Interview with the Artist: Ding Ren

By Mary Savig
June 29, 2010
Letter to Ellen Hulda Johnson from Mel Bochner

Archives curatorial assistant, Mary Savig, interviewed artist Ding Ren prior to her upcoming performances on July 2 and August 20.

Franz Kline's grocery list, ca. 1962. Elisabeth Zogbaum papers regarding Franz Kline, 1928–65, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

MS: Your work is about observation and asking viewers to reconsider the most mundane aspects of their surroundings. How will you convey this during your performance?

DR: I am hoping that a lot of it will be translated through the viewers observing me. So it is as much about me observing the viewers as it is about them observing me. I am performing for them, but they are also performing for me. They observe me observing them and then I observe them back. It is like a quiet back and forth staring contest of sorts.

They are also welcome to come up and read what I have been typing up. I was also going to type up what I was observing and the duration of time that I’d be observing it on a note card to be placed next to me. For example, for the first hour I was going to record the color of the shirts visitors are wearing as they enter the gallery  I would type this up on a notecard and say the duration was for one hour. By starting out with an observation of color, I am making my own observational “Color-Field” list. I like this idea because there are so many color-field pieces in the museum on display already.

MS: Visitors often come to art museums for the sole purpose of observing art. Do you hope they have a more nuanced experience during your performance? If so, what do you want them to notice?

DR: All I hope for is that they see something, even if it is the tiniest thing that they would not have noticed in the first place. Even if it is for the briefest of moments that they are just thinking something different, something they may not have thought in the first place. I don’t expect to or want to change or disrupt how visitors would normally experience the art museum because I think it is harder to get people to accept or appreciate things they are unfamiliar with if they are bombarded. I just want to have them shift their perspectives a little. This is why I like incorporating everyday tasks and text into my work, because I feel that these are more accessible things that someone who is completely unfamiliar with performance art or conceptual art could relate to, since everyone has sat at a desk and typed before, and everyone has made lists before.

MS: The seemingly quotidian lists in the exhibition also require close observation in order for a viewer to see their extraordinary qualities. Do you see your performance as an intervention or continuation of these lists?

Mel Bochner to Ellen H. Johnson, letter, April 21, 1972. Ellen Hulda Johnson papers, 1939–1980, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

DR: I would say that my performance is neither, or that I can’t label it as a continuation or an intervention just yet. I also don’t like labels in general. I believe more in context and the changing of contexts than labels, because I feel like something that is labeled a performance in one setting, could be just an everyday act in another setting.

I am sitting here at my desk typing to you right now, which is completely out of the setting of “performance art,” yet next week I will be sitting at a desk doing the same action of typing in an art museum setting, thus making it “performance art.” The same relationship of context goes along with the lists I generate in relation to the lists on display is the museum. Most of the lists in the exhibition—like mine will be—were generated for a specific purpose. Or, because they were preserved in someone’s archive, it meant that they were holding onto them for a specific reason. Some, I’m sure, just happened to be held onto and then the individual became a notably famous artists so their papers were suddenly able to be scrutinized for an added meaning. I too will be creating lists, but because I have not yet started to archive my work, nor will I ever be as famous as say, Picasso, my lists will not be perceived in the same way even though they will be in the same style as many of the lists on display. So I hope my work can be somewhere in between continuation and intervention.

MS: Are there any lists on display that captured your attention?

DR: My favorites are Franz Kline’s grocery list from 1962 and the list of numbers written by Mel Bochner in a letter to Ellen H. Johnson. It was also great to see the list of thirteen demands from the Art Workers Coalition since so many of my favorite artists like Robert Morris and Lee Lozano were part of the Art Strike. Seeing Kline’s grocery list brings up the same thing about context and the archive, which I was bringing up earlier.  

It also makes me think about all the grocery lists ever in existence and how most of them go un-archived, just tossed away in the trash never to be thought twice of again and never seen by more than one person (the person going to the store with the list). That is what is funny, but also frightening about archives, in that they contain some random and unexpected everyday things, but these examples of the everyday are not the end-all or authority since there are so many various versions in existence of these one thing. So therefore so much is left out of an archive and so much is unseen.

To observe an art museum in a new light, visit Ding Ren’s performances on July 2 and August 20 at 4:30 pm in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.).

Ren’s performance, Observations with a Typewriter, is organized in conjunction with the exhibition, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.


My wife and I were in Paris a couple months ago when the volcano ash closed all airports. This sketch of Paris looks familiar from what i've seen when I was there.

I'm a pretty big fan of lists and listing. Ordering and structure are so important. I love how art and practicality are demonstrated here...
I really, really love grocery lists. I like how they look. Strange, I know. :-)
~ John