Ding Yi: Painting in the Age of Maps and Numbers

The recent show at the Timothy Taylor Gallery is Ding Yi’s first solo exhibition in London, simply titled “Ding Yi” in English (“Ding Yi’s Solo Show” in Chinese). This is itself very Ding Yi: though the sparse variation of aesthetic and creative clues and the naming of the show after the artist himself seem to emphasize a collection of work that goes beyond a particular moment, the show is actually about a new stage in the artist’s work.

Ding Yi
, Appearance of Crosses 2016-5, 2016
Mixed media on basswood

240 x 240 cm

Courtesy Timothy Taylor

Photo: Ding Yi Art Studio

The “new” here is really a linear progression along coordinates, and does not signify an aesthetic upheaval or break. Just as Ding Yi’s work has always been distinguished by the crosses that are the basic (or only) building blocks of every piece, so too the work derived from these elements over the past 30 years could all be seen as the same painting. These plus signs proliferate in different images and are grafted onto a variety of media, but their genes never mutate—these are sparse paintings that reject the expansion of meaning and projection of desire, while also attempting to arrive at the elusive essence of painting through a cartographic process. On this level, the London show emphasizes the open game of “one is many/many are one.” The seven pieces from the Appearance of Crosses on display beget one another like ocean waves: The second painting, Appearance of Crosses 2016-5, placed at the gallery entrance, exists to subdue the prominent white and draw out the black in the first piece, Appearance of Crosses 2016-4; the demands of the central white cross and the angles are answered in turn by the third piece, Appearance of Crosses 2016-6; the fourth, nearby Appearance of Crosses 2016-7, flaunts its luminous white center. Green finds its end here as well, where it is overtaken by the red frame of the fifth, Appearance of Crosses 2016-8, itself followed by a sudden reemergence of white in the sixth, Appearance of Crosses 2016-9… while the first and the seventh are then a mystery—no one knows where they part, where they come together, or where they lead. The only certainty is that this is a game (jeu) that stresses openness and pursues connection. A certain logic hides behind the seven different tableaux, one leading to another.

Appearance of Crosses 2016-9, 2016
Mixed media on basswood
240 x 240 cm

Courtesy Timothy Taylor
Photo: Ding Yi Art Studio

But there is no beginning and end in the Taylor show. Rather than call this a show of seven paintings, it is better to say that the viewer here encounters a single Appearance of Crosses writ large that exists in a constant dynamic state, yet that is not embodied by any one painting; at the same time, we indeed see seven paintings which are linked by an artistic algorithm, not from beginning to end, but endlessly blooming into the past and the future. Oddly, if we take in all the paintings at once, what we see is a pervasive, restrained calculation; but if we merely look from the first to the last, we end up instead with a sprawling, fierce genetic mutation.

View of “Ding Yi,” Timothy Taylor, London, 2017

The same pattern may be extended from the exhibition to Ding Yi’s entire body of work. While Appearance of Crosses has passed through several distinct phases since the series began in 1988, it is thought of more as one large-scale cross, rather than a set of individual crosses. Evidently, the artist is always repeating and making slight variations to his work, thus creating a unique system of imagery. From a historical perspective, this is a highly autonomous system, obsessed with its own evolution, disconnected from the aesthetic trends of the outside world. The debate surrounding Appearance of Crosses turns on this point. If an artist is both praised and challenged for 30 years of repeating the same pattern, then this debate lies precisely in the two types of artist recognized by the public: the ceaselessly innovating creator, and the solitary, self-possessed Don Quixote. These two types are incompatible. In Ding Yi’s work, we see the cumulative creative power of seemingly unvaried repetition and fixation. Over years of self-renewal and propagation, the cross as symbol, component, and primary element has gradually transformed into something completely different from what it was at the very beginning. As the artist put it himself in 2005, “The cross is no longer important to me. I’m more focused on the composition of the painting as a whole and the development of its structure.” [1] At the same time, an autonomous system is not necessarily a closed system. The demands of the shifting environment outside and inner renewal combine into one creative driving force. Those key moments where the quantitative leads to the qualitative are vital.

Appearance of Crosses 2016-8, 2016
Mixed media on basswood
240 x 240 cm
Courtesy Timothy Taylor
Photo: Ding Yi Art Studio

But there is nothing radical about this repetition and gradual evolution. Ding Yi’s paintings consistently and resolutely reject allusion. The artist has said more than once that he “decided long ago that I would be a formalist.” Such a proclamation is bold, frank, even a bit risky, especially amid the cultural critique and collective expression of the early days of contemporary art scene in China. This intentional self-marginalization has directed Ding Yi’s radicalism at himself and at the content of his paintings, establishing a world of imagery and a conceptual framework that perpetually churn out new aesthetic questions. It is just as Michael Fried affirmed in the opening sentence of his seminal 1967 article “Art and Objecthood”: “The enterprise known variously as Minimal Art, ABC Art, Primary Structures, and Specific Objects is largely ideological.” [2] Such ideology is in fact a conceptual standpoint for painting, not a manifesto on substance; a cognitive structure founded on the ontology of the image and the object.

View of “Ding Yi,” Timothy Taylor, London, 2017

It is only in this sense that one may say with certainty that Ding Yi’s work is abstract. This abstractionism is not limited to the dissolving or collapsing the image, but rather strives to place the painting within a knowledge system of imagery, object, and language; to subtly bring forth the limitlessness of the painting itself; and to find precision within unlimited freedom. Compared with the abstractionism that is often shackled to visual mechanisms, Ding Yi’s paintings are algorithmic. They comprise an emergent art rooted in comprehensive metalinguistic calculation, a game of infinite repetition and derivation from 0 and 1. Yet the dimensions of Appearance of Crosses exist beyond the metaphysical. There is a tense expanse determined by the two extremes of imagery from which spring Ding Yi’s paintings: one on the level of perception, leading directly to inquiry into the objecthood of the image and linguistic structure; and the other a type of cartographic art that stems from traditional craft and that is diligently cultivated with unadulterated skill. These two seemingly incompatible ports are connected by Ding Yi’s work. The new pieces on show in London, for example, stress the combination of paint and wood, producing a “micro-reaction”: several layers of different colors are “pre-embedded” into the wood; Ding Yi carves the wood with a knife before he finally paints. Yet on another level, even though this technique is reminiscent of traditional lacquerware or wood carving, it is also another procedure that Ding Yi must specially set up outside of the tableau. It has absolutely no connection to discussions of the essence of traditional handicrafts. In reality, Ding Yi’s work long ago abandoned any position in the debate between Chinese and Western, traditional and modern. Yet even this is not a neutral stance; Ding Yi refuses to put his aesthetic into a binary framework. In place of such a framework is an artist who gropes at basic questions amid chaos, who bridges sublime art and common technique, who constructs a system all his own.

[1] Resembling the World Outside—Interview with Ding Yi, Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2005.

[2] Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Michael Fried, 1998, page 148.

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Post in: Reviews | August 4 , 2017 | Tag in: review | He Jing | Reviews Date: May 19 - July 8, 2017 | Reviews Venues: Timothy Taylor
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