’s minimalist, metaphysical artwork is simple and unified because it is divorced from personal sentiment. His work reflects his calm, careful attitude, which itself has become his trademark. Ding’s detached methods are a conscious erosion of the so-called values and meaning of art – he has instead created new perspective through his own isolation that conjures infinite associations in the mind of the viewer. Ding Yi has also been a continuous innovator: he has always explored new ways to use his crosses, the backbone of his paintings. The way he has immersed himself in the same repetitive behaviour over an extended period of time may well be his preferred modus operandi. He continuously strips his paintings of any external imagery or metaphor in favour of pure, exact anchors and visual symbols. Artists’ reflection on and sensitivity to their contemporary cultural context and the individuals in that context will change their perspective on art forms; in order to conduct such reflection and judgment, artists need a method that is recognised as “art” and a corresponding visual language. What seems clear is that Ding Yi’s own visual rhetoric is not restricted to his artwork itself. In fact, his visual rhetoric has already expanded to exploring new possibilities for how Chinese painting can construct contemporary values in the current cultural context, as well as how Chinese contemporary art can transform, even innovate, today. Single works of art by Ding Yi have provided a visual guide for others seeking to update contemporary art for the times.
Whenever I view Ding Yi’s art, I am reminded of Fernando Pessoa’s poem The Curse:
Different colour houses,
Different colour houses…
Only Lisbon has
different colour houses.
Perhaps Ding Yi’s personal reticence and perseverance have allowed him to push his own limits as an artist, from where he can see and test the limits of art itself. Perhaps, Ding Yi’s unrelenting struggle is a way of displaying his own limits in art as a means to remain true to his rebellious, questioning and persevering spirit. Only an artist is capable of testing limits in this way. Finally, perhaps if we select any detail or pattern in Ding Yi’s artwork and see it repeated, then persevere (like him), and orientate ourselves, we can then find a way forward for contemporary art.