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The Magician of Crosses

Author: Cao Weijun Oct,2007

"The virtues of painting, therefore, are that its masters see their works admired and feel themselves to be almost like the Creator."
-Leon Battista Alberti

In many people's eyes, Ding Yi is a simple person: In his name, there are simply three brushstrokes ; in his works, he simply uses cross-shaped symbols; and in his artistic career, some say he has simply never changed his style.  "Simple", then, becomes a something like a pronoun representing Ding Yi's unique spirit of self-discipline.  In his paintings, the cross-shaped symbol is the only visual element that he has allowed himself to use.  Within the square inch of these symbols, he deposits his personal power on the canvas, stroke by stroke, layer by layer.  But rather than say that this power derives from his individual will, let us say that it originates in his personal understanding and perception.  The cross-shaped signs that densely cover his canvases have, after twenty years of intense experimentation, been roundly accepted by people as a symbol that epitomizes Ding Yi.  Yet it seems that the dimensionality of these simple, and even boring, cross-shaped symbols, as well as of the backgrounds that support them, is constantly evolving.  And it seems that this constantly evolving dimensionality, coupled with the spiritual power that accumulates therein, expresses Ding Yi’s profound reflections on the era in which he lives.  

Since 1988, Ding Yi has repeated this simple labor in his studio every day, this labor that still remains extremely challenging to his body and mind.  He has never disrupted, never changed his personal artistic language.  Ding Yi clings to this belief: Painting is a gate that opens onto the contradictions of the real world; yet truth is, in fact, impossible to attain.  So the only thing that he can do, and the thing that he must do, is to experiment with myriad possible methods in order to seek a means of approaching truth.  The cross-shaped symbol, then, is the "fundamental doctrine" that he has chosen to employ in opening the gates to truth.  The truth that Ding Yi's heart seeks is a certain emotion that can only be attained through the complete liberation of the free will of the individual.  Thus, for the past twenty years he has persisted in painting every possible variety of crosshair, while dedicating his life to pursuing this emotion.      

Artistic Attitudes in the 1980s
When he was seven years old, Ding Yi, a naturally introspective person, began to develop an interest in art.  In 1980, at the age of nineteen, he entered the Shanghai Arts and Crafts College.  At that time, Chinese society was already being exposed to exhibitions of Western art, which allowed the public to gain some experience with the modern art of Europe and America.  For example, it was at the exhibition "American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston" that Ding Yi first saw works of American abstract art. "Painting for the '80s", an exhibition organized by the Shanghai "Grass Grass" group at the Luwan District Cultural Hall in February 1980, made apparent the desires of Shanghai society for new artistic styles.   Joan Cohen has written that "this exhibition was remarkably strong; it included both Cubist and Expressionist experimental works, based on styles the artists had seen in books.…  The exhibition … showed the germ of a new Chinese style." About that era, Ding Yi once reminisced, "At the beginning of the 1980s, I was studying at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts College.  My classes were beginning to include a few imported elements of Western modern design.  Naturally, some ideas of modern art also filtered in.  This had an impact on me." At that time, art groups were spontaneously forming throughout China.  The members of these groups were filled with illusions about the West—about Western ideologies, Western lifestyles, Western artistic concepts.  Wu Hung has noted that "the exhibitions of the Star group in 1979 and 1980 marked the beginning of post-Cultural Revolution experimental art by defining an unofficial position in the Chinese art world." From that moment, the influence of Western art, in conjunction with the influx of new ideologies and transnational capital, began to inundate Chinese society like the waters of tidal wave.  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.  He desired to possess a personal language that would allow him to express his spirit's deep affection for art.  

Over the course of both the history of modern China and the urbanization of the country, Shanghai has always assumed the role of pacesetter in the reception of Western culture.  At the end of the 1970s, under the influence of the political and economic policies of opening to the West, Shanghai regained its past splendor.  In reviewing the easy development of Shanghai over the course of history, we find that it became, during its time as a semi-colonial city, the most "international" metropolis in Asia.  The modernist qualities that it then began to accrue were never completely buried; they were merely waiting to be developed. The consciousness fostered by this city's civil society—which is tender and self-controlled, which excels at assimilating foreign cultures, and which is a product of colonial culture—has given rise to a cultural environment of independence and plurality among the city's intellectuals and artists.   In truth, in Ding Yi's works, which manifest the artist's different emotions regarding urban culture, the rapid transformations of the outer world come together with the artist's own inner experience of these transformations, creating a precise, comprehensive response to these phenomena.  From the time when, as a youth, he was influenced by the cityscapes in the works of Maurice Utrillo, Ding Yi has constantly been studying Shanghai's peculiarities both present and past.  This research foreshadowed his later works that take the city as their subject.

The Early Melodies of "Crosses"
Besides those painter-peers who often discuss their artistic viewpoints with him, there are two people who have had a particularly important effect on Ding Yi's artistic practice.  They are Yu Youhan and Hans van Dijk.

Yu Youhan
In 1981, when Ding Yi was studying at the Shanghai Arts and Crafts College, he met Prof. Yu Youhan.  It was in borrowing a painting catalogue from Prof. Yu that Ding Yi first learned about the art of Utrillo.  He immediately became fascinated with this French painter.  Yu Youhan was, without a doubt, a torchbearer on the path of the development of Ding Yi's early art.  For several years, Ding Yi was profoundly attracted to the depth and desolation of Utrillo's works; for through Utrillo's brushwork, common Parisian street scenes were given profound interpretations.  If Ding Yi's study of the paintings of Utrillo allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of painting and urbanism, then it was Yu Youhan's interpretation of the works of Paul Cézanne that opened the door to modern art in Ding Yi's mind.  Ding Yi has noted that Yu Youhan "taught us to figure out what Cézanne was.  At that time, to be able to understand Cézanne was a watershed.  It was extremely important." The artistic style that mixed Chinese and Western influences—a style developed by Chinese artists of the previous generation, such as Zao Wou-ki, Guan Liang, Wu Dayu, and others who traveled to France—strongly impacted Ding Yi.  Heroism, an important early abstract work that he created in 1983 and that was infected with the rebellious spirit of Latin American revolutionary films, constituted an attempt to create a stirring atmosphere of fearlessness and valor.  In this work, however, the painterly elements taken from Utrillo and Cézanne were already beginning to vanish.

Coming to know the masters of Western art was far from a simple process.  It was only through much concrete practice that Ding Yi came to experience the deep meaning of Cézanne's paintings and of his philosophy of art.  Studying and researching the art of Utrillo and Cézanne was something that many Chinese artists did when pursuing a manner of creation that would combine materials and philosophies both Chinese and Western.  Ding Yi, who has always maintained a certain distance from the mainstream, began to notice that the form of mainstream works being produced at this time (1980-1985) and the questions about which he himself most cared were becoming uncomfortably close.   Always independent, Ding Yi began to grow weary of following the well-trodden paths of others, be they the paths of Chinese tradition or of the West.  He decided to rid himself of these burdens, resolving instead to use the simplest means of thinking and of expression to communicate his inner perceptions.

During the early 1980s, Ding Yi struggled intensely with his confusion about his philosophy and practice of art.  This was a moment when everything from his inner reflections to his artworks was filled with experimentation.  To speak precisely, while his first Appearance of Crosses painting was not exhibited until the Shanghai Art Museum's "Exhibition of Today's Art" in 1988, the crosshair symbol had, at its earliest, already been revealed in his 1985 work Taboo (Figure 3), a hint of things to come.   This was quite an important year in Ding Yi's artistic career, for he completely abandoned his adherence to Utrillo and Cézanne, having experienced a certain despair regarding the illusion of creating a combined style of Chinese and Western art.  In the fall of the following year, Ding Yi began preparing sketches for his "Appearance of Crosses" series (Figure 6).  As Ding Yi was studying traditional painting, he completed his discovery of the cross-shaped symbol, clarifying too, his personal creative path.

Equivocation about Painterliness
The developmental path of Chinese contemporary art after 1979 is inseparable from the transformations that have taken place in Chinese society and politics.  The principal goals pursued at this moment were demands for social change and for freedom of speech.  Meanwhile, in Chinese new art, the insanity of the "Cultural Revolution" was quickly transformed into another sort of feverish emotion.  During the post-1979 period, artists uncritically accepted foreign culture; more precisely, they began to accept blindly Western modern art theory and practice as their ultimate point of reference.  In an interview after the "Stars Exhibition", Wang Keping summarized, "Kathe Kollwitz [1867-1945] is our banner-carrier; Picasso is our herald." The first critical turn in the history of Chinese avant-garde art after the economic reforms of the 1970s was the "China/Avant-garde" exhibition held in early 1989. "Almost all major styles of Western modern art invented over the past century could be found in this exhibition." Ding Yi's works, too, were included there.  The two paintings that he displayed (Figure 4) were seemingly the calmest works in the whole exhibition.  Although it was this sort of environment that Ding Yi faced, he was always able to maintain a distance from the center of art movements and trends.  

His adherence to using the cross-shaped symbol developed in the mid-1980s, when he discovered the coordinate crosshair used in the process of confirming chromatic accuracy.  Ding Yi chose to use the crosshair as the most basic, and the sole, element on his canvases.  Certainly, the fact that the crosshair is pure, allowing almost no space for associative interpretation, was a major reason for his choice of this motif.  Beyond this, however, his motivic choice also derived from his study of design, which caused him to take a greater interest in the study and interpretation of the structure of things.  Ding Yi opposed the Symbolist and Expressionist art forms that were popular at the time, for he did not approve of the emotion that permeated these two styles of art.  He hoped that his own works would, both in their conceptual and visual aspects, exhibit a greater sense of rationality.  Caught between Chinese traditional art and the myriad styles of art "imported" from the West, Ding Yi experimented extensively with everything from pencil on paper to ink painting to performance art (Figure 1).  Yet having done this, he decided that he would "simply [seek to] return painting to the essential quality of form, of form as spirit."      

The Origin of "Appearance of Crosses"
Ding Yi has recalled that "at that time, I was pondering two questions.  One was the question of breaking through the Expressionist style that was popular then; the other was the question of transforming inner energy." He continued, "The possibility of breaking through was to make art in a manner that was not art-like, to sift away all skill, all narrativity, all painterliness.  That most familiar printer’s mark, the crosshair, then became my symbol.  People often ask me what its meaning is.  Actually, in my paintings, it has no meaning." In Monica Dematté's opinion, the use of the crosshair constitutes a sort of accident that was made theoretical by Ding Yi.  He has transformed the simplicity and practicality of the cross design into a colorful and visually rich material.   He has gotten rid of the complication and burden of cultural meanings and forms, and he has begun anew from that which is simplest and meaningless.

Ding Yi has said, "When I began to paint 'Appearance of Crosses', I chuckled to myself, for no one understood my paintings.  They thought this was mere fabric design.  But this was exactly what I wanted.  Hans [van Dijk] understood my work.  He saw that exhibition [in 1988], and in 1989, he explicitly came to my studio and extensively discussed with me the structure and spirituality of my works.  This had a great impact on my later development." In an interview, Li Xiaofeng once asked, "Over the course of Chinese avant-garde art, it almost seems that there has been a certain taboo—namely, [a taboo against] the craft-like nature of works… Is this accidental?  Or is this a result of deep consideration?" Ding Yi replied, "Only art that isn't art-like is art.  I am convinced that breakthrough requires that I make use of other elements."Ding Yi is a person who succeeded in breaking through in the 1980s by concentrating on studying and copying Western modern art forms.

"Appearance of Crosses": The Period of Technical Precision
A starting point not adopted by his peers is something that brings joy to Ding Yi.  Non-painterly painted works were something inconceivable for almost everyone at the time.  But in Ding Yi's mind, painterliness was something that had already been eradicated.  From conception to execution, he held nearly impossible demands for the simplicity and precision of his works.  In his manifesto-like first work Appearance of Crosses I (Figure 4), the picture plane was divided into three strips—red, yellow, and blue, respectively.  The cross-like design element that he had appropriated from the printing industry filled the canvas with its black form.  In order to ensure the greatest precision in his lines and colors, he made use of a ruler, tape, and drafting pen.  The process of completing each of his works during this period was like the working process of a graphic designer.  Ding Yi forcefully controlled the pictorial effect of the painted canvas, making his paintings as precise as printed works, clearing away any possible stray traces left on the canvas.  The dimensions of most of his works were rather large.  Given the demands of such a precise manner of creating, the burden of such intense work is hard to imagine.

After more than four years of experimentation during this early period, the language of rational art that Ding Yi emphasized, a language that took as its foundation an oppositional stance toward Symbolism and Expressionism, found full embodiment on the canvas.  In an unprecedented manner, his art thus approached what Ding Yi understood as the spirit of the times.  However, the question of whether or not the precision of his technical execution would be able to aid in giving greatest expression to spiritualism quickly confronted him.  On the one hand, excessively careful execution almost inhibited the production of the aleatory—yet the aleatory was precisely that which Ding Yi unconsciously sought to see in his canvases.  On the other hand, the greater freedom that “precision within freedom” brought to the expression of spirituality also attracted Ding Yi.  So he decided to abandon extreme technical precision in his canvases, bidding farewell to the harsh, cold colors and the rigid lines that he had been employing, throwing out the tapes and rulers and other tools, and deciding instead to use only his hands to create his paintings.

"Appearance of Crosses": The Period of Hand Creation
The emergence of brushwork in Ding Yi's works is the most important characteristic that differentiates this second phase from the "period of precision". Ding Yi has said that "the paintings from the precision period look more solemn, as though one were using diplomatic language to speak.  The phase of hand creation is more like a colloquialized period." It is not difficult to imagine the hands of the Ding Yi of the precision period grasping paintbrush and ruler; now, during this second phase, this body which had once worked eight hours or more per day could be more relaxed, more natural.  Appearance of Cross 91-4 (Figure 14) was the first work of the period of hand creation.  On the canvas, there obviously appeared a great force of attraction.  All straight lines were shattered.  Nevertheless, the absolute verticals and horizontals of the past works still existed; now, however, these lines formed a structure that was periodically revealed and periodically hidden.  In the sketch Appearance of Crosses 89-B of 1989, the diagonal lines angled at 45 degrees were obviously preserved behind the crosshairs.  This not only greatly increased the richness of the color and the sense of the space of the painted surface, but also it differentiated the work's visual effect from the more silent, stable effect of earlier works.  The insertion of such diagonal lines caused the layered space of the painting to become richer; the tonality of the work also becoming relatively softer.  The implicit, but more profound, power of the painted surface of the works of this period may be seen as their principal characteristic.  In Appearance of Crosses 92-4 (Figure 19) and Appearance of Crosses 92-15 (Figure 22), one can clearly see that in these surfaces underpainted with red, blue, and gray, Ding Yi has created greater meaning in the relationship between the hues of the colors and their complements.  Moreover, he has simultaneously diversified and unified the relationship between the lines and colors of the paintings.

The "colloquialized" style of this period of hand creation brought unprecedented relaxation to Ding Yi's heart and limbs.  This was the result of two factors.  One was that the means of painterly execution employed during the "precision period" had saturated his body with challenges to his wellbeing; this unhealthy state inevitably gave Ding Yi misgivings.  The second factor was his new philosophical understanding of "spiritual quality" in painting—namely, the notion of using direct brushstrokes to enunciate clearly, letter by letter and phrase by phrase, the problems that he was facing.   Above, it was mentioned that with regard to technical execution and to the expression of emotions, strict and precise control was his preferred painterly means during his beginning period.  But after entering the period of "hand creation", calmly painting over every crosshair became Ding Yi's most obvious pleasure in creating his works.  His formerly clear, straight lines began to warp slightly, and at times they even became very vague (Figure 21).  By the second half of 1992, it was already difficult to make out the crosshair shapes on his canvases (Figure 30).  We might, moreover, consider the differences in the colors that he employed.  If we were to say, for example, that the two Appearance of Crosses works that he produced at the beginning of 1988 (Figures 4 and 6) were produced under the premise of his idea of "automatic color selection", then the works of his hand-creation period might be said to have attained an extreme degree of freedom in their usage of color (Figures 28 and 39).   Ding Yi, who has always been a strict self-disciplinarian, gradually began to feel anxious about the feelings of relaxation and of life displayed in these hand-created works.  He once considered returning to using a ruler when painting, but this sort of notion merely constituted a means of giving himself more restrictions, for he feared to "paint sloppily". This almost flooded his mind with a new feeling of crisis.  

Ding Yi's true period of "colloquialization" was one based on experimentation with a variety of materials as a means of seeking new possibilities for creation.  This period might also be called the "phase of material sampling." It was the result of Ding Yi's enriching his concept of "precision in freedom". At the same time that he was sampling new materials, he did not forget the problems manifested in his recent works.  What he first sought to correct were the frivolous colors employed on his canvases.  In a letter to Bo Xiaobo, he wrote, "Now, I feel that I can no longer float along in this habit of using light blue, light green, and fire-red." He continued on to remark that "after Fire-red [Figure 19], I paused while painting the canvas and created two small sketches on paper, which had the feeling of free line drawings, as the picture surfaces were relatively pure." At first, he arbitrarily used a crayon to draw directly on the surface of the painting, sensing, with surprise, a sort of spirit of the "vestigial"(Figure 50).  Ding Yi decided to continue to experiment with this.

"Appearance of Crosses": The Period of Material Experimentation
The "purity" mentioned above was no longer the sleekness and hardness of the Industrial Era, which was reflected in the works of Ding Yi's manifesto period.  Having made use of the "Appearance of Crosses" crosshair for nearly six years, Ding Yi's desire to experiment with materials began to become even stronger.  The introduction of charcoal, corrugated paper, and chalk no different from that used in schools established a new point of departure for Ding Yi.  The use of a variety of materials brought different pictorial effects.  In truth, this sort of appreciation for materials had already made a deep impression on Ding Yi's sketches on paper of the previous several years.  It was precisely the leisureliness and openness of the sketch period, which sometimes resulted in a sort of rough pictorial effect, that allowed Ding Yi to enter the frame of mind unique to the practice of writing characters.  He decided to transfer "direct writing". At the same time, Ding Yi hoped to make use of the greater randomness that the materials gave to his canvases as a means of engaging in a sort of dance with his inner spirit.

His series of material experiments began with the use of canvas untreated with the mixture of glue and water with which he usually treated his canvases.  It was in 1993 that Ding Yi began to desire to use all his power to transform every link in the creative process.  First, he randomly dripped paint onto the surface of stretched canvas; but the dry, coarse texture of the canvas caused the moving brush to become dry and rough, inhibiting its smooth, easy motion.  He suddenly recalled the feeling of writing on blackboards with chalk.  Without hesitation, he picked up the powder that he used to drive cockroaches from his study and began to draw.  He quickly discovered that charcoal and chalk, when used together to draw on untreated linen, looked extremely natural, complementary, even having a bit of a "primeval" feel.  Having abandoned oil and water, as well as the attempt to harmonize pigments, the glossy appearance of his paintings completely disappeared; what replaced it were the diffuse, powdery margins around every brushstroke.  On the surface of the coarse linen there emerged an atmosphere of uncontrollable blurriness, creating a painting that appeared more random and lively.  New materials and techniques caused the paintings of that period to resemble, to a certain extent, "silk manuscripts" or antique textiles; they seemed especially to have the air of excavated objects.  In order to emphasize this pictorial effect, he even left the four sides of the canvas blank (Figures 57 and 60), while still allowing the chalk to make marks outside of the principal area.  This resulted in an effect like that of uncut paper around the four edges of the canvas.  The whole work thus appeared very much like an ancient textile just excavated from a tomb.

For Ding Yi this was not only a process of coming to know new materials but also of becoming reacquainted with traditional art forms.  During his "hand-creation phase", Ding Yi used dozens of different supports for painting.  These included linen, finished canvas, cardboard, watercolor paper, and corrugated paper; he even painted on the surface of furniture.  Media he used included pencil, marker, chalk, watercolor pen, ball-point pen, charcoal, oil paint, acrylic paint, and other pigments that he could buy in the market.  With all of these he conducted experiments.  After coming to recognize the light feeling that characterized the works from the later part of his hand-creation phase, he attempted a return to grayscale (Figure 49 and 53).  Ding Yi's appreciation of this experiment aroused a desire to reconstruct traditional painting.  The display forms of traditional painting are many: Besides the single hanging scrolls, album leaves, and other forms with which many people are familiar, sets of scrolls, fans, and screens are also formats that allow viewers to appreciate the traditional painted arts.  With regard to their function in real life, fans and screens may be seen to be a bit like articles for daily use.  Meanwhile, the calligraphy and painting that they bear on their surfaces often have a certain narrativity and readability.  

In Appearance of Crosses 97-B21/B-24 (Figure 72), which adopts the classical Chinese format of a set of four hanging scrolls, Ding Yi "premeditated" the creation of a panoramic view of the "vestiges" of Chinese traditional attitudes.  This 1997 work was based in the complex appreciation of tradition that he had developed since his time studying Chinese traditional painting in college in 1986.  Importantly, this appreciation involved everything from the grand historical tradition of Chinese painting to the use of painstaking techniques such as the creation of "atmospheric rhythm" and the employment of the "five shades" of ink.  But in these four scrolls, which compose a complete entity that is 260 centimeters tall by 320 centimeters wide, this appreciation was completely "pulverized", made "vestigial". On all four sides, the smoky gray corrugated paper still revealed its original color, creating a frame-like effect.  Scorched by Ding Yi's ardor and charred by the charcoal and chalk he wielded, motifs and genres were carbonized—motifs such as the four gentlemen, that is, the plum, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum which often appear in traditional sets of scrolls; and genres such as landscape painting and depictions of birds and flowers.  Even the genre of human figure painting, with its portrayals of Zhong Kui, beautiful women, and others, was not spared.  Ding Yi has written that "the integrality of traditional culture is currently being challenged by the essence of contemporary society.…  The deepest significance of this culture is being deconstructed, rendering it unreal in real life.  It has already been transformed into a sort of spiritual memory or a material trace.…  To care about the vestiges of concepts supported by non-mainstream, traditional culture is to adopt an archaeological position as a means of cutting into the traces left behind by history…to reconsider their inexpressible material meaning."

Checked Cloth—The Introduction of Ready-Mades
What Ding Yi has called the "harsh" joy of "directly writing" on canvas and paper underwent new changes in 1997.  He replaced linen with finished fabric.  For him, the introduction of Scottish tartan was not merely a change in material; even more so it constituted a new point of conceptual origin.  The use of Scottish tartan (Figure 69) reflects the "cultural pertinence" of his thought, as well as the new direction of developments within his conception of this idea.  In particular, the use of finished fabric brought about changes to this concept, remolding it as a means of pursuing an investigation of corresponding relationships between cultures.  Scottish tartan has been upheld as the true banner of Scotland, the various patterns of tartan having once been used as symbols to differentiate clans.  In China, however, tartan is simply a textile produced in factories; it carries no culturally symbolic meaning.  At first, Ding Yi simply intended to use the color and patterning of the fabric as a ground, for the fabric’s structure and his own cross-shaped symbol possess a certain formal affinity.  Yet after his work was completed, the original appearance of the fabric, all of which had been covered in pigment, was almost impossible to discern.  But because of variations in the density of the crosses on the canvas and in the thickness of the layering of paint, one could still vaguely make out the plaid's original pattern, almost as though it were the background of the painting.  "The color and patterning of the fabric itself became a sort of restriction on Ding Yi's creation, yet this sort of restriction has also provided him with a new direction." The concept of using finished, gridded fabric represents an important moment in the process of the transformation of Ding Yi's art.  According to Ding Yi's understanding, the gridded fabric functions not merely as a piece of canvas.  What is more important are the cultural positions that the fabric symbolizes, as well as the struggles that occur within the new contexts intimately related to these cultural positions.  Ding Yi believes that the realities created through cultural fantasies and misunderstandings occupy positions of principal importance within history.  For example, the course of the establishment and development of Chinese contemporary art is a process of misinterpreting Western modern art, that art form which serves as the primary point of reference for Chinese contemporary artists.  The superposition and melding of cultures has become an essential point explored in the works that Ding Yi created during this period.

Ding Yi's considerations of tradition and of contemporaneity are undoubtedly accurate; and in his canvases, he grasps both in focused, lively manner.  Although the crosshair is the only expressive element that he has permitted himself, through the precise and nuanced exploration of the potentialities of everything from materials to forms, he has given fullest expression on his canvases to the questions about which he is concerned.  Only like this can he give visual form to his artistic thinking and to the strength of the spiritual meaning of his works.  Indeed, the pursuit of spirituality was precisely Ding Yi's original intention in beginning the "Appearance of Crosses" series.  Moreover, Ding Yi's evaluation of the "vestiges" of Chinese traditional art during his early period of material experimentation have made us appreciate the wisdom that he has left in the margins of his works (Figure 63).  In his later large-scale works, which treat themes of urbanism, he has continued to use this method.  Because of Ding Yi's skillfully conceived margins, the background provided by the tartan allows a resplendence to shine forth without anything being concealed.  The primary element of these works—namely, a true vision of Chinese social life, made abstract by the artist—is placed atop this foundation.  Is this the intercultural "hybridity" that Homi Bhabha often mentions in his cultural critiques?   Or should we use Samuel Huntingon's concept of "band-wagoning" to interpret these profound hints accumulated atop Ding Yi's canvases?   This is the reality that has been made visual by Ding Yi.

One might say that during the first ten years of his career, Ding Yi made use of "Appearance of Crosses" in his attempt to find an interpretation for certain questions that have long been accumulating in his heart—that is, he combed through topics ranging from the Industrial Revolution in the West, to the interpretation of modern art history, to experimentation with materials for painting, and he also engaged in a transformation of the crosshair and an investigation of material.  During the past ten years, then, "Appearance of Crosses" has participated in a discussion of contemporary questions—questions of cultural politics, survival conditions, and urbanization, among other things.  It is especially the upheaval that has transformed Shanghai which has caused Ding Yi to reconsider his fascination with the works of Utrillo in the early 1980s and to examine his infatuation with the cityscape of Shanghai.  But the contrast between the contemporary moment and the past is difficult to articulate.  In another respect, it is precisely the great space opened up by this contrast that can give Ding Yi space in which to wander, to savor repeatedly the history of Shanghai, as well as his personal memories and feelings of his life in this city.  In a certain regard, Ding Yi's crosshair and the city of Shanghai are alike: As concepts, they have never changed, yet they are now completely different from what they were in the past.

The Smog of the City—The New Subject in the Background of "Appearance of Crosses"
To evaluate and to represent the cultural configurations forming around oneself is not an easy task. Yet Ding Yi has noted that "to adopt a neutral viewpoint and record the traces left behind by this historical period during which the city in which I live has been developing at extreme speed—this is exactly what I am supposed to do as an artist." During the 1980s, Ding Yi engaged in a theoretical investigation of the process of perceiving the artistic forms and ideologies of Western and Chinese traditional art.  In a certain sense, however, he had a feeling of observing all of this with indifference.  So beginning in the mid 1990s, Ding Yi observed and experienced his body's every pore and his life's every facet being influenced and stimulated by the upheaval in this city.  This current trend of societal development, which takes as its referent the course of urbanization and industrialization in Western modern history, is infinitely more convulsive than the path of Western art history.  In all respects, the experience and memory of the 1980s is something that cannot be compared to Ding Yi's sense of this contemporary phenomenon.  With full vigor, Ding Yi is now pouring his perceptions and his understanding onto his canvases.  Yet he is still using his cross-shaped symbols to interpret the strength of the Chinese spirit in this age of flux.

Ding Yi's post-1997 works might be interpreted as indicative of his going beyond his inner spirit, of his beginning to observe the phenomena of the world around him with determination and earnestness.  He has carefully surveyed every tiny spot within this city that he so loves.  Ding Yi recently recalled, "I have lived in Shanghai for more than forty years, and every day I have looked at her appearance.  Beginning in the mid 1990s, you could clearly feel that this city was changing and expanding at an alarming speed.…  Thanks to this 'urbanization movement', nothing is left of the [city's] Utrillo-like, gloomy, elegant grace." Instead, he continued, "what this metropolis now gives us are neon lights, streams of cars, crowds of buildings, display screens for stock reports, and billboards everywhere."   Certainly, in the life of today's metropolitan China, the relationships among people, as well as between people and society, are changing.  So how can artists in this historical period express the particular quality of this sort of atmosphere, of this sort of flux?  It was more or less at the turn of the millennium that Ding Yi's works began to brighten.  While still painted on checked cloth, glaring fluorescent and metallic colors appeared in his paintings.  The psychedelic visual effect of the excess, the wantonness, the chaos, the disorder, the stimulation, and the trends of urban life entered his paintings.  The colors and compositions of his recent works all are very different from his earlier paintings.  Until this moment, there existed in his canvases a precise, stable structure, which he had developed over more than ten years.  Yet this structure has begun to fall apart.  What has replaced it are asymmetrical designs in which there exist "paintings within paintings"(Figures 75 and 83); or serrated forms of brilliant, commingled colors, coupled with irregular, curvilinear images (Figures 90 and 102).  The carefully defined, rectangular outline of the canvas impeded Ding Yi's releasing the power of the city within his heart.  Thus, as a means of displaying the strength and brilliance radiated by the core of the city, he combined six canvases of different sizes (Figure 98).  Because of the changes in the colors and compositions, the paintings have become richer, filled with dynamism (Figure 91 and 92).  Irregular "principal" forms have appeared in these paintings in which there are so many more layers of crosses.  Shanghai is no longer a calm, drizzly city.  Ding Yi's works have begun to reflect and to interact increasingly with the environment, people, and things that surround him.  In his recent works, he hopes to echo the noise and excitement of the city.  But behind the crosses, one can still sense the chaos and emptiness of rootlessness.  Such is Ding Yi's interpretation of the primary stage of this urban phenomenon.

Like a magician, Ding Yi continues to build his world of crosses today.  Independently, he strides along the path toward truth.

Related Artists:
DING YI 丁乙

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