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    The Contemporary Artist Using Crosses to Push Boundaries

    Over 35 years, Shanghai artist Ding Yi has developed a distinctive style using fluorescent colors and crosses.
    Jan 27, 2024#arts

    ZHEJIANG, East China — Artist Ding Yi still remembers the starry nights of his childhood. Every year, during the annual Spring Festival holiday, he would take a night boat with his father from Shanghai to Ningbo, his ancestral home in the eastern Zhejiang province. The bright stars, drifting sea, and swaying ship all feature in his latest work, with its shining constellations and deep-blue strokes.

    Take a closer look and you will notice that every element has been created using only one basic symbol: crosses.

    One of the leading figures in China’s abstract art movement, Ding has spent more than 35 years creating pieces using only “+” and “x” marks. The 61-year-old’s work spans many artistic styles — maximalism, minimalism, experimental, post-modern, and formalism, to name a few. Yet, his style is completely his own.

    His use of crosses was originally inspired by his experience working as a designer at a toy factory in the 1980s. There, he would use registration marks, which look like plus symbols, to assist with the alignment of different colors on printing screens and plates. It was then that the young artist decided to make “rational” artworks, using rulers and tape to create straight lines, bucking the mainstream trends of expressionism and surrealism that had existed since 1985.

    Ding’s peers and teachers thought little of his maverick approach at the time, but he insisted on forging his solitary path. “I knew very well that my art was going to be like long-distance running; I wasn’t going to instantly burst onto the scene like some brilliant star,” he tells Sixth Tone. “For abstract artists, art is a lifelong mission.”

    In 1993, Ding was invited to present his work at the 45th Venice Biennale in Italy, but his pieces didn’t prove popular. Although Western art circles were making efforts to introduce Chinese contemporary art to the world, most audiences appeared to prefer works with more obvious Chinese elements. “It was at this point I realized I was an artist outside the mainstream, and as such, I needed to distance myself from it as much as possible,” Ding says.

    Ding initially spent 10 years practicing formalism, a style that emphasizes visual and material characteristics rather than external context or content. However, in 1998, he began to rethink his artistic process after being asked by the art historian Serge Guilbaut, during a dialogue in the artist’s studio, why he hadn’t reacted to the drastic changes happening in Shanghai.

    Urbanization and its effect on culture, society, and the aesthetics of the time have long been a source of inspiration for artists. In the 1940s, a few years after relocating to New York City, the Dutch painter and pioneer of abstract art Piet Mondrian created one of his most famous works, “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Using vivid colors and squares, the artist evokes the city’s neat grid layout and vibrant jazz scene.

    “I think Mondrian tried his best to choose the brightest colors available at the time,” Ding says. “He was stimulated by urbanization, and his painting shows what life is like in a metropolis.”

    Six decades later, when Ding re-examined the city that he had lived in for decades, Shanghai, he found that traditional pigments were not vivid enough to reflect reality.

    So Ding started using fluorescent pigments to depict city lights, changes in the skyline, and the urbanization process. The intense colors of the works in his “Fluorescent” series capture both China’s booming development and the ensuing homogeneity as many cities began to look the same.

    After 12 years of working with fluorescent colors, Ding was starting to feel overwhelmed. He began to reduce his use of dazzling pigments and instead introduced darker tones and woodcuts to explore his inner perspectives.

    This change in style could be seen at a recent exhibition in Ningbo. In addition to memories of his ancestral home, on display were sketches Ding made while visiting cities around the world. In this “Travel Sketch” series, Ningbo appears as soft as water vapor, Hong Kong is busy and bright, Bangkok is conveyed in orange and maroon, and meteors streak across the sky in New York City.

    After 35 years of practice, Ding has developed a distinct visual language. However, unlike some artists, he sees little to worry about when it comes to generative artificial intelligence programs, which can produce artistic images in Ding’s style in a matter of seconds. “It’s just a novelty. Easy come, easy go,” Ding tells Sixth Tone. “AI can’t replace human thought. For me, an artwork is meant to resonate with its audience. Only if someone devotes themselves to their work can emotional resonance be achieved. A computer can’t do that.”

    Editor: Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Details of “Appearance of Crosses 2018-2.” Courtesy of Ding Yi Art Studio)