Ding Yi: Specific Abstracted

Abstract expressions of Shanghai from one of our most revered artists

More than 20 years ago, Ding Yi began his project of ‘crossing out’ representational art in China. He tells Sam Gaskin how his abstracts have become expressions of his home city, Shanghai.

If you look for metaphors in Ding Yi’s paintings there’s a lot you can see. His paintings and drawings, which vary greatly although they’re all painstakingly composed of small crosses, suggest woven fabric, circuit boards, flags, military camouflage, cultures brawling in a Petri dish and much more.

Although Ding first adopted the cross as a way to avoid representational painting, he doesn’t recoil at the mention of these connotations. ‘In 1988 [when he began his Appearance of Crosses series], I wanted to make art not look like art. So when others thought I was a cotton-print painter, I felt happy because I was no longer a traditional painter. I had a new language and new technique, so I feel it’s acceptable to me if people think my works look like carpets or wallpaper.’

Unlike most carpets and wallpaper, though, Ding’ s works are not only vibrant but full of movement – up and down, in and out, slowing at intersections, and slowly dilating, like creeping urban sprawls. The larger canvases, over two metres by two metres, also choreograph the movements of their viewers, changing completely as we walk towards them, their intimidating mathematical complexity, like maps of DNA or Google Earth cityscapes at night, becoming much more human as individual brush strokes appear.

With almost no Chinese abstract painters before him, Ding has become one of Shanghai’s most revered artists. He is praised by Zhou Tiehai, another of Shanghai’s big name contemporary painters and the executive director of the Minsheng Art Museum, for the ‘persistence and patience’ evident in his solo show, which features 61 works spanning 25 years.

When he was starting out, Ding experimented with various methods, including performance art, but says, ‘I had to choose my own artistic road. At that time, the whole of Chinese contemporary art was expressive and discoverable. I wanted to make my works rational but without too much concrete explanation or connection with reality.’ Taking the road less traveled, as advertised, made all the difference.

Ding chose crosses as the atoms of his oeuvre after noticing their use checking the alignment and colour in publishers’ proofs. The publisher’s cross is a formal construction, functional but meaningless, which is exactly how Ding sees his own crosses.

Five years after finding a cross to bear, in 1993 Ding represented China at the Venice Biennale, his first trip abroad. While the other participating Chinese artists’ works were all representational (with the exception of Xu Bing’s), Ding was exposed to other art that helped him sharpen his vision. In particular, he was moved (and physically unbalanced) by German artist Hans Haacke’s installation Germania, Hitler’s name for Nazi Berlin, in which Haacke had the marble floor of the German pavilion smashed up.

‘It was a unique feeling when I stepped on that uneven marble floor since I had never experienced such works,’ Ding says. ‘When we reflected on the Cultural Revolution, we just drew distorted portraits of Chairman Mao. However, Haacke reflected his ideas through a whole environment. It was totally different.’

Ding’s own defining idea, of making art that doesn’t look like art, took on a new inflection following a discussion with an American art historian in 1998 who asked him why Shanghai artists weren’t reacting to the dramatic changes the city was undergoing. 'My impression of Shanghai in the 1980s was industrialised, cold and dusty, and so my intention as an artist was to restrict feelings.That impression is apparent in the painting ‘1993-1', where white lines outlining the negative space between black crosses conspire to create the impression of endless concrete apartment blocks receding into the distance. Several of his works from the mid-’90s are also rendered in chalk and charcoal which, as well as allowing a slightly smoggy confusion of colour, leave a detectable dust.

Thinking about Shanghai at the turn of the century, however, prompted Ding to squeeze neons onto his palette. In a wonderful essay on the work, critic Tony Godfrey describes the sprawling pink, red and yellow '2010-9', which is two metres tall and eight metres wide, as hitting him like heat, ‘that moment when one opens the oven door,’ and as a 'wall of sound'. Godfrey says many of Ding’s pieces can be heard as a constant chord of urban noise, the combined sounds of Shanghai’s inhabitants.

Among his most recent works, Ding has moved away from brilliant greens and pinks and painted a series of black and white paintings that are less loud but just as mouthy with suggestion; you could be looking up through the arms of a galaxy or over the surfaces of a field of solar panels.

We can't help finding similarities between things and consequently Ding Yi's works don't achieve their goal of not looking like art works – Josef Albers’ square pictures, Jasper Johns' flags and Mondrian’s grids all come to mind. The works look enough unlike other things, though, to free us up to enjoy seeing and sensing things in them that we know aren't there, nor were even intended to be conveyed. This more modest measure of uniqueness is something Ding clearly values. When asked what advice he has for rising artists, he says, ‘every artist should be independent and creative in mind, thinking in his own way. We should not be influenced by elder artists.

Specific Abstracted is at Minsheng Art Museum until Friday 27.
For exhibition details see

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