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The Ding Yi Grid - Demetrio Paparoni

Article Provided by Ding Yi Studio, Courtesy Ding Yi Studio

Two lines that intersect have always been an image that humans are very familiar with, not so much because it is one of the first “compositions” that we learn to make at school, but because in it we recognize a common archetypal figure found in the history of all times and all cultures. Two intersecting segments do not originate as a symbol, but become one through an arbitrary attribution of meaning dictated by the need for simple, direct communication of a message. This communicative need makes them a code that lends itself to multiple meanings: in the religious sphere they recall the Christian cross; in Roman and in Chinese numbering they represent the number ten; in arithmetic, the sign of addition and multiplication; in physics, the time factor; in geometry, the Cartesian plane. In short, two simple intersecting signs lend themselves to interpretations that change according to the context. Adolf Loos, for example, one of the fathers of modern architectural theory, writes in his essay Ornament und Verbrechen (1908) that the cross is the first erotic representation in the history of mankind, where the horizontal line is the woman lying down and the vertical is the man who penetrates her. On the other hand, Kazimir Malevič, who was a contemporary of Loos, p ainted essential shapes like a square or a cross in a single color, excluding any kind of symbolic interpretation. Since those years, the history of art has discovered the freedom of giving a tautological meaning to a symbol or a shape, or rather to see in a cross nothing but a cross or in a square nothing other than a square. Nonetheless, art by its nature is open to conflicting interpretations, as demonstrated by the famous “Composition 10 in Black and White” by Mondrian (1915), consisting of a grid of black crosses on a white background where one can make out a synthesis of the lines that form the Dutch landscape, or a starry sky.

Starting from Mondrian and Malevič onwards, it w as inevitable that a simple geometric shape would become a recurrent image in the history of modern and contemporary abstract art. Constructing the scene of a painting without resorting to figuration leaves the painter no other choice than to spread bands of color on the canvas or to match and overlay more or less irregular signs and shapes that intersect. Hence, to say that two intersecting signs necessarily refer to one of the many symbols of the cross is stretching it. After all, who would think of describing the façade of a building as a set of crosses that symbolically interpret the orthogonal structure?

In light of these considerations, approaching Ding Yi’s work by interpreting the lines that he intersects and overlaps as "crosses" and "signs" runs the risk of confusing the part with the whole. Ding Yi’s are in fact those clusters of crosses that go on to make up a grid. They are architecture that very firmly holds a formal equilibrium with the same logic with which floors and pillars hold up a building.

Western criticism never fails to point out that Chinese art cannot help but compare itself with what was already experimented with by the 20th century avant-gardes. After all, it is undeniable that art comes from art and that, from the avant-garde perspective, one of the worst sins an artist can commit is to repeat something that has already been done by another. Resorting to the grid in constructing his abstraction absolves Ding Yi’s art from this sin since the grid, on a par with the “+” sign , the “cross” or an “x” have always existed an hence nobody in human and art history can claim to have invented the grid or the signs that Ding Yi makes elementary use of. This means rather than belonging to the ranks of those in the 20th century who have discovered the existence of the grid and have speculated on its formal possibilities, Ding Yi has placed his art in a free land that is the patrimony of all cultures. Who in fact could say that the grid is a shape that denotes one culture rather than another?

Since 1989, Ding Yi has returned to the theme of the grid with a determination and insistence that are unmatched on the contemporary scene. Belonging to that category of artists who choose to delve deeply, to insist on the same motif in the belief that it is the only way to get closer to the truth of the subject of his research, he has taken it upon himself to keep alive a theme of modern art history that never lost topicality.

Thanks to its peculiarity, the grid has become one of the key themes of Modernism. It is demonstrated by the role of the founding fathers hired by artists like Mondrian and Malevič. It is demonstrated by the recurrent theme of the grid in the 1960s by the American minimalists Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Carl Andre, who entrusted the construction of the work to a method based on the rules of mathematics and geometry. W orking on this theme at that time was also the Italian Piero Dorazio, whose grids consist of a dense network of signs and colors intended as effects of light that intersect and overlap to make a synthesis of the work of the painter, the sculptor and the architect.

In the 1970s, the theme of the grid was taken up again by Sean Scully, who created the painting by intersecting vertical and horizontal lines of various colors, giving the paintings meanings that refer to the concept of the soul. However, in the early 1980s, Scully had already started off a process of deconstructing the grid and bringing back the scene of the picture with a few wide horizontal and vertical stripes of a mellow color, lined up and not overlapping, but interrupted with geometric inserts that in turn contain other stripes. The grid reappears again in different ways in the next decade in the work of abstract artists of the postmodern era, among whom stand out Peter Halley and Jonathan Lasker. Unlike the minimalists of the sixties, or Dorazio and Scully of the seventies, these artists have liberated the theme of the grid’s formal rigidity that was manifested in the previous decades. In practice, the abstract artists that emerged in the early ‘80s have painted abstract subjects with the same logic with which one paints a figurative subject. Their abstraction makes reference, that is, to the observation of the social structure as well as to that of the landscape, to the ideological semiotic analysis of marketing. Rather than working on the grid as such, these artists have reinvented the meaning of the grid metaphorically. Taking on a similar position, Ding Yi has concentrated his investigation on life in the large cities. In these places emblematic of modernity, where the boundary between reality and illusion has been gradually thinning, he records the chaos, the crowds, the interactive graphics that report the stock market indices, and the skyscrapers and artificial lights that transform a modern metropolis into a great show. This has also led him to turn to a fluorescent, metallic, shiny, and bright style of painting. The vibrating effect of his grids in some cases recalls the LEDs which fast information scrolls across, the maxi screens on which the magnified image makes no secret of the pixels that compose it, or even exaggerated magnifications of four-color images that, by bringing the composition of the halftone screen into the foreground, turn the original figurative image into a contemporary abstract painting.

The first painting making use of the cross that Ding Yi created in 1988 provided for only three colors: red, yellow and blue. In four-color typographic printing, the overlapping of these colors, with the addition of black, is sufficient to create the whole spectrum and allow the faithful reproduction of an image. The reference to typographical printing is not accidental. Ding Yi himself specified that his interest in the cross was also inspired by the observation that the + sign is the expedient used to register the four colors during printing. The cross is thus a graphic sign best suited on a practical level to define the focus of an image. Therefore, starting from the practical significance of the + sign, Ding Yi has progressively transformed the cross into an essential shape that he reduces, enlarges, and stratifies in different ways. At the same time, to avoid the risk of losing control of his hand, he has felt the need to slow down the amount of time needed to paint the work and to place obstacles to neutralize the risk of automatism. To curb what he himself calls the "joy of direct writing", in 1997 he also began working on Scottish-style plaid fabrics. Having a defined formal structure, these printed fabrics reflecting the geometries of the tartan constitute the limit that Ding Yi must overcome to find himself by starting from a pre-existing form. In that sense, the checked fabric mounted on a frame is exactly the opposite of what ready-made was for Duchamp, who took possession of commonly used items to change the meaning, but not the form. Exhibiting a urinal upside down to reverse the flow of liquids and calling it "Fountain" (1915) does not prevent us from recognizing the urinal. Rather than striking the eye, Duchamp wanted to stimulate the mind. To emphasize just how unimportant the used objects were for him in creating his works, he explained that he chose them based on their anonymity. He even went so far as to define his practice an “aesthetic of indifference”. T he fabrics that Ding Yi works on are also industrial products of mass consumption, but by superimposing his grids, he erases the memory of the print below, as evidenced by the fact that the ultimate goal is to construct an image that on the formal level is the equivalent of contemporary urban chaos.

Putting the city among his points of reference, it is no surprise that Ding Yi started his investigation with the work of Maurice Utrillo and that of Paul Cezanne. Utrillo painted the Paris of his time, which embodied the spirit of the new era exactly like Shanghai embodies the spirit of contemporaneity today. As for Cézanne, he created the overall effect by superimposing very small touches of color. His painting is based on the assumption that an optical sensation is produced in our organ of vision that makes us classify the planes represented as a light, half tone and quarter tone. In constructing the scene of the painting, he began with a touch of color, over which he superimposed others, larger and larger each time, until achieving recognizable forms.

Ding Yi works with a constructive logic similar to that of Cézanne , superimposing layer upon layer of his crosses until giving a formal equilibrium to the scene of the painting by defining the different perspective and visual planes. But while Cezanne gave image to the silence of the countryside landscape, Ding Yi gives image to the optical noise of the metropolitan landscape. This noise is the basis of the profound difference between his work and that of abstract artists who elaborated the theme of the grid in the ‘60s, making it the emblem of the refusal to represent any form of composition and emotion.

Referring to the art of that period, Rosalind Krauss has argued that the modern artist who appropriates the theme of the grid makes the concept of repetition coincide with the idea of false and copy. S ince it can only be repeated, the grid requires the artist to obstinately replicate the same formal structure over and over again, consciously abandoning the idea of seeking innovation in the evolution of shapes. The capacity of the grid to keep the work impermeable to narrative, Krauss concludes, causes the work to h ave silence as the objective. Susan Sontag also previously addressed the issue of silence in the work of modern art. In a 1967 essay, Sontag pointed out that contemporary artists’ interest in silence concurs with the interest for everything that is inexpressible though words and pictures. To be understood historically, she explained, the silence generated by the work of art should be considered the consequence of the “absoluteness” of the work itself. Intending “absolute art” as the separation of the work from the surrounding reality, Sontag implicitly pointed out the persistence of the tragic nature of art. Krauss's argument has points in common with the one developed over a decade earlier by Sontag: concentrating on the dynamics of language and giving the subject a relative importance. But the art of today has become disengaged from these assumptions, as demonstrated by the work of Ding Yi, who gives anything but a relative importance to the subject and does not consider the work a mere self-referential system of signs. It could hardly be otherwise, after all, since his formation occurred in the ‘80s, in a historical period in which society had become abstract as a result of the telematic revolution and globalization. As a result of this turning point, man changed from an individual into a consumer and large cities became great theaters which in the need to turn the landscape into a show lost sight of the needs of those who live there. Ding Yi has witnessed the evolution of this epoch-making phenomenon from the privileged observatory of Shanghai, which, in recent decades, has redefined its identity through the new postmodern metropolitan landscape made of skyscrapers and bold architecture. The dynamics of this transformation are reflected in his work, which, being abstract, does not build historical and literary narratives, but summarizes the signs and shapes around him.

However, a work of art also inevitably expresses the inner world of its author, made of memories and feelings related to experience and not extraneous to the memory of places. That is why one of the challenges that Ding Yi faces is to protect the values ​​related to his memory from the flood of languages of Modernism and by the cultural homologation of a globalized world. Ever since the very first works made ​​with cross-segments in 1988, he thus found himself acting on several fronts: he had to cancel the practical and symbolic significance of the cross to propose it as a pure form; he was involved in liberating his art from the influence of the first Modernism; he reconstructed (especially in his works made with chalk, charcoal, colored pencils and ballpoint pens) traces of what he himself called “off-stream traditional culture”, which he metaphorically described as historical remains “buried in the earth or eroded by wind and rain”. On the face of it, these objectives might seem contradictory, inasmuch as taking a sign back to its zero degree and proposing it as self-significant was one of the intentions of the 20th century avant-gardes, who repeatedly tried to empty the work of any historical memory. Ding Yi surpasses the terms of this contradiction precisely by resorting to the grid which, as we shall see, is a motif that belongs to the past, connotes the present and designs the future. We find it in ancient wooden architectural structures, in the first decorations, in the plan of the cities built on the Hippodamian model starting in the fifth century BC, in the gratings of the windows or doors, and so on. In architecture, with Jean Nicolas Durand (1760-1834), the grid conceptually replaced perspective centrality. And it was by using the grid again that allowed Cubism to redefine the nature of the image, permitting a representation devoid of perspective center. We find it covering manholes that need to drain rainwater, in the weave and design of fabrics, in the façades of modern buildings and we recognize its motif in the arrangement of microchips on computer cards. As we can see, on a symbolic, formal and temporal level these various types of grid have very little in common. The difference between them is the same as that between the cross-timbers to build an archaic housing structure and the façade of a skyscraper, between antique decor and the way the microchips of a computerized card are arranged and interconnected, between a medieval mushrabiya and Mondrian’s system of intersecting lines, between one of Mondrian’s paintings and one by Sean Scully. And so on, until we arrive at Ding Yi. Just as Mondrian and Malevič went beyond the formal use that the art of the past made of the grid, Ding Yi in turn went beyond the use that modern western artists made of the grid. This is because the theme of the grid is by its nature an open one that lends itself to further unpredictable developments both formally and theoretically.


Rosalind E. Krauss, Grids, October, summer 1979, pp. 50-64. Text included in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985, pp. 8-22.

The author also deals with the theme of the grid in The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodernist Repetition, October, autumn 1981, text included in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, op. cit., pp. 151-170.

Susan Sontag, Sight and Sound, 1967, in Styles of Radical Will, Ferrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1969.



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


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