DING YI, Flying Stone, 2013, Metal frame and fake fur cloth, 42 pieces, dimensions variable. Installation view of “Ivory Black” at ShanghArt, Singapore, 2015. Courtesy ShanghArt, Singapore.

Ivory Black

Ding Yi

China Singapore
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The cross is a universal symbol. It represents spatial orientation, real or imagined. Its intersection of vertical and horizontal axes may delineate the positive/negative, past/future, seen/unseen. It implies the bringing together of multiple dualities or planes; it suggests a human form, arms extended. Rotated, it is perceived as “x,” both a multiplier and a negator. This is the elegant conceptual syllabary of artist Ding Yi, who obsessively paints crosses into spatial abstractions of his native city, as well as the self. 

Ding, one of the first and most influential of China’s contemporary artists working in abstraction, is a longtime Shanghai resident. The city is his muse and, over the span of some three decades, he has inscribed its various guises within rhythmic, exuberant layerings of tiny crosses in his work. Ding has described Shanghai’s fierce entropy as making him feel “spiritually lost.” His pedantic cross-patterns subdue the city’s fervent, urban chaos, allowing him to reclaim a “calm” state of mind that is separate from the reality of the city. 

Ding had previously used specific tools to make his early cross-grid paintings intentionally mechanical; he now renders his thousands of technically precise crosses in painstaking freehand. Observing how his gorgeous, labor-intensive canvases hover warily between rigorous technique and performative space, it is worth considering that Ding once experimented with performance art. He has, in fact, investigated various mediums, including paper, woodcuts and, most intensively, the latticed rigors of tartan fabric. Inevitably, Ding’s powerful visual overload compels the viewer to make out connections in random patterns: his hectic abstractions have been variously described as evoking crowded cityscapes, neon advertising, aerial macro-pixelations of the metropolis and digital bitstreams.  

Such clamorous visual referents, however, were not so discernible in “Ivory Black,” Ding’s recent exhibition at ShanghArt Gallery in Singapore. The artist presented one installation, one sculpture and 11 paintings from his career-long series “Appearance of Crosses,” which includes his ongoing invocations of Shanghai. In a departure from Ding’s usual leitmotif of vibrant and elaborate grids, the large-scale acrylics on canvas in this body of work, all numbered and similarly titled Appearance of Crosses, involve prim arrays of crosses in muted blacks and shadowy indigos. Two such pieces, Appearance of Crosses 2014-8 and 2014-9 (both 2014), are misty fields of color, appearing like streetlights seen through tears. Here, Ding still challenges the viewer’s eye to generate form; in these two works, his amassed crosses resolve inexorably into faint recollections of tartan. Ding’s brushstrokes warp and hesitate, and beneath their fundamental, vertical/horizontal orientation, spatial substrates glint with odd, brilliant bits of red, purple and green. At a distance, the brushworks reveal depth; observed more closely, they quiver with life. Ding’s other paintings at ShanghArt were more placid and evocative of well-worn, hand-spun cloth. Appearance of Crosses 2013-13 (2012), for example, is the very essence of traditional Japanese kasuri ikat (a fabric that has been woven with fibers dyed specifically to create patterns), with its slightly blurred geometrics and simple cross-patterning. 

Ding’s installation Flying Stone (2013) was a witty counterpoint to these self-contained works. Over 40 faceted, coal-black “stones” of varying sizes clung to the gallery’s ceiling and walls like spatial fugitives escaping from the paintings, having been severed by the artist’s decisive cross-strokes. These restive fragments, which are covered in faux fur, took on a silvery sheen under the gallery lights. Similar disruption resounded in Pillar (2014), Ding’s precarious tower of interlaced, stainless-steel blocks that stood outside the gallery.

The exhibition title, “Ivory Black,” refers to the carbon-based pigment preferred by the artist for its translucence, and which is traditionally produced from charred bone. This oblique allusion to cremation may suggest a sense of regret, or loss. Certainly, considering his years-long experimentation with fierce color and frenetic abstractions, Ding’s restrained, meditative formality at ShanghArt was compelling. The profound and remorseless changes in Shanghai seem to have driven Ding, at last, to calm detachment. Perhaps the artist no longer recognizes his muse.