At Ding Yi’s studio in Hongqiao, Shanghai
SMcC: The new work uses a kind of lacquering technique, with multiple layers of colour on wooden boards. How did you come to develop that? And how is it working with the new technique?
DY: I have never researched lacquer objects, nor do I think my work has any relation to lacquer. Throughout my career as an artist, I have always aspired to push the boundaries of what constitutes a painting by introducing new materials and features from elsewhere. This can be seen in my early works, where I combined precision (a crucial factor in design) and painting. Subsequently, in selecting materials, I set about adapting tartan into my painting as a base medium. In my recent works, I just wanted to build up a painterly relationship between the woodcut and painting, and not merely create a woodblock picture. The concept has resulted in a variety of colours with layers of paint underneath in my new series of work. The colours lying under the surface are then variously revealed in the process of carving through the layers.
SMcC: This series of works is certainly very textural -- there are carving marks as well as broad brushstrokes to be seen on the black paint surface.
DY: The creative techniques in new series of work emphasize painterly qualities, and these can be quite sensuous. Though the same methods are used to create the entire series, each and every painting presents an individual exploration of these painterly qualities. Some of the paintings are very flat or screen-like in terms of composition, while others give a sense of space and depth beyond the surface; some have a clear structure while a few particular pieces have had the structure ironed out of them in the process of making. Although as a body, this group of works only explores either red or blue-green as colour themes, still, as far as the handling of the picture surface goes, each theme comprises a different kind of colour combination.
SMcC: Your new body of work integrates techniques of painting, calligraphy and woodblock engraving, so is this still considered painting?
DY: Of course it is painting! These works will be labelled as works on wood.
SMcC: Or can it be considered sculpture?
DY: Actually, the concept of sculpture is founded on the idea that an object is three dimensional -- or nearly so, in which case it would be considered relief sculpture. Now my new work has concave depth from the incisions but no convex height, so it can hardly be considered sculpture.
SMcC: What makes your work distinctive is the fact that it is made by you alone.
DY: This is not a question.
SMcC: Right, it’s a statement. Over the last six months you have been looking after three studios. Has that been difficult?
DY: Yes, indeed. With the ever increasing numbers of visitors to Moganshan Road [M50], I reckoned I would only work in the other two studios. The Hongqiao studio is far from the city centre: there are not many visitors and it is quiet and I can be sure of having time to work. I am quite satisfied with the progress I have made here, and in addition the large space allows me to visualize the relationship between the artworks and the exhibition space at the Long Museum. The Binjiang studio will be my main work space in the near future. Finding an oasis of calm amid the commotion might be the right ecology for art.
SMcC: Has the Long Museum’s space influenced the latest works in any way?
DY: The most challenging space in the Long Museum is the first place you enter after coming through the door: a vast, high gallery. The biggest challenge for the artworks is how to control, interact and enter into dialogue with this space. It’s for that reason that I started to work on this series of large works. The cement walls in the Long Museum may have played a part in my choice of using wood as a material, as the cement walls are tough and it requires a material just as strong to strike a balance.
SMcC: The walls of art galleries are usually white while the Long museum’s concrete walls are grey. Has that influenced your work in any way?
DY: Not much. I came to realize that only vibrant or simple colours would be able to dominate the exhibition space. Coincidentally, three years ago, I started to change my colour palette from the former to the latter. My new artworks have developed along these lines, using a calm but powerful black to set the tone. So there is no clash with the grey of the concrete walls.
SMcC: The architectural space of Long Museum seems very post-industrial and I personally feel that it is a suitable environment for your work. What do you think?
DY: The exhibition galleries are rather unique. Besides the main exhibition hall, the long corridors connecting the other areas are relatively small. The building itself incorporates a number of grid-like forms into its outer structure, while the interior is made of glass, and this draws the exterior environment into the museum. So, metaphorically, it is quite easy for my artwork to strike up a dialogue with these surroundings. Though I am an abstract artist, in recent years I have started to take note of the urban development of Shanghai, and I feel, in this way, that there seems to be potentially a new perspective, viewing the city through the museum.
SMcC: When you have a big show like this, and when you know you have a deadline, one cannot avoid feeling a degree of pressure. At the same time, we came up with the title of this exhibition, What’s Left to Appear. Do you ever find yourself wondering, what is this that I have made?
DY: To be honest, I have not given it much thought. In the last six months, my main focus has been to immerse myself entirely in my work, so it is these artworks that express my current thoughts and feelings about art. I want to create an embryonic energy in these works rather than something that has grown up and gone away. Therefore, I have had a very intense relationship with the actual paintings throughout the creative process, constantly buoyed up by my sense of enthusiasm. In this way it is an exploration without a hypothesis. The artworks themselves are constantly changing, and even after they’re completed, one can still gain new perspectives on them so that an end point can also be a new point of departure. In addition, the artworks seem to change as the distance between the viewer and the canvas varies but pinning down this process by which scale and perspective shift is pretty mysterious.
SMcC: You’ve been painting crosses for thirty years, so your audience will be gratified to know that you still find this extremely exciting, from one moment to the next. I had also a question about your recent conversations with Sean Scully. It’s nice that both Sean Scully and you will be exhibited at almost the same time. How did you find the interaction?
DY: I feel Sean Scully is a role model for the previous generation of artists, and I have followed his journey as an artist. However, times are changing, the world is changing, and now he is not the only role model.
SMcC: In this new body of work, there are many visual elements to be explored, and that includes depth of space and spatial relationships. For the viewer it is more of a visual journey, as you look at it, and your eyes will move around to different depths, picking connections. The grid seems sometimes more like a material, and at times immaterial, constantly changing in this way -- I mean that may be the most obvious aspect. What about time, the aspect of time, because when one looks at your work, say a small canvas or a large painting, does that represent, to you, a morning’s work, a day’s work, or a month’s work? Do you think of the work in that way as a record of time, as well as an exploration of space?
DY: Usually artists do not pay much attention to narrow definitions of the duration of creating art. An artwork is final and complete by its own standards, for example, depending on the degree of density and so on. As such, it does not matter whether I have spent four hours or sixteen hours on one painting, since for me they are the same. However, having a solo exhibition imposes a certain constraint on time, and the making process has to be accelerated as more time is required for larger pieces of work. On average I have been working about 15 hours a day, and for some paintings, it may take up to two months to complete them. Painting consistently within a fixed period of time can also make a series of works more closely related to one another and more coherent.
SMcC: Could you please provide your audience at Long Museum with some suggestions or pointers?
DY: It is difficult to provide any suggestions since audiences are not easy to control. They form naturally, and of course there are often other factors to take into account. For instance, if there are several exhibitions opening around the same time, you will find some habitual gallery visitors who are always in a hurry. Another factor is the limitation of space: when there aren’t many exhibitions on, visitors will tend to gather at the same few places. There are growing numbers of art museums [in Shanghai] which are attracting more younger visitors and I hope some of them will become part of my audience.