M: What is your earliest childhood memory?
D: Shanghai, where I grew up, left a deep impression on me during my childhood. The tone of the whole place was grey – it was only on political holidays that you would see some red banners and flowers which would give Shanghai some color. I think I got into painting because of the propaganda posters from the early 1960s: opposite where we lived was a cinema, and the posters for every film were painted by professionals whose work was then on display for everyone to comment on. It was a place to display one’s work – and within the art community people would argue about whose painting at which Shanghai cinema was the best. There was a plaza in front of our cinema’s entrance with a large sheet metal poster frame. Once every six months or once a year it was changed, a project that took a lot of work. At that time whenever an artist showed up I would run over and watch them for ages, even a whole day. They were usually sent by a specialist organization and they wore blue gowns covered in flecks of paint. That was my earliest impression of artists.
M: What did your parents do for a living? How were they influential or dissuasive to your pursuit of art?
D: My father was a shop manager and my mother a kindergarten teacher – so they didn’t have much to do with art. But my father was still an influence. I remember one day out of the blue he got some oil paint and made paintings of revolutionary era operas with the aid of photographs. Not only that, but he painted onto fiberboard so I was really impressed. My father was always actively creative. He would make model ships out of cardboard, or fish-shaped steamed bread: things people liked to do back then. When I was small I was really drawn in by all of this and thought I could make something with my own two hands.
M: Do you have siblings? Any that is in the arts?
D: Three sisters – one younger and two older. None of them are artists.
M: How many different places did you live when you were growing up? What are your significant memories of these places? Do you think that your stationary existence contributed to your infatuation with the grid. A sort of web or prison with predictable conduits?
D: Actually I didn’t really move around Shanghai much: just from one building to another on the same alleyway. But I had a lot of relatives in Shanghai living in different areas. Some had their own property, others lived in public housing, and others in Western-style detached houses. So when I was small I would visit my relatives in their different houses. The impression of Shanghai I got from my early years was of a very diverse range of architecture – with a lot of small houses and courtyards. In those residences were a lot of items dating back to the 1930s and 1940s such as the furniture, ornaments, decoration – everything felt old-school. All of this combined into my image of Shanghai. You could normally see other signs of Shanghai’s uniqueness out and about. For instance, when I was in middle school, I would walk by the General Post Office building and see kids a few years older than me diving into Suzhou Creek which at that time was still unpolluted and safe to swim in. It was only during the 1980s that Shanghai witnessed tremendous change – before that decade it was still Old Shanghai, with its old streets intact. While I was a student at the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute, I did a lot of oil paintings of street scenes in Xuhui and Hongkou districts, as well as on the Bund. At the time I was studying Utrillo of the Parisian school, and thought his style fitted well with the mood of pre-1980s Shanghai: gloomy, sunless, overcast sky and empty lanes. So, although I was studying Impressionist work at the time, I was clearly more interested in the architecture and alleyways of the city than rural landscapes. I think the structure of the grid pattern in my later abstract work reflects the architecture and scenes of the city.
M: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
D: By the time I was in high school I had something in the way of formal instruction. I was already a fairly good painter – I did all the school’s blackboard propaganda posters. This afforded me some privileges – while my classmates had to sit through two-hour long sessions of listening to political speeches, a partner and I were working on the posters. The first time I really thought of becoming an artist was the first year of senior high. My school, Kongjiang High School, had a very strong fine arts group with a teacher who had graduated from the Shanghai College of Fine Arts. However, he had majored in traditional Chinese painting and so did not understand the basics of sketching. Later on one of my classmates in the year above met a professional painter who taught a stagecraft class at the National Academy of Theatre Arts. He became our extra-curricular teacher. After he finished his stagecraft class, he had nowhere to paint so he came round to our school’s fine arts group and supervised us as we practiced our sketching. Every day I would get up, have breakfast and go to the park opposite my school and practice my sketching, before attending class at school. After lunch I’d go to the fine arts group and mess about. After school at three o’clock I’d return to the group for some more drawing until I went home for supper. Once I’d eaten I’d return to the group and continue drawing until ten o’clock when I went home. So at that time I was already being trained professionally and I devoted a lot of time to it. I think I had already decided at that point that I would continue painting. At that time they still hadn’t reinstated the university entrance exam because of the Cultural Revolution. Nobody knew what ‘artist’ really meant because there was no standard. Being a really awesome artist to me meant being able to sit in one’s gown in the small plaza and paint revolutionary propaganda. I thought if I could get to that level it’d be pretty good.
M: When did you know you were an artist- was there a moment when you were suddenly struck that you were an artist? That you had reached that status?
D: When I was studying at the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute in 1982, I felt that I had broadened my horizons significantly. Before that my work was fairly mainstream, inspired by people like Chen Yifei. Later on I met Yu Youhan and that was when I started getting interested in modernist painting and began to copy all sorts of different styles, including Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Cubist and Fauvist. But what improved my skill the most was Maurice Utrillo. I borrowed the way he depicted Parisian streets to paint Shanghai and found my art improved a lot. After learning by myself for a year I thought I was doing great and was no longer so interested in the art being exhibited at the time. I went from being a great admirer of such work to being disappointed, and then I gradually began to find my own way. In 1981 and 1982 I tried my hand at abstract painting but didn’t develop my own style until 1988 – all the while I was exploring.
M: But what was the moment when you thought that you had earned the title of artist? When did you go from being an art student to professional artist (mentally).
D: I think it all began in 1989. The year before that I had produced my first three cross works as a sort of manifesto; but it was in 1989 that my ideas really took firm shape. This is evident from the works I created in that year: each one took me two to three months to complete. The task would have been impossible without firm self-confidence and belief: otherwise I would still have been doing the rough sketches or would have turned my attention to work that could be completed more quickly.
M: Please talk about your college education, you were one of the first classes to return after the end of the cultural revolution. It was a privileged position to go to College at that point. Tell us about that time of your life.
D: I graduated from high school in 1980. At that time there were so few schools of art available in Shanghai that you could count them on your fingers: the Shanghai Theatre Academy, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai Light Industry College, Shanghai Textile College, Shanghai Fine Arts School and the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute. Back then I really wanted to get into the Shanghai Fine Arts School. They only taught traditional Chinese painting and oil painting, pure art. In the end I was accepted by the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute. Even so, it was a great achievement to be enrolled there at the time and I already thought of myself as an artist.
Before I was offered a place at Shanghai University in 1986 I worked for three years. By then my style and basis was all Western Modernism and I had heard that the Faculty of Oil Painting at the College of Fine Arts there was rather conservative, so I chose to study traditional Chinese painting, which I was not versed in already.
At the time we had a great environment: five pupils to a class and the cream of Shanghai’s artists to teach us: Ying Yeping, Yu Zicai, Qiao Mu, Chen Jialing, Dai Mingde, Gu Bingxin and Han Tianheng. I only just managed to get in but by the second year I had figured things out: I thought traditional painting was a dead end, because the social fabric had changed, and traditional Chinese painting would never again reach the peaks it had once gained. Painters had none of what you’d call the spirit, so my heart wasn’t really in it any more.
M: What about the influence of Yu Youhan, a professor of yours at the time, on your work?
D: Professor Yu was my modernist inspiration. At the beginning we didn’t know one another; he just taught my class on photography. Then I ran into an old schoolmate who was in Professor Yu’s class and rather close to him. My school friend praised Yu as the best teacher in the whole school. At the time I was putting a lot of effort into my painting and wanted more than anything to be an artist so we talked more and more. The school was in the Jiading suburbs so I tended to go home just once a month. Every other weekend was spent doing landscape painting in the vicinity of the school: I was really hard working outside class hours. I borrowed an album of Utrillo’s work from Professor Yu and I would alter my own landscape pictures in line with his style. The next day I would go out again and continue painting, and I would repeat the process. When I had finished I would submit my work to Professor Yu for his suggestions and criticism.
M: The 1980s was an intense period of experimentation in the arts. I know that one of your first pieces was a (public) performance piece… Can you tell us about that work, what was the inspiration?
D: In 1982 I bought a copy of A Short History of Western Modern Art, and the back was covered in black and white pictures the size of a postage stamp, like a contents. That book gave me my first inkling of what western modernism was all about. Professor Yu had 25 albums in total of which I chose three, featuring seven artists. The albums became my textbooks. At that time my instruction was fragmented, with things like Christo’s ‘packaging’ art; these had a rather superficial influence on me.
When I first came to the traditional Chinese art faculty, I wasn’t very sure of myself. All I could think about was modernism and I had no money. Inspired by the ‘packaging’ idea, I got together with two classmates and we bought 20 meters of yellow cloth and two rolls of color film. Our first port of call was the entrance to the Shanghai Art Museum, in front of which was an advertisement frame used to promote the exhibitions there. We wrapped it up and took photos. We also visited the “People’s Fast Food Restaurant” at the Grand Cinema. In those days the place was a rather up-market place frequented by young, well-off people who went there on dates. Taking advantage of their lunch break, we charged in and started taking photos. The staff thought we were mad and didn’t know what we were up to but they didn’t stop us either. We divided into two groups with one downtown which even caused a traffic jam. People reacted in all sorts of different ways; some thought we were making a movie and the police didn’t dare stop us. The other group was in the suburbs at an abandoned wharf. They took some behavioral art photos because back then there was a strong emphasis on interaction with nature.
M: What did it mean to you to be wrapped up in the canvas? The canvas is an art material, was it a comment on art? Or society?
D: Back then I was still very young and had a lot of taboos to overcome. What’s more, in those days this sort of performance art was a very public thing: you went straight to public places and performed there. We didn’t perform in a studio or workshop or in a classroom. The work was very closely connected to the real world. We chose to perform outside the entrance to the newly-established Shanghai Art Museum and the city’s first fast food restaurant, because for its time the restaurant was something really fresh and new. We also went to crowded places like underneath billboards – so my work has hints of sociology – it’s a sort of exploration of the relationship between art and society.
M: What kind of position did art have (for you) in society during the eighties? Is it different than today? If so how?
D: Of course, art in the ’80s was nothing as grand as it is today. Its ideas have been used in different areas like creative industry, knowledge production, urban cultural development; all of these mix in elements of art. Back then art was relatively simple; it existed independently without an overall framework, without restrictions and without patronage either. It played a rather rebellious role and was fairly marginalized in the education system. However, art formed a connection with some other spheres which led to modernist poetry in literature, the advent of rock n roll in music, and some explorations in drama as well. Together these formed “avant-garde culture”: so-called metaphysical hyper-revolutionary culture. Compared to the 1980s, things are far more restricted now; back then there were no limits. This was because in the 80s, reforms had just begun and all the restrictions had just been stripped away. You had the freedom to imagine whatever you wanted and you were unconstrained by your own experience. Without having to think about success or failure, you could just explore any possibility. Nowadays though, there are many restrictions: business, systems, galleries etc. This reflects the predicament China has arrived at with development: back then when development had just begun, things were freer and you could use your imagination more.
M: Do you ever get nostalgic for those times Especially as the art world today is so very professional?
D: Every period has its own theme and we all have our individual tasks to be getting on with. There were some things from that period that were valuable spiritually– like the idealism, the absolute lack of constraints and frameworks. We had no idea what the future had in store; we did what we enjoyed doing with a sort of blind passion, not knowing what was going on outside our little circle. We didn’t know anything about the art market, or contracts, or exhibition systems; all we had was our determination to be artists. That I think was our spiritual drive and I think it’s something you rarely see nowadays.
M: Cao Weijun mentions that during this period, like many others “What Ding Yi felt was not merely excitement; in fact, to an even greater degree, he experienced perplexity, a perplexity derived from the conflict between the burdens of tradition and the self-expressive style of the West.” Please describe this sensation. China’s role in the global contemporary arts has greatly changed today but do you think this feeling still exists to some degree in China?
D: I began my work on crosses in 1988. This was intentional: I felt I was beginning to get familiar with Western art, and I had my own judgments and beliefs about it. I also took part in the ’85 New Wave Movement; I read every issue of Fine Arts in China, which concentrated most of the relevant news in one place. Everything that was happening in contemporary art up and down the country would make it into that paper; my earlier work of performance art also made its front page. I was invited to exhibit two of my collections at the exhibition in 1989: my performance art photographs and my first ‘cross’ work. Because I was still a student at the time, I travelled to the exhibition by train. I left my photographs on the train so I was only able to exhibit the cross painting.
By that time I had already seen where the mainstream was headed: expressionism. When China was just beginning the post-Mao reforms, many people needed expressionism as an outlet for the torment in their hearts. There was surrealism, too; this was connected to the academism of the time. Faced with all this change, I decided to follow a rational path free from ideology, and stick to being an artist. Zhao Wou-Ki had already set an example fifty years before; in his discussion of the beauty of form, Wu Guanzhong went no further than expressionism; and Western modernism was already a century old. I had to start from square one again. My cross images made art more abstract because there is no meaning between the lines. My first cross painting was in red, yellow and blue; the second a spectrum of seven colors. They were like my manifesto: from that point on, I would paint in this way. By 1989 I had properly established the cross style and I penned some commentaries on it, the core of which was my statement that I wanted to make “art that was not art-like.” My skill with colors and my ideas were all influenced by Cezanne and Matisse – in other words, by theories of contrast and harmony. At that time I wanted to get beyond those theories; I wanted there to be no system to my use of color, to use whatever colors I wanted.
My grid structure allowed display of colors in their original form; at the same time I employed the ruler and ruling pen in such a way as to take away all technique and style and appear to have no artistic skill. I wanted to keep away from the mainstream. Because I majored in design at the Shanghai Arts & Crafts Institute, design was a constant influence for me and I wanted to graft art and design together. My paintings were like cotton prints; they seemed to form an unbroken pattern and involve no obvious emotional investment on my part. In 1989, all my colleagues and teachers thought I was moving in the wrong direction and almost nobody had anything positive to say about my work. They thought my paintings weren’t paintings. However, I had already understood these issues and was resolute; I was also privately pleased.
M: But what were the burdens of tradition for you? Were there any Chinese traditional arts that you felt you needed to address in your work at the time? Did you feel that it was important for Chinese traditional arts to continue? Were you conflicted? Explain?
D: No. In some ways I chose to paint in this way because I wanted to do away with old systems. In 1989 I was still in my third year at the traditional Chinese art faculty and was already beginning to have doubts about the process, or rather its contemporary relevance. By that point I had already begun to move in a new direction, away from the blind study of the first two years. By that third year I had decided to abandon so-called traditional influences and it was a fairly cool-headed decision.
M: Zhao Wuji was apparently an influence on you during this time. Zhao is apparently influenced by Paul Klee, whose influence is visible in your work today. How do you see this path of shared influences? What did you see in Zhao’s work that attracted you?
D: They are all in the past. The spirit of Zhao’s work was a big influence on me. At some level he married two cultures together and that is something I admire.
M: Do you feel that you are merging cultures in your work?
D: I had already begun to explore abstract art in 1982 and 1983 before I started working on the grid pieces. In particular, I was influenced by Zao Wou-ki in 1983 and my initial forays into traditional painting were influenced by him, Guan Liang and Lin Fengmian – mainly in terms of the fusion of eastern and western culture. The reason I applied to the traditional art faculty was to learn about Chinese culture and then to meld that with Western culture; but as I learned more and more about contemporary art, I did away with such notions. There is no need in this day and age to fuse two cultures; as my thinking evolved, I gradually lost interest in styles like Zao’s.
M: In the very explorative era of the eighties, when there was an influx of western modern and post modern art theory, you have said that you were seeking "The possibility to make art in a manner that was not art-like, to sift away all skill, all narrativity, all painterliness”. Were you not aware of minimalist work of the 60s and seventies who were engaged in this same pursuit decades earlier?
How did you negotiate what you were reading and seeing from outside of China with what you were doing inside?
D: I already had some experience with these Minimalist works, beginning of course with Mondrian and Malevich. As I saw it, they were individual cases and not representative of the whole. Mondrian for instance was a pioneer and his structured analytical abstract style definitely had an influence on me. I usually study the basic framework and then quickly develop in my own direction. I am quite fond of Frank Stella’s pre-70s work because it is hard-edge painting. Overall though, different people opened different doors for me – doors to my imagination.
M: If these were the outside influences, what influenced you in your daily reality at the time?
D: You could say the social environment at the time was in tumult. The whole intellectual and cultural sphere was being resuscitated and liberated; people were beginning to listen to Cui Jian’s rock music and watch films like Red Sorghum and Yellow Earth. In publishing, a lot of Western philosophy and literature was pouring into the country along with Western art history – in particular histories of modern art. Although many of the books were over 30 years old, we had never read them so at that point culture from different epochs was flooding into China. We absorbed everything we could without questioning it and then made a judgment of our own values, finally choosing our own direction and goals.
M: It is said that the explosion of the atomic bomb at the end of World War 2 helped to usher in the era of abstraction expressionism- It is a reaction to the existential blank in the world. You always mention that your work is a reflection of China’s dramatic changes over the last 20 years, especially the city of Shanghai’s but superficially this connection is difficult to see. Can you talk about how you reflect these societal changes? Is it an ideological influence a stance of silence (abstraction) against the noise of (20th century simulacra) reality?
D: The development of my abstract work is definitely a mirror of society: and part of it is personal experience. I improve myself: I have to constantly overcome the inclination to paint more and more quickly. For instance the colors in my work from ’93 were becoming ever fancier and by the end of the year I was thinking about how to rein in the trend. I don’t think art should be easygoing: you should always have a burden otherwise you’ll lose focus. Art means an experience akin to that of an ascetic monk. That’s why so many of my changes are connected with that fact: issues of personal experience and value judgment. Before 1998 I focused on formalism, an entirely self-contained system. Once I had explored it for more than a decade I had reached the limit. After 1998 I was increasingly drawn to urbanization, so my works became increasingly bright.
M: Throughout the ages painting has time and time again been pronounced dead- whether it was from the birth of the camera to minimalism or the return of representational painting. How do you feel your work fits into this discourse?
D: Given the way modern art or contemporary art has developed in China, I would classify my work as abstract or rational abstract; thirty years ago such art did not exist in China. On the other hand, in an international context, my work is more difficult to categorize because there is no clear school or type to place it in. I stress the importance of the individual: the value of one’s work; what sort of audience is influenced by your work; whether it resonates with its age; and whether it reflects the reality of that age. These are the things I focus on.
M: How do you see the work reflecting the era you live in? Please provide examples.
D: My work over the past 25 years can be divided into two phases: pre-1998, with formalistic and generally purist painting with an avoidance of social metaphors. After 1998 there is a transformation which came from the changes in society at the time, including urban development, from individual formalistic style to a greater focus on modern society. I like to call what I do “neutral” observation. For example, the use of fluorescent colors was to represent the unique features of our age. My observations could be negative, positive, or expectant; they are complicated and maintain a constant and obvious focus on how Shanghai really is today.
M: If the death of painting is a question of abstract vs representational painting, since the 80s there has been a plurality of options, with neither being more defunct or valid than the other. Your work to me has a macabre sense about it, almost reminiscent of graveyards in the west – field and fields of crosses, Did this death of painting question ever arise in your mind?
D: People rarely raise the death of painting with me. Because the crosses are the fine print of my painting, they signify a turning point. The cross is merely a brush stroke building block of the whole image.
I don’t think plane painting will ever die: it is a medium, and media for expression of thought do not disappear easily. Nowadays there are many media being replaced all the time; they are replaced by new technology. All art still expresses the thought or spirit of an age; either that or it is connected to a part of the human character. Many things are marked by the technology of their time so they are quickly replaced. Good paintings still make me stop and think for a long time. It is very difficult to replace the interaction and solitude of viewer and a painting.
M: If we look throughout history there have been moments of dazzling balance between the representational and the abstract — for example, Byzantine mosaics; pre-Columbian and American Indian textiles and ceramics; Japanese screens; etc.
Your work is often referred to fabric design or tartan and hence can be said to embody this balance? Have you ever thought of your work as part of some ornamental tradition or of any tradition?
D: My earliest aim was to blend painting and design, to make painting a rather neutral thing. Later on I revisited the language of painting and when I came to expanding on that work I blended a lot of gridded cloth into my painting system, changing the original layout and adding new elements. My method therefore meant taking some ready-made components and bringing them into the painting system. To be more specific, I did so to broaden the subject, or to create more complex layers and levels of the painting. I could start from a piece of white cloth or use ready-made elements. I didn’t think about tradition.
S: I find it quite interesting about the topic of marginality in your article Deconstructing the Abstract. It was an advanced idea at that time to combine art and design. But how do you think of it today?
D: Right now there are two integrations: one is active and explores things from a language angle. There are many young artists making obvious explorations in this area like Gao Mingyan and Xiao Longhua – their work is a bridging of folk and fine art. The other sort of integration is where a brand requests or exploits the marriage of art and design – passive integration. Shanghai Securities News interviewed me about this in the past and we discussed it for two hours. Finally they selected a quote of me saying that art in today’s age is a business and put that as the headline, which led to a lot of controversy on the internet. What I meant was that art at this moment is completely different to before and there is an unprecedented, complicated relationship between art and business now. We cannot hide from the influence exerted on art by business – it’s a reality. The relationship between art and business has gone to a new level, that’s undeniable. On the other hand, art has of course become far more popularized. In the 1980s it was a small clique which was why it was named ‘avant-garde’ art. Today it’s called contemporary art and the two words have very different implications. Back in those days it was a group of hot-blooded, ambitious and idealistic young people who treated art as a revolutionary cause; today that is no longer the case and art is firmly grounded in society. I’m not saying there’s a perfect bond between the two but that there is one is a fact and it’s something we should accept. Having said that, I think things will continue to change over the next decade.
M: How do you feel about your work printed on a Hermes scarf? Are you ever afraid of misinterpretation? Do you have any ideal scenarios in your mind about how art and commerce can collaborate?
D: It was really a chance encounter that led to the Hermes project. I didn’t think too much about it. To be honest when I was asked to do the design I wasn’t aware of how well-known Hermes is as a brand. It was only later on that I gradually learned about it. When I was working with them I stood by my principles. I went to Paris for the final round of negotiations and made sure that we both agreed that these works were first and foremost my works and then Hermes’. Hermes’ global artistic director showed me a draft contract they prepared. There was nothing specified in the contract except the size of my works. I could do whatever I wanted apart from that and this was how we began to work together. So I think that no matter what happens, when artists and brands get together there must be principles.
M: In previous interviews you mentioned that you wanted to get away from the trends of painting towards painterliness in your work. In the late nineteen eighties there were several painters that opted for a cold, mechanical and spiritual subject matter in their work, including Shu Qun and Wang Guangyi. What would you say was your relationship to these artist works? Where you aware of it? Influenced?
Your crosses seem to have little to do with those of Shu Qun but how do you see the difference? Similarities?
D: I was aware of artists in the north. The so-called divinity that they explored was a Western religious issue. Although I use crosses, I don’t explore issues from a Western value perspective. Therefore, I think that in some ways I am completely different from them. Back then when modern Western philosophy was coming into China, their group grew out of those ideas. It may have had some tangible effect on China, such as through faith and ultimate divinity, but I think that philosophy is fairly lofty and utopian – there’s no real grounding in reality. My art explores formalism and I want to show another side of art. People who care about the mainstream focus on China’s current ideological issues, whereas I stand in opposition to them as part of a minority and raise a different voice. As early as 1993 I realized that abstract art would be a minority art form in China – an offshoot from the mainstream. At the time I displayed at many international exhibitions but the newspaper clippings sent back to me very rarely showed my works. The reports focused mainly on ideology and China’s image. Back then I realized I would have to be a ‘long-distance runner’.
M: But you are still here. You never were eliminated from the Big China contemporary discourse. Was there ever a moment when you felt that you were just going to be forgotten? Did you always feel support for your work when it was so different from everyone else’s?
D: I never had a particularly strong feeling, nor have I ever talked about anything so philosophical as being forgotten or not. At that time in those circumstances absolutely anything was possible. All you had to do was choose a path for yourself and take a risk: all the artists did the same and I was just one of them, finding my path in my own way.
M: Why have the sizes of your crosses always remained the same? It seems to me that your patterns are less about the cross, as many critics focus on, but the dimension that you have used. What are your thoughts about scale? Especially that if the grid you have made is your signature style?
D: The grids represent a sort of proportioning: your standards and your value judgment decide what sort of proportion is appropriate. For a time I would often go to cloth shops to select canvas because in 1998 I did all my painting on canvas. I had to decide whether the grid size was appropriate or not, whether it had the right angles. That was a value judgment in line with my work. The size of painting and density of the pattern are closely interrelated; a larger size means the image’s pattern can be less dense and then magnified and appreciated at a distance. Also, I vary the density in line with different compositions. Sometimes the canvas is very small but if you can give the picture a perspective of great depth then the denser the grid pattern the greater the tension.
M: Does the scale come from any reference in the real world? The Minimal painter Frank Stella’s work was self referential or painting about painting… he used stripes that represented the structure of the stretchers behind the canvas as reference highlighting the picture as object of the painting rather than picture as representation. Do you consider your work self-referential (art about art?)?
D: The size is formalistic and does not make any explicit social commentary. An artist’s choice of form is always down to his own judgment and visual experience. There is a relation between the different proportions, and between the undisciplined structure and the size of the frame. I never make rough sketches or order my thoughts beforehand but there is coherence to my work. Every painting I do is connected to its predecessor – I am always looking for the inspiration for my next painting. Therefore, for me, the most fulfilling exhibitions are the solo ones because I can display clues to that coherence.
M: Have you ever done crosses at a grossly different scale? Do you think your chosen scale has to do with the size of you, your hand? Or does it come from the printing cross that you appropriated?
D: It doesn’t have much to do with how big I am. It’s more about the exhibition venue: the first time I produced a large-scale piece was in 1998 at the Sydney Biennale where I exhibited a triptych. Later in 2001 at the Yokohama Triennale, the idea was that every artist should present a solo show. I was informed of the venue specifications a year in advance and could create works that fit the surroundings; I made four 260x420cm pieces which had a coherent theme and were color-coded with the wall behind. My artistic forays have explored the relationship between my work and its environment and this has been a constant theme. In 2005 I held a solo exhibition at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK. The building was originally a church and so has many triangles in its roof structure. I painted a series of 6 pieces with irregular shapes and with a common theme linking them: the exhibition venue. There was also my four-piece, 300x300cm black and white exhibit at the Minsheng Art Museum in 2011. That piece was placed in the very innermost hall of the solo exhibition and the size of the exhibit was tailored to that of the venue.
M: There’s Klee, Mondrian, Malevich, all great pioneers of abstraction for whom the grid and cross were fundamental. Ad Reinhardt, famous for his "black" or "ultimate" paintings, that he claimed to be painting the "last paintings" that anyone can paint also have a subtle cross image in them. How do you see your works in relation to these early predecessors?
D: I studied Reinhardt a bit during my early days because he too was a hardline artist focusing on subtle changes of color between different blocks. Malevich was in some respects ahead of his time, doing away with abstract art before it had begun. Black on black, white on white; these were the peak of abstract art. I once considered how great a contribution to the 20th century abstract art was. It disappeared before it had really had an opportunity to fully flourish. Actually, I think abstract art has disappeared now. Because all art at root expresses something, describing the things we have seen or things from our experience; it represents something in our collective experience; it must be something we have seen or heard. No matter what it is, even a set of scenery, it is predictable – it’s just that the technique the artist uses are rather wondrous. Abstract painting however, serves to depict experiences we have not had: it gives painting true, great freedom. For a while I took my students into the countryside to paint: before, my favorite style was Utrillo’s but later on I lost all interest in it. Nowadays I find his style too restricted and fragmented and only capable of expressing one side of things, whereas abstract painting sets no limits on the expression of what you feel in your heart. Although Western abstract painting developed through a number of stages and seems to have reached the end of the road, I think it is an extremely important turning point in the whole history of painting and there should be more in-depth discussion of it.
M: Your work can be said to be a handmade version of mechanical reproduction. While it is hand drawn and thus imprecise, everything is aligned within the grid. Every element’s place within the compositional whole is predetermined to a large degree. As an outside observer to China, I see this is something that reflects the educational and social system in China, as well as a general outlook on the world: regimented, precise, and part of a whole rather than in the west where everyone is under the illusion that they are independent. Do you see your work as a reflection of a Chinese ideological structure or influenced by this?
D: I’ve never thought about it.
M: From what I’ve learned in China, everything is based on the written word. I see the choice of the grid and cross in your work as a direct appropriation of the calligraphic practice books, which are gridded in the same manner that your crosses appear. Has this come up before? Can you speak about this?
D: All I have done is to put two crosses together and give them a bit more figure by staggering them. The original cross was just two strokes and seemed too light; I thought I should make it thicker so I added two diagonal strokes on the horizontal part. After that I thought four strokes wasn’t enough and wondered about using redundant strokes to flesh out the cross, and then there were eight strokes. Doing that slowed me down. It’s a highly personal work method of mine.
M: I wouldn’t accuse you of borrowing the calligraphy instruction book grids but do you agree that your personal way of working might’ve been influenced by your upbringing, and education? Were you a good student of calligraphy?
D: I have almost no training in calligraphy. I did a little writing with brushes when I was in elementary school and when I started to learn traditional Chinese painting, but my original inspiration for the “cross” works had no connection whatsoever with calligraphy. At the time I wanted to paint something with absolutely no metaphor; something without any injection of personal experience. I wanted to cut the bond between the painting and traditional cultural metaphors and create something completely unfamiliar. It was simply a horizontal and vertical structure; even the naming of the grid paintings was done by number in the order I created them. I did all this to ensure that there would be no metaphorical meaning within my works.
M: Certainly your work is calligraphic; this has come up before in discussing our work. It is almost as if your work is a sort of automated writing. How are you indebted to the art of calligraphy?
D: Sometimes I avoid it, sometimes I accept it. But I don’t think of my work as calligraphy. To me it’s just thick and fine lines which form a sort of structure. The point of calligraphy is not the subject, and I attach great importance to the perspective within. My early works had limited perspective but later on when I focused on urbanization, my perspective increased and there were some new forms.
M: If you are indeed writing, what is it that you are writing? Fiction or non fiction?
D: Not fiction – more like an essay discussing a particular subject. Before I have finished the discussion in one essay, I begin another that continues the discussion. The process produces many possibilities which you have to expound on.
M: Cao Weijiun says that you maintain the belief that Painting is a gate that opens onto the contradictions of the real world; yet truth is, in fact, impossible to attain. Can you explain this? How your work relates to this?
D: I’m often asked what my art will be like in the future and I can’t reply, because it’s impossible to predict. The artist’s life may have a broad direction but every step is the result of a series of chances, like your background, the pace of historical change, your race, society; ideology plays a part, and even things as small as your personal habits are all involved. Many questions have no answer. You must be on the way to one answer. All I can do is address one topic per essay, but in some sense they cannot resolve any of the real issues of the human condition. My work is just a reference for different people to discover those areas in the thoughts of others that resonate with their own.
S: So what is the truth that you assume? Do you feel getting closer to it? Is there anyone who said before you are an artist of metaphysics? What’s your idea about metaphysics?
D: Truth in some sense means what you have faith in –which you believe to be absolutely right at this moment in time. I think that is the basic meaning of truth for an individual or an artist.
Li Xu has curated abstract art exhibitions for many years. He has included my work in many of them – I don’t know if that means he believes my works are abstract. On the other hand, there are many pieces that are not so abstract in his exhibitions, too. So I think the concept is a broad one.
I recently did an abstract unit for the design biennale Design Shanghai 2013 with abstract and concrete components. The concrete part is easy to explain: it is design without the profession of the designer and a layman’s experimentation; a design invention. The abstract part is all about counter-intuitive thinking, designing outside the box, non-mainstream thought, works that can never be complete, mad design – it’s a reflection on design theory and practice. It cannot truly be put into effect, so I put all of these things into the abstract part. So in a way, my works have an abstract nucleus but you can’t say they’re 100% abstract.
M: Have you thought about which direction your grids evoke, Centrifugal of Centripetal, and how this relates to the world around you, your philosophy?
D: I think there are two parts to my paintings: the rational and the emotional. When the structure is highly rational, the brushstrokes are fairly emotional – or it’s that the perspective includes an element of the incidental. The rational and emotional elements complement and balance each other out. Of course, the overall effect is more rational while the emotional aspect is more casually attained. For example, I used a ruler during my earliest works to give order to the lines and structure. However, at the same time I adopted a reflex color scheme – I used whatever color I happened to pick up, and by so doing I injected a measure of randomness and something very emotional into the rigid structure. This includes my recent work where the black and white layout is very rational but when it comes to the ebb and flow between the scene and perspective, I make the freer elements more obvious. I think that there will always be a mixture of these two aspects in the art.
M: You always say that your work is about China and Shanghai. Is this the real world that you mean? What contradictions do you wish your work could embody about these places? How do you think you achieve it?
D: It’s not the real world. Everything before 1998 was highly individualized; it was a logical, formalistic exploration of the essence of painting. In 1998, due to a chance encounter I entertained a professor of art history from University of British Columbia at my studio. He asked me a question which led on to an important issue. He asked why artists in Shanghai were all concentrating on their personal problems when Shanghai in his opinion had gone through such tremendous changes in 1998. It was like Paris in the 1930s and 1940s; in that era, art was closely tied to Parisian society and was a reflection of its time. Why then was this not apparent in artists in Shanghai? He was right on the mark – this was one of my own weaknesses – so I began to think about the issue. Later on I moved my studio from the area around Shanghai University in the suburb to a place by the Suzhou Creek. My work began to get lighter and lighter, I employed fluorescent colors, the structure of my paintings became ever more intricate and the perspective ever more intense. What I really wanted to do was give expression to the era, not just the city. Depicting Shanghai was just a means to that end. I often say I’m neutral in my expression; I began to move in this direction in 1998 and after two years the trend was very clear. The whole color scheme had a new, obvious visual power. Deep down I gladly welcomed this urbanization, this stage in social development. At the time I was happy and energized – I was completely positive about it. In the 1980s I could feel the freedom of thought and the subsequent wildfire development. I remember how every time I came back to the city center from the Arts & Crafts Institute, I would go to the Xinhua bookstore on Nanjing Road and buy a few books. A few new titles would come out every week. But it wasn’t like today where there are so many that you don’t know which to choose: in those days there would always be a few books I wanted, and after I’d bought them I would read them by candlelight under the mosquito net in my dorm. So back then, I felt like I was making progress every day; I was coming into contact with new material every day. My transformation in style in 1998 was due to this stage where I was seeing something new every day. The reason I moved my studio from the edge of the city to the center was because my studio was at home: I had a three-floor house with the studio in the attic. After two months without going into town, the city was unrecognizable and I’d panic. I moved the studio to the city center because I could not neglect the massive transformations going on there.
However, by 2008 I was no longer so positive about urbanization. All society was thinking about the issue and I myself thought it was a bottleneck and didn’t know whether it was a good or bad thing. Before Shanghai actually developed I thought it would be a good thing. Some of my thoughts, my anxieties and my conflict about it are expressed in my work. At this stage as I considered these issues I would use different methods to express my feelings; vertical, scattered forms can be packed with metaphors and not be too specific – but the viewer gets it. When I displayed that style of work at the solo exhibition in Cologne, many older people asked me why I painted in the style I did. Later on I discovered how faint the lights of the city were at night – living in a big metropolis you don’t find the colors too glaring. So there was a period in 2006 when I would sit looking at the canvas and think: what should I paint? The idea that popped into my head was: chaos. Everything was a total mess. That’s how I started to paint, because at that point I felt there was something wrong with the whole rhythm of the city’s development but I couldn’t find the right way to express it. I thought ‘chaos’ was a good theme. Actually though, if you get up close to my work you find it’s still a well-ordered unit. This is very Chinese – every individual is down to earth, respectful – but put them together into a society and the result is chaos.
M: Your works seem to contain that paradox of order and chaos, which was so fundamental to many abstract painters of the 20th century. Why is this tension between order and chaos so fundamental to (your) art? The grid and the rigid order it implies is, in the words of Rosalind Krauss, “ant-ireal, anti-natural? How do your paintings relate or not relate to nature?
D: Every artist is guided by his or her own journey. I think that in my own work there is a certain balancing between the natural and the ordered. If you look at my early fluorescent color works, I adopted a very precise method and there was a strong logical pattern that governed the color scheme. However, from about 2007 or 2008 on, I think what was happening with urbanization may have had an influence on me which led to many of my works being based around the idea of ‘chaos’. Part of these works would be a criticism of or expression of my disappointment with the urbanization process. So there are different stages in an artist’s work which change along with the artist’s reflections. An artist will not produce a linear stream of works forever; there are more complicated elements at play.
M: Cao Weijun also mentions in his article about your work the role of Hans Van Dijik in encouraging your cross series quite early on. Can you describe your relationship with him? How did he help you with your work?
D: Hans enlightened me as to the meaning of the Western experience. I first met him in 1988 at an exhibition at Shanghai Art Museum where I was displaying my first collection of crosses. The following year he came to my studio to take a look at my work. At the time I was still in university and lived in a small room that was full of my paintings, rolled up, some of which I showed him photos. He quickly saw a trend. By that time I was into my second year of working with crosses and I had a dozen or so pieces, as well as a few landscape pictures and abstract watercolor paintings from my pre-cross days. He saw the trend in my works and told me which ones fit into a pattern and which didn’t. At the time I wondered how Westerners could look at art in this way. At that time we didn’t have any sense of different styles – we’d paint a different sort of piece every day and flit between styles all the time. I thought many of Hans’ methods were refreshing. He borrowed and copied some of the photos of my works and then when he gave back the originals three or four months later, we discussed them further. At the beginning of 1992 he brought the director of the House of the Cultures of the World from Berlin to China to seek out artists. Their exhibition was slated for the beginning of 1993 and it was the first comparatively formal exhibition of Chinese avant-garde art in the West after the post-Mao reforms. Hans was like a scholar: he was good at organizing materials, and constantly collected and organized everything before drawing up a proposal. That’s how I began working with the House of the Cultures of the World. In the end, the curators selected 14 artists and they went to Europe and had their work exhibited in many places over two years. After the exhibition closed, Hans’ work was done. He came to Beijing and started an art consulting company working from a two bedroom flat with a lounge which acted as gallery, office and dorm. He slept on a fold-out bed which he’d put away in the morning; every time I went to Beijing we’d share a room. When it came to art we were always on the same page. Hans acted as my agent in Beijing right up until he passed away.
M: Were there other people that were as important as Hans to getting you started?
D: Many people. Some were my old classmates who had different views and so had an influence on and were a help to me. There was also Professor Yu Youhan who inspired me with modernist thinking and who helped me a lot in learning western painting techniques and in my early work. Monica Dematté, Lawrence from the ShanghART Gallery and several other less well-known figures on the contemporary scene. They all had an effective influence on my journey.
M: Hans did a show about Mondrian’s influence in China which you were in, were you familiar with Mondrian’s work then? How did it feel to be put into that context?
D: At that exhibition they displayed some of Mondrian’s documents; Hans wanted to use Mondrian’s fame to garner sponsorship for the exhibition. The occasion was pretty high-profile, with works on display at the Shanghai Library, Guangzhou Museum of Art and the National Art Museum of China. Because it was using Mondrian’s name, anything slightly connected to him was included. Liu Ye was counted as being connected because his works often had Mondrian themes; I had a fairly rational structure to my work so I was connected as well. I remember someone had done some landscape paintings that had a pretty rational and geometric style so they were included.
M: Now you are moving into sculpture and architecture, which appears much freer or looser than the paintings. The cross is still omnipresent but it becomes a catalyst rather than a doctrine with these works. Do you feel liberated working in three dimensions?
D: It’s difficult to say. I’ve always been interested in three dimensional work. I was a designer first and so design has always influenced my judgment of things. For instance, when I’m walking in a city I’ll pay attention to the architecture and urban planning. I think that is peculiar to me; I’ll be more attentive to those areas that interest me personally. As far as possible I take any opportunities I can to get involved with architecture: I did two small projects as well as some sculpture and design. I think all of these broaden my horizons. I feel the same about the work I’ve done with some brands. There is a core to my painting but I’m not satisfied with just keeping to that one path; I need my work to have other paths so I can touch on all sorts of different spheres. In particular some of the projects I have done in conjunction with others have enabled me to get into and understand new areas, which I also find interesting. For example, the two architectural projects I did were with different architects. They helped me a lot with the blueprints, although the raw ideas were all mine, of course. Both projects were based on the cross idea and involved a lot of structural work so I had to engage with many different technicians. In the process I learned a lot of different things, which was a new experience and therefore very interesting. In addition I like to have the option of my three dimensional pieces following on from or being independent of my other work. That way I can broaden my horizons and not tie myself to a fixed 3D style. So I vary my methods according to the project and actual circumstances.
M: Does your interest in urban planning ever bring you to muse on the ubiquitous grid structure of cities around the world? Does this excite you? Reinforce your confidence in the gridded orders of things?
D: I didn’t feel that way when I began, but as I painted more works my interest in urban planning grew, and I was inspired by the streets and maps I often see. My understanding of urban planning theory also deepened. However, my work is still something of a standalone system – it may come close to or stray far from urban layouts but that is due to the coincidental crossing of paths with my winding thoughts.
M: Do you see yourself ever moving away from paint and canvas entirely?
D: I don’t really think about the future: nothing’s certain.
M: In Shanghai you are known as teacher Ding. Your role in Fudan University’s SVA has had a great influence on the school and community. Tell us how your work as a teacher is important to you.
D: It’s about giving something back. With everything society’s given me, I want to repay it.
M: Teaching is a give and take, What do you gain from being a teacher, except a title and headache?
D: As an artist, I have the experience of being a student. From their point of view, to encounter a suitable teacher who can give proper guidance at the learning stage is extremely important. From the teacher’s perspective, I am dealing with very young students and their ideas allow me to understand more clearly the changes of our age.
S: As a teacher, what is the primary principle for you to educate your students about?
D: You have to have your own viewpoint: a teacher should foster students’ ability to express themselves and teach them how to do so, or how to find their own individual perspective on things.
M: Like Xu Bing in Beijing, your teaching duties can be quite overwhelming. How do you negotiate your role as professor/dean with that of artist?
D: From the point of view of an idealist, this is a responsibility. I’m a teacher now so I pay more attention to educational issues. Recently I walked into a painting stationery shop in a little street near the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. The paints on the shelves there were in two basic groups: one was intended for students in the nearby Academy; the other was for students in the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. I found it incredible that such a stilted, doctrinal division could exist. Last Saturday I attended a hearing of the Shanghai Urban Planning and Design Research Institute on the subject of the proposal for the Shanghai Pocket Plaza, at which there were representatives from 11 Chinese universities. From that meeting I got the impression that universities are currently in dire need of creativity. They stick to rigid methods and give no thought to whether their conclusions match up with their initial research, whether or not they have gone beyond the aesthetic standards of this era, and have no momentum to innovate in the slightest. They cynically adapt to current circumstances. Sometimes I think that the Chinese education system has a really long way to go. There are many top-down issues that have not been properly addressed. I think to myself, I have a responsibility. If I make a contribution (since I’m part of this system); at least I can hope my students will be a bit better.
M: How do you see China’s next generation of artists in comparison to you and your peers when you were the same age? Do you think they are more or less conservative, passionate, interesting?
D: Because of the tremendous changes that have occurred it is difficult to compare one generation with another, but I have always kept an eye on exhibitions by young artists. There is great diversity and internationalization of style among artists in their 20s and 30s; they are difficult to define squarely as ‘Chinese’ artists. I personally believe this is a good trend, because young artists’ thought is no longer restricted by geographical boundaries; they can think in many different ways across regions and across academic spheres.
M: What is your biggest ambition as an artist? Museum collections? Money? Fame?
D: I actually asked a French painter the same questions a decade ago. His answer was, “Everyone wants to become Picasso; and Picasso wanted to become Da Vinci.” There’s no end to it. Ambition and ideals constantly push you further. Twenty years ago when I was still a young artist, an art student and angry youth there was no way I could have predicted what art would be like today. All I wanted back then was to be one of those painters dressed in long robes on the ladders, working on the propaganda posters in the square. Then without noticing how, I had become an artist – so there was no way I could have foreseen it. I am grateful that every step of my journey was grounded in reality and not a fantasy.
M: I recently made a studio visit in Ny with a mid-career artist who is quite well known and recently bought a painting of his own back at auction. He said he really missed it. Do you keep a lot of your own work? Do you think it’s important to keep work for your own development?
D: I felt like that early in my career because I believed that if new audiences at each exhibition saw only one or two of my pieces then it would be difficult for them to get them. So a systematic, ordered and phased exhibition is very helpful to the audience in understanding my work. At each of my solo exhibitions I have a small review of my previous work, even a fragmented one. There is a coherent theme to all my work because each piece is a product of its predecessor – they are all connected. The pieces I collect are ordered in the same way: there is a clear, constant theme and I keep works from each phase of my career.
M: When you are gone, How would you like to be remembered?
D: I haven’t thought about it. But right now I think, if I live another twenty years I would divide my work into three: some for my children, some I would donate to a mainland gallery, and the rest to a gallery overseas or in Hong Kong.