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A Conversation with Ding Yi

Interviewer: Paul Gladston 2012

Ding Yi is a painter, designer and college professor who lives and works in Shanghai. Ding was born in Shanghai in 1962. He graduated from the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Institute in 1983. He also studied in the Fine Arts Department of Shanghai University, graduating from there in 1990. During the early 1980s, under the influence of his teacher Yu Youhan, Ding initially produced urban landscape paintings similar in style to those of the French post-impressionist painter Maurice Utrillo. In the mid 1980s Ding then made an abrupt shift toward the making of abstract paintings using cross and grid motifs in a manner that has, with thematic variations, remained his stylistic signature as an artist ever since. In this conversation Ding gives a detailed account of his working methods alongside a personal interpretation of the changing significance of his paintings. He also discusses the relationship between his paintings and Shanghai's rapidly changing urban landscape of the last three decades. The text presented here is an edited transcript of a conversation recorded at the artist's studio at 50 Moganshan Road in Shanghai on March 7, 2009.

Paul Gladston: I would like to begin by asking some questions about the way you approach the making of your paintings. Although your paintings are often severely geometric, close to it is also possible to discern numerous revisions and over-paintings. Do you continually revise your paintings in order to achieve some sort of formal resolution?

Ding Yi: Not really; not sweeping revisions. My working style is just like playing a game of go (Chinese chess). Go is played on a board with a grid pattern drawn on it. It involves two players, one using white counters and the other using black counters. Each player attempts to win the game by surrounding the other player's counters. In doing so, the players deploy their counters across the board asymmetrically, responding to their opponent's moves while attempting to gain an advantage for themselves. Normally, I plan the layout of a piece of work in advance and then choose some colours. I don't arrange the structures and colours of my paintings symmetrically. Instead, they are arranged in an asymmetrical but balanced way. My paintings may not be symmetrical but they are still harmonious.

Paul Gladston: There is a distinct formal similarity between your work and textile design. What distinguishes your painting from textile design?

Ding Yi: My painting is full of incident. When I start a painting, I have a general sense of direction for the work. However, my thoughts for the painting aren't thoroughly worked through in advance. I just start painting, and change things accordingly throughout the whole process. By doing so, I can avoid simply arriving at a design or a pattern. Moreover, I have also had the experience of studying design, so I know the differences between designing and painting. My work is sometimes regarded as a kind of design or textile pattern, but I think there's something in my work that can change one's ways of thinking.

Paul Gladston: During the making of your paintings, do you think about balancing or resolving the illusory spatial relationships that the act of painting brings about? Do you think about the 'push and pull'―the spatial recession and procession―of formal elements as well as the flat surface design of the painting? No painting is entirely flat. A single directed mark on a flat surface or ground implies some sort of spatial illusion. When you paint, are you conscious of continually trying to reconcile the actual flatness of the painting with the spatial illusion that the act of painting on a flat surface sets up?

Ding Yi: I try to achieve the balance of the work from the very beginning. Most of my works are two dimensional and the layout is flat too. I try to avoid any particular part sticking out from the rest. As I mentioned earlier, my style is like playing Go. I don't object to flatness. I have tried to find a connecting point between art and design from the very beginning of my work as an artist. Modern art has a history of more than one hundred years and it's necessary to inject new formal elements that can enrich the content of that art. Through design, I would like to mingle art and design to create new forms of art. I studied design initially, so I have paid quite a lot of attention to design. It was my active decision to make art that was not like art.

Paul Gladston: What do you mean here by "design"?

Ding Yi: What I mean by design is that I organize the general structures or directions in my work rationally. As for these trifling dots in my work, they are not something I design beforehand. Instead, they are accidental and flexible.

Paul Gladston: So, your paintings involve accident as well as forethought?

Ding Yi: Yes.

Paul Gladston: Is there an affinity between your painting and modernist abstraction in the West? The combination of conscious formal organization and accident characterizes the work of a number of Western modernist painters―Jackson Pollock for example. Was Western abstraction a direct influence on your work?

Ding Yi: When I first started to make abstract paintings [see figure 10], I was mainly influenced by the work of two artists: one is Piet Mondrian, the other is Frank Stella. My approach is rational and rigorous, while Pollock's is perceptual; more specifically his is about the relationship between perception and physical control and not about the relationship between perception and rationality. I need time to think about how to paint almost every stroke, while for Pollock, there was no time for him to think rationally. I would say my approach is more rational than his.

Paul Gladston: When you first started to make abstract paintings during the 1980s, were you aware of the historical connection between modernist design and abstract art in the West? During the 1920s and 1930s, in particular, abstraction in painting and sculpture was seen alongside modernist design as part of the development of a more rational, progressive society.

Ding Yi: Yes I knew about it. Lots of information about Western culture and thinking came into China during the mid-1980s. At that time people in China were more rational and idealistic than they are now. Their attitudes were very positive and active then.

Paul Gladston: It seems to me that your painting differs from that of Mondrian and Stella―that is to say, Stella's early minimalist paintings―in two ways. The first is that Mondrian and Stella erase or downplay accident and revision as part of the process of painting while you retain it to some degree. Your painting also sets up a different perceptual relationship between the viewer and the artwork than that proposed by the work of Mondrian and Stella. With the paintings of Mondrian and, in particular, those of Stella the viewer is made strongly aware of his or her subjective difference from the painting as an object. This is what Michael Fried and other proponents of the continuity of high modernist abstraction have referred to disparagingly as the theatricality of minimalist art.  The viewer-object relationship set up by your paintings differs from that. In my view, your paintings suggest an immersive relationship between the viewer and the work―something that reminds me of the non-perspectival construction of traditional Chinese shan-shui painting.

Ding Yi: You're right. The spatial construction of my paintings is different from that of Western paintings. Mine is more like Chinese traditional painting, which has a 'scattering' effect. However, my painting also differs from traditional Chinese painting, because it only works perceptually within a certain viewing range: if the viewer stands too close or too far away, the paintings don't work. With traditional Chinese ink and brush painting one can look successfully both from a distance and up close.

Paul Gladston: You have written an essay about your work entitled, 'Deconstructing the Abstract' (Jiegou chouxiang). There's a line in that essay which describes your work as an artist as a "Reading through the burden of traditional Chinese culture, and, at the same time, a departure from the pure abstraction of the West". What exactly do you mean by this?

Ding Yi: I absorb anything; any element that's suitable to my painting. I try to absorb both the essence of traditional Chinese painting and the nutrition provided by Western art; all of which has something to do with the development of Chinese contemporary art. I absorb artistic elements, mixing them into my painting.

Paul Gladston: Earlier, you described your approach to painting as "rational". However, your use of the title 'Deconstructing the Abstract' suggests something else: a relationship between your painting and the non-rationalism of deconstructive thought and practice. It also suggests the embracing of post-modernist rather than modernist attitudes.

Ding Yi: It's difficult to judge my work entirely from the perspective of Western theory and historical experience. I think the history of Chinese contemporary art from the 1980s to the 1990s is not at all like that of Western contemporary art over the last one hundred years. During the 1980s and 1990s Chinese contemporary artists underwent a rapid process of absorbing and digesting styles from elsewhere, then translating them into the Chinese context, and finally creating their own styles. Chinese contemporary art is very diverse and mixed. Its development has been different from that of Western contemporary art, which experienced a slow process of creative development.

Paul Gladston: There's another passage in your essay 'Deconstructing the Abstract' where you argue that art is at its most vital when it seeks to break down or blur the boundary between art and non-art. The historical avant-gardes in the West, such as Dada and Surrealism, adopted a similar stance. Did the work of artists associated with the Western historical avant-gardes, such as that of Marcel Duchamp, influence your work in any way?

Ding Yi: I've seen artworks by Duchamp and know something about them. But I don't think my perspectives are related to Duchamp's. Because of my natural instincts, I didn't want to continue the history of Western contemporary art. I would like to find a new way forward by bringing non-art elements into art.

Paul Gladston: The breaking down or blurring of the boundary between art and non-art is also part of traditional Chinese cultural thought and practice. As we discussed earlier, Chinese shan-shui painting proposes an immersive rather than an objective relationship between the viewer and the work of art as well as between the viewer and nature. Does your desire to break down the boundary between art and non-art have a relationship to traditional Chinese culture?

Ding Yi: I don't think so. I was studying in the Department of Chinese Painting in Shanghai University's School of Fine Arts (Shanghai Daxue Meishu Xueyuan) during the 1980s when I had the idea of working at the margins or boundaries of art. Though I studied traditional Chinese painting, I was quite anti-tradition. There were two main streams of Chinese contemporary art at that time: one was expressionist, and the other was surrealist, both of which met the needs of the rebellious attitudes of the people at that time. I was trying to do something different from the two main schools. I thought we should treat art calmly.

Paul Gladston: When I spoke to Wang Guangyi from the Northern Art Group  he said something similar. During the 1980s, Wang and other members of the Northern Art Group were attempting to develop a new form of Chinese art involving a lofty and detached rationalist aesthetic. During our conversation Wang made a link between this modern rationalist aesthetic and the traditional Chinese Confucian aesthetic of da ('sublimity').  Looking back, would you now see a connection between the rationalism of your own work and traditional Chinese Confucian aesthetics?

Ding Yi: There could be an influence but it's not direct. It's more complex and internalized than that―it's more a matter of following one's own instincts.

Paul Gladston: What is your view of the 'rationalist' painting tendency in China during the 1980s?

Ding Yi: Rationalist painters conducted numerous experiments, but they were contradictory. Some claimed to be rationalist painters, but actually they weren't. For instance, the painting Frozen North Pole by Wang Guangyi; it's a surrealist painting rather than a rationalist painting.

Paul Gladston: So, would you see your work of the 1980s as more rationalist than that of Wang Guangyi?

Ding Yi: Yes, I think my work is very rational and has no humanistic elements. Most art works in China during the 1980s expressed passion or discontent, while my work wasn't like that at all. That's why my work didn't strike a sympathetic chord within art circles at the time because they thought I was going in the wrong direction.

Paul Gladston: What is your understanding of the term 'deconstruction'?

Ding Yi: My understanding of deconstruction is to combine various kinds of elements. My style of making art is to set up a general direction and provide enough space for contingency and freedom.

Paul Gladston: Where did you first encounter the theory and practice of deconstruction? Did you read Derrida in translation?

Ding Yi: I saw the word "deconstruction" for the first time in an architectural book during the late 1980s; it introduced post-modernist architectural theory and practice.

Paul Gladston: You often use checked cloth, such as tartan, as a support for your paintings instead of plain canvas [see figure 11]. Among other things, checked cloth provides you with a ready-made grid for your paintings. As a British person, when I look at tartan I think of Scotland. Tartan, for me, has connotations of, for want of a better word, 'Scottishness'―that is to say, of Scottish national cultural identity and history. It also has a historical relationship to the slave trade. Slaves in British colonies in the West Indies were made to wear tartan. I also associate tartan with Punk Rock and the clothes of Vivian Westwood. In your essay Deconstructing Abstraction you claim that tartan in China has no symbolic cultural meaning. Do you mean that it has no symbolic cultural meaning of any kind, or that it has a different cultural meaning?

Ding Yi: I meant there's no symbolic meaning in China. Tartan is just a common cloth with grids on it. This paradox is caused by differing cultural traditions. In China, tartan is just a kind of cloth that has its practical uses. While in the West, that practical use is supplemented by numerous cultural associations. Actually, both Chinese and Western readings of the significance of tartan in relation to my paintings are kinds of misinterpretations.

Paul Gladston: It seems to me that your use of tartan has two deconstructive functions. First, as you suggest, it draws our attention to the inherent instability of linguistic meaning because it can be read differently from differing cultural points of view. Second, it's a ready-made in the Duchampian sense. The tartan is a 'real-life' object that re-presents itself in relation to its use as part of your paintings. Consequently, it problematizes the apparent formalism of your paintings by blurring the boundary between illusion and reality and between art and non–art.

Ding Yi: I have thought about what you have just said. There's another point I'd like to add. The tartan has another hidden meaning. It actually sets up a challenge for art collectors who collect my works because it's not a traditional support for painting. So, I'm not sure how long it will last. What condition will this cloth be in after one or two hundred years? This is a question that art collectors and I are facing, and it needs to be explored.

Paul Gladston: There's a resonance there with the situationist Guy Debord's decision to bind his first book Mémoires in sandpaper so that it would destroy all other books that came into contact with it. Seen in that light, would you agree that your painting carries the traces of both constructivist/modernist and avant-gardist/post-modernist attitudes toward the making of art?

Ding Yi: I think my early works, made from 1988 to 1990, had the characteristics of modernism because they are unitary and absolute. Whereas my recent works have more of the characteristics of post-modernism.

Paul Gladston: On the face of it, your approach to painting hasn't changed much since the 1980s. But here you're suggesting that there has been a significant underlying shift in the thinking related to the making of your paintings.

Ding Yi: Yes, in the main, there have been two ways of interpreting my work: one says my works haven't changed much during the past twenty years; the other is that my works have been changing all the time. I personally think they have been changing. I did think of giving up the way I make painting, but I chose to continue because I still have something to express. Only when an artist changes his or her thoughts dramatically, will they choose another way.

Paul Gladston: Late paintings by Mondrian would appear to have a relationship to his experience of living in New York toward the end of his life, of living in a modern urban environment; Broadway Boogie-Woogie, for example. When I look at some of your paintings, I have a similar feeling; that they have a relationship to your experience of living and working in the modern urban environment of Shanghai. However, I'm not quite sure what it is that I feel. Is your felt relationship to Shanghai as uncertain as my feelings in relation to your paintings?

Ding Yi: You are right. There is a paradoxical or uncertain feeling to my work. You can see my painting is a bit messy when you look at it close up, but that messy quality is not the theme I'd like to express. What I'd like to say is something about the illusory nature of the city. I was brought up in Shanghai and I have experienced the sweeping changes to this city since the early 1990s. Sometimes I wonder if it's real. Shanghai has a prosperous appearance, especially with all the neon lights at night. However, it seems to me that this flourishing scene has no direct relationship to the citizens who live here; it's for visitors. That's why, in my painting, I now use artificial colours that can't be found in nature [see figure 12]. Instead, they are processed chemically. This is a metaphor for the illusion and unreality of living in the city of Shanghai.

About the Author

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Visual Culture in the Department of Culture, Film and Media at the University of Nottingham. Between 2005 and 2010, he was seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo, China as the inaugural head of the Department of International Communications and director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. He has written extensively on the subject of contemporary Chinese art and contemporary Chinese art criticism for numerous magazines and journals including Yishu, Leap, Art Review, Contemporary Art and Investment, Artworld and Eyeline. His book length publications include the monograph Art History after Deconstruction (Magnolia, 2005) and an edited collection of essays, China and Other Spaces (CCCP, 2009). He is currently preparing a monograph on the theory and practice of contemporary Chinese art for Reaktion and, in collaboration with Katie Hill and Chris Smith, a guest edited edition of the journal Contemporary Art Practice for Intellect with the theme 'Contemporary Chinese Art and Criticality'.

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