The Origins of Art
Ding Yi occupies a special place in the development of contemporary Chinese art. His signature use of cross symbols started at the end of the 1980s, and was ever experimenting with a variety of styles. This included using sketchy concise lines, typical expressionist brushwork, chequered fabric, fluorescent light and so on, thereby deepening his exploration of abstract language. This process opened up a fresh line of painting, distinguishing Ding Yi from the majority of artists in the 1980s that clung to their reflections on ideology and social politics. Appearance of Crosses 95-18 was created during the 1990s, a crucial period for Ding Yi. It is an extremely rare, large, double-screen work. When compared with the meticulous lines of Ding’s early works, which demanded a high degree of precision, this piece is a manifestation of the artist’s pure creativity on canvas. It uses layers of black, white and grey charcoal to build a lattice of crosses. The rough, coarse lines are full of power and expressive capability, and their crisscrossing an iconic emblem of this significant period.
During 1980s China, the most prevalent subject matter in the art world was popular politics, society, and locality, and this made genuine artistic expression frustratingly dangerous. Ding Yi was careful not to follow the trends, and in creating Appearances of Crosses he sought to return to the essence of painting – the heart of its significance. In 1986, before Ding Yi joined the Chinese painting department of the Fine Arts College at Shanghai University, he had already experimented with a variety of creative mediums. At the same time, he had also become familiar with his teacher Yu Youhan, and under his influence had started to experiment with Post-Impressionist styles. After joining the Chinese painting department, and at a confluence of Western Modernism and traditional Chinese aesthetics, Ding Yi became determined to find a more concise artistic style. “These two lines kept me under a lot of pressure – they were too complex. So I started searching for simplicity. I decided to eliminate all influence of Western Modernism, and to relinquish all ties to Chinese painting and traditional culture. Then I came up with the ‘notion of giving painting no meaning’” (cited in 'I want to be rid of concept', Interview with Ding Yi, 2011).
Amidst this meaninglessness, Ding Yi discovered the use of colour printing in creating his axis cross works. They share the same shape as the initial Appearance of Crosses series, however the Western influence of the 1980s is notably absent – the focus on precision in the early series, much akin to that of De Stijl’s Mondrian, is far removed. According to the artist, a cross only has one element. Indeed, Ding once remarked that this; “makes painting merely return to the essence of form, form and spirit" (cited in 'The Magician of the Cross', Cao Weijun, ARTLINKART). “The possibility of a breakthrough came with the notion of making art into something that does not resemble art; filtering out all notions of skill, narrative and painting. A cross, the most well-known printed symbol, has become my symbol. People often ask me about its implicit meaning, but in actual fact, in my work, it has none”.
Twenty years later crosses are still Ding’s central subject matter, fusing a variety of styles and tones and creating a pure visual style. The art critic Guo Xiaochan once noted that; “when a painter resists the desire to express in such a way, then his painting becomes more of a ‘drawing’ process whereby all tools and techniques are available, it becomes an experience of inputting one’s individuality and then endlessly removing these vestiges – is this not the greatest resistance to the meaning of painting?” Ding Yi’s unique style separates him from his generation; he has created a more concise, neutral and rational visual language. “I believe that I must maintain a fixed distance between myself and traditional Chinese culture, as well as the Western Modernism of my early years, so as to return to the basis of art, and truly start from scratch.”
The art critic Tony Godfrey once compared Ding Yi with the American sculptor Dan Flavin, who specialises in minimalist fluorescent sculptures, expressing how Ding’s works create their own personal space. It is not that they open an imaginary window into the painting; rather they lead to a space created within the room itself. In practice each of Ding’s crosses is different; each holds subtle differences in terms of size, texture of line, colour, and quality of materials used. Appearance of Crosses 95-18 was created in 1995, differing from the perfectly straight lines of earlier years. Ding began started this series from nothing, building layer upon layer with his own hands; and indeed, amidst the rigid order of the works lies great power.