Ding Yi’s goal was to “make painting that was not like painting,” and he succeeded. The Chinese artist is world renown for his vibrant and complex work that merges the energy and freedom of painting with the structures and systems of design. His painstaking creative process is the culmination of precision, rigour and technical skill. In his early works, he used complex calculations to map out a structure for his composition. He applies paint, removing all texture from his brushwork. Painting straight from the tube, employing rulers, tape and drafting pens to achieve an aesthetic akin to the mechanical precision of industrial design — a process demanding intense focus, concentration and discipline.
Here, we talk to Ding about his artistic journey so far, how he developed his creative language and how China’s evolution has been his most important inspiration.
Where did you grow up, and how did it inform your creativity?
I was born in Shanghai and still live here. In my childhood, Shanghai was a grey-coloured city. It then became the seedbed of the early industrialisation in China. In the late 80s, the city went into a period of high-speed urbanisation, transforming into a noisy, colourful and dazzling place. It became a city full of passion and even a little crazy. Shanghai has always been an essential source of inspiration for me.
You define your work as a new creative language. How did this concept and technique evolve?
It was in 1988 when China began to reform and open up. I started to use the symbol of a cross. At that time, this kind of work was radical and creative, but also very challenging for a Chinese audience. It introduced a new approach to abstract art, the rational abstract. In some ways, I believe art is driving the cognition of the world.
In a recent interview about your work, you said it was vital for you to distance yourself both from the burden of traditional Chinese culture and the influence of early Western modernism. Could you unpack this significance?
Chinese contemporary art developed into a movement in the early 80s with new art forms and art schools emerging. I was studying traditional Chinese ink painting at university during that time, and simultaneously practising oil paintings in Western modernism style after class. I knew contemporary art should deal with something creative and should face the future. I wanted to establish a brand new thing, so it was essential to get rid of the burden from the past.
What influences inform your practice?
In the middle of the 80s, I was influenced by Western modernism. It guided me to an approach informed by flatness. I was trying to apply visual depth to a two-dimensional surface; I was trying to be a formalism artist. After 1998, the urbanisation of Shanghai accelerated. The impact of this shifted my perspective. When I look at my paintings from that period, it’s just like looking at the city, with many newly built high-rise buildings, from a bird’s eye view. Meanwhile, the neon lights at night inspired me to start using fluorescent colours.
Then, after 2012, I developed a new way to look at the urbanisation, I began to reflect and evolve my perspective. My paintings could be associated with more physical things, like the sky, the universe, the internet, etc. As the world became increasingly more complicated, so did my painting system.
Can you talk us through your creative process? How do your ideas evolve into the final work?
I like to work in a sequential way and make works in series. I don’t do any draft before doing a painting. When one painting is almost finished, what could be improved or what I’d develop further in this painting, will be the primary clue or the motivation for the next one.
When it comes to the creation of one single painting, the crosses take different positions in the painting and coherently form the balance. In some ways, my process is about creating a system. A real deepening of my practice.
Your approach merges painting and design into a single form of expression. How do you navigate the rational aspect of design with the implicit freedom of painting?
To combine painting and design was my starting point in abstract art. I believe it will create more possibilities when they come together. I always make a lattice on the canvas before starting to paint. It is the foundation of my work. However, to paint directly, without any pre-study or draft, enables me to have looser sensibility while painting, making the work more dynamic and sensitive.
What do you hope the work communicates to your audience?
For me, the mission for any artist is to elaborate on the time in which they live. I have worked for over thirty years, and the changing times have always been the source of my inspiration. I want my audience to feel and to experience the paradox, the excitement, and the transformation.