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The "Cross" of Ding Yi: Anchoring and Wandering in Painting

Article Provided by Ding Yi Studio, Courtesy Ding Yi Studio

The " Briefing · Abstract——Ding Yi's Artwork Exhibition" will be an important show of the artist Ding Yi . As one of the most representative experimental artists of China, Ding established his own style with the symbol " 十 "(cross) from 1980s onward and continued his experiment and exploration from then on. This show is his own meditation on painting and a retrospection as well as reflection on his own long-term activity at this moment. Moreover, it is also a "curatorship" for his future art creation.

For an artist, what he wants to do and would like to do is constant meditation on and exploration of reality where our life exists. They are making discovery and experiment in the chaotic reality and the spiritual world, rather than pursuing any conclusion. An artist should experience spiritual adventure and the reality and communicate with the world. All these independent and silent “battles” are regarded as a kind of breaking through the reality.

In 1988 when Ding Yi created his first piece of “ 十 ” work, he chose a way of art to go forward alone.

Any artistic activity is based on context. As an artist, the earliest creation established by Ding Yi not only represented personally in questioning the world, but also, in processing image and space, Ding required himself a kind of self-centered attitude. In 1980s, Ding Yi began to study and create artworks. With painting language as an exit, most artists expressed their anger and sentiment at that time. They took their spiritual antagonism together with political pop and local painting into the pursuit and writing of questions about memory, revolution, spirit and others; thus emotional fountainhead were always brought onto the stage along with increasing language of this kind. Artists like Ding Yi thought that such a sentiment would do harm to art itself and make the language too overstaffed for the expression capability of painting. Ding Yi began to ponder on how to establish a kind of spiritual independence keeping certain distance from this kind of mood. He would like to think about painting and art in a category to be read by himself. Ding Yi once talked about the choice in an interview: “ I was influenced by many schools from 1980 to 1987 in painting: from the earliest western Realism to later the art of Cezanne, then to arts of the early and middle periods of Modernism; in 1986 I also did performance art. Therefore, obvious influence from all kinds of western modern cultures could be seen on my paintings. Meanwhile, I was also baptized by Chinese traditional culture. I was a student in the Chinese traditional painting department of Shanghai University Fine Arts School. This two lines made me feel puzzled and I was under great pressure. So I chose to pursue simplicity. At that time, I hoped to eliminate all influence from both western Modernism and Chinese traditional painting, or in another word the so called traditional culture in my art. I proposed a concept of ‘ make painting meaningless ’ . ” [1] It was in mid-1980s when Ding Yi got the co-ordinate-type delicate cross which was often used in printing to confirm that colors are precise —— the “ 十 ” symbol. Then he decided to choose the “ 十 ” symbol as his only element in painting in order to “ return painting to the essence of form —— form is spirit ” [2]. “ Then I was thinking about two questions: One was how to break through popular expressive form, one was how to transform internal energy ” . [3] “ The possibility to break through was to make art be unlike art by abandoning skill, narrativity and painting quality. The most familiar symbol ‘ 十 ’ in printing industry therefore became my own symbol. People always ask me about its meaning, yet actually it has no meaning at all in my painting ” .[4] In 1988, Ding Yi finished his first piece which was a painting with yellow, red and blue as its main tone interwoven with black “ 十 ” . From then on, Ding Yi has always been sticking to his painting of “ 十 ” for two more decades long and every piece of his artworks is a combination of many “ 十 ” symbols created with a very long painting process. For an artist, where lies the critical point he needs to ponder on in them? How could a painter resist the temptation of performance desire and change painting into a kind of “ drawing ” process using various tools and skills which are the experience with personal traces added into, then eliminated and deconstructed again and again? This is actually a really big fight against the significance of picture, so what ’ s the spiritual pedigree in it? Of course we could see that this is certainly related with promotion of personal will in western spirit and certainty produced in cognition of ego-strength; moreover we could also see that the “ 十 ” in Ding Yi ’ s painting is associated with the significance in the historical fate of this “ 十 ” symbol, which is a strong pedigree that could provide steady support and reference for the writing of the artist. Yet we also observed in Ding Yi ’ s painting that, in his meditation on painting, what Ding Yi hopes to discuss and represent is not the appearance of thing but the content reflected by appearance: this content could also arouse suspense and metaphor through constant depiction; as to the concreteness of content, it is disappearing gradually and slowly and would finally become a indescribable part. Here, the main-body of painting language seemed to have brought about contradictoriness: what kind of information is revealed by the artist ’ s long-term “ writing ” of cross symbol? Does such kind of concise and fast drawing process also contain hesitancy and uncertainty of thought? This is a reflection brought about not only by painting language, but also by narrative time, which is as if writing a long-winded story when core code has gradually been lost; such spiritual wandering has allowed Ding Yi ’ s art to escape from the “ annihilation ” of painting definition and keep on living.

During the long-term painting process, Ding Yi attached great importance to the lapse of time and the aura of personal experiences, he always insist in working stroke by stroke and finish all his artworks by himself. In more than 20 years, he has been constantly polishing and constructing the “ 十 ” symbol. Thus in Ding Yi’s painting, a comparatively complete time line and “never change” posture is established. From the very beginning when horizontal lines and vertical lines are crossed to later when different combinations appeared to construct the “ 十 ”, Ding Yi bestowed these crosses with different postures and shapes in different situation. He did experimentations on different media vehicles from hard paper board used in early period to later the canvas, from ready-made Scottish plaid to other materials; while in color, he tried single color in early years and then many colors together, later he also tried the combination of color tones of paint and the cloth. Ding Yi also intentionally interrupt and pause the “writing”, thus time follows to be broken into fragments; such a rhythm fills his painting with some restless thoughts and even represents some existence of crisis. From late 1990’s onward, Ding Yi made further combination of his creation with the experiences and mood brought about by the profound changes in city.

What questions would always be in Ding Yi ’ s heart on his way ahead and support his painting? If we say that artists ’ experiences of picture are their original intention in painting, then Ding Yi ’ s work has pushed it many steps forward. During the process drawing “ 十 ” , is there any unvoiced truth behind it which has been depicted by Ding Yi for so many years and hundreds of thousands times, and could fix the movement, facial expression and posture of a certain moment along with the rhythm of brushstrokes? Here the question is: how did painting become the place to anchor for an artist to think about the world and get his spirit to act. The simplest symbol “ 十 ” of this world is a point directing at different directions and the point where thoughts and all behaviors get crossed; it is also the simplest as well as the most complicated reality where religion, philosophy and the world get crossed. What does it mean to an artist? This artist draws it repeatedly and unceasingly; such a process which weakened the main body of language could just make this image of “ cross ” peacefully breakthrough the layer upon layers of fog in history . Therefore, the contemporaneity of Ding Yi ’ s painting has been established on the level that decrease and cover this image, where the narrative subject is absent and the center viewpoint is lost; it is even intentionally established on the upset mood aroused by the “ absence ” of knowledge and historical sense when subjects are vague. The complexity and the pure and single icon constituted an image world together which seems not to have been represented completely and no one knows how to finish representing it.

As a painting artist, Ding Yi created a kind of depth and hardness in the painting process: the code constructed by the depth and abstractness when two simplest symbols are crossed is always in a chaotic reality while the inner combination and reference of symbol is in accord with a kind of spiritual composition of the same shape. Through coding and processing, image produced a kind of producing capability of its own —— painting is finally constructed by Ding Yi to be a creation and test of all his life.


[1]"I'm Supposed to Get Rid of Subject —— An Interview with Ding Yi ", by Yu Gan, May 2011, at Ding Yi Studio in Shanghai

[2]"A Magician of Cross: An Interview with Ding Yi", by Cao Weijun, ARTLINKART

[3] Ibid.

[4]"Image · History · Existence —— Taikang Life Art Collection 15th Anniversary Exhibition", 2011, NAMOC (National Art Museum of China)


Articles and Photos Provided by Ding Yi Studio, Courtesy Ding Yi Studio


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