Chinese Artist Ding Yi at Timothy Taylor Gallery

Ding Yi: “A painting is essentially flat, hung on a wall in silence — it has to offer the viewer something they can’t ever quite finish with.”

A contemporary Chinese artist who emerged in Shanghai in the 1980s, Ding Yi’s work is rooted in a self-contained and entirely distinctive language.

Growing up in China convinced Ding Yi that he was never going to be what he calls “a trendy artist”. But it did at least push him on to his own distinctive path. “When I was at school nearly all the art we were exposed to was political propaganda, that Soviet-derived style,” says Ding Yi. “There was a kind of generally abstract art, but it was still more poetic, not really rationale. And so it was then that I decided that’s what I’d do. I knew that would mean I’d also be one of those artists who just had to prove himself over time.”

Ding Yi, 55, has certainly done that. Although he has experimented in other media, since 1988 he has becoming increasingly well known for his large-scale paintings on which patterns are formed from many small x marks and ‘plus signs’, repeated over and over with the natural variations that come from long, long, backache-inducing days of hand-work. Ding Yi doesn’t use an assistant, in part because each of his canvases grows out of an organic process, in part because, as he puts it, “the kind of manufactured art [of the kind that can be produced by an assistant] may look sophisticated, but it doesn’t provoke a sensory reaction in the viewer. I wouldn’t really call it art”.

The often mesmeric results of Ding Yi’s latest efforts suggest tartan fractals or crystalline structures arrested in their growth, but invite myriad interpretations. Younger people, Ding Yi says, tend to see in his works a reflection of urbanisation — something he’s had experience of himself, having moved out of his native Shanghai to find some space, physical and mental; only to move back when the breakneck pace of change had him starting to feel too cut off. “You’d go off-scene for just a month, go back and feel like you’d missed out on everything,” he adds. For others his canvases have suggested the very opposite of the frenetic.

“Some critics have seen them in quasi-religious terms, compared to the practice of doing the same thing repeatedly every day as in Zen Buddhist practice,” he says with a smile. “Like a monk repeating a mantra all day, every day. I suppose both that and art can take you to some kind of new spiritual plane. But a painting is essentially flat, hung on a wall in silence — it has to offer the viewer something they can’t ever quite finish with.”

That may be the lure for those who buy Ding Yi’s works. Perhaps because he stands apart in his practice, Ding Yi has become one of the most collectible of Chinese contemporary artists of recent years. Whether he likes it or not, that does make him trendy, although Ding Yi has a wry smile at Chinese art’s current fashionability.

“Of course, I’m aware of its being fashionable now,” he says, adding, however, that he recalls being here before. “There were touring exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art in the mid-1990s that the Western media got excited about, although they didn’t even mention my work. What did feature was political Pop Art and that came to represent Chinese art to the West. It’s funny, but a lot of the artists who came out of that era and focused on that political Pop Art aren’t around any more.”

Ding Yi at Timothy Taylor Gallery, 15 Carlos Place, London W1 until 24 June; timothytaylor.com

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Ding Yi: “A painting is essentially flat, hung on a wall in silence — it has to offer the viewer something they can’t ever quite finish with.”

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Ding Yi with his works exhibited at the ‘China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition’ in the National Art Museum of China.

Ding Yi with his works exhibited at the ‘China Avant-Garde Art Exhibition’ in the National Art Museum of China.

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