When looking at Ren Hang’s work one could think of him as a revolutionary anti-system Chinese artist. His pictures, representing naked bodies arranged in performative positions, look as an expression of the will of artistic, sexual, representative freedom in a controlling country.
Nonetheless, the young artist declared “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.” “I do not think nudity is challenging, nudity is common, everybody has it”. Born in a suburb of Changchun the artist – who took his life away in 2017 at the age of 29 – started as a self-taught photographer to release the boredom of studying at college.
With a small Minolta Ren Hang immortalized his models, who were mainly close friends or people he recruited on the internet. Despite constant censorship by the government – he was arrested several times because of the subversive nature of his pictures – Ren Hang kept on producing his work, questioning the relationship between sexuality and identity. Though he often organized shootings in his apartment, his work was not limited indoor; the artist also looked for concealed outdoor spaces, such as roof-tops, parks and such.
In Ren’s works of art female and male bodies – generically young and slim – are nested together in performative positions, creating ambiguous shapes and choreographic images. A bunch of hands grasp a pair of pale thighs, a row of backsides looks like a hillside landscape… Bodies interlock their limbs like in a jigsaw puzzle in order to create a multitude of shapes; the naked body is often combined with natural elements and colorful animals, which bring the pictures to lose almost entirely their erotic charge.
Lack of sophisticated technical means brought Ren Hang’s pictures to look somewhat rough; this is particularly striking in night picks, when the unfiltered flash light reflects on the naked bodies and the natural elements. A good example is brought by three girls leaning on one another showing their breasts, looking almost as fading as the white light coming from the camera hit their bodies. In another night picture again the white, unflattering light strikes the face of a girl standing in a pond, holding a water lily over her head. These rough pictures confirm that Ren Hang told the truth when he stated that he did not prepare the settings nor his models’ poses, but that he just created under the influence of a sudden inspiration.
Aside from photography, Ren Hang wrote poems that he shared on his website. The texts – usually brief – could be both humorous or dark.
‘Sometimes words can’t leave my mouth
But it’s not because I have nothing to say
Sometimes I can’t go out
But it’s not because there are no more roads to wander
Sometimes I just want
to lie down quietly for a while.‘
(Ren Hang | I don’t feel like talking | 10.01.2013)
Text originally translated from Chinese to English by Elena Rebaudengo.
Deeply understanding Ren’s work might be difficult, as the artist leaves the public contemplating his images with no clue nor interpretation: “I don’t try to get a message across, I don’t give my works names, I don’t date them. I don’t want to instill them with any vocabulary. I don’t like to explain my photos or work as a whole”.
Many museums showed Ren Hang’s work throughout the years: the Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York (2015-2016), the Minsheng Art Museum, Shanghai (2014), the Stichting Mediamatic, Amsterdam (2014), the MuseumsQuartier, Vienna (2013), the Groninger Museum, Groninger (2013), the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (2012) and the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2011).
“Love, Ren Hang” – until May 26th at the Maison Européenne de la Photo in Paris – is the first institutional exhibition in France dedicated to the photographer, honoring the memory of one of the most influential Chinese artists if his generation, who was supported by internationally renowned names such as Ai Weiwei. The exhibition includes 150 photographs from European and Chinese collections, as well as videos presenting Ren’s work with his own words. The exhibition also gives the chance to discover the less known aspect of the artist’s work: his editorial production poems.