On Thursday, February 23, Ren Hang (任航), rising Chinese surrealist photographer, poet, and provocateur, took his own life in Berlin. At first, the news of his death spread slowly through the art world in rumour form, and was finally confirmed via an official statement by Taschen Books on Friday.
Ren Hang’s world is populated by young, pristine models who he photographs in twisted, curled, and tangled positions. His imagery blurs gender lines, with his male and female subjects fitting a specific beauty definition: gaunt, hairless, angular, and alabaster. These young art-recruits serve as perfect protagonists in many of his surrealist creations.
“Initially, [when discovering Ren Hang] I adored that he shot images of the nude body… that said, it can be a bit controversial, since he is still a male figure creating a gaze, especially on the female body. “There’s something about his photographs that are different to me,” said Abigail Lomboy, a photographer and artist based out of Toronto. “Each image is odd – both simply created, yet complex in nature. There were really no theatrics in the creation of his photographs. Simply, they were of people, interacting with each other, interacting with themselves, and interacting with the world around them.”
Self-taught, Ren Hang began his career “shooting what he saw”, photographing his roommate in the nude with a point and shoot camera. As he continued to produce work, he mostly shot his friends, saying that “strangers made him nervous”. Later, his fans would pose as subjects.
With the beating drum of the Chinese government always present, Ren Hang was constantly under the critical observation of authorities. He enjoyed working outdoors, capturing humanity among local flora and fauna. His subjects are commonly accessorized by the phenomena of the collective physical world, including plants, animals, landscapes, and other products of the earth. Being naked outdoors is forbidden in China, and, as a result, Ren Hang was arrested and had his camera confiscated while working a number of times. Police often shut down his shows on the charge that his work was pornographic.
“I shoot here because I love China. It’s my country. I was born here,” he said in a VICE Japan documentary. “The censorship makes me want to stay even more. Not being able to do what you want in your own country is such a tragic way to live.”
Since 1949, pornographic images have been banned by the People’s Republic of China, however, the definition of what constitutes a pornographic image is purposefully vague. Ren Hang’s images helped break the social taboo of nudity, highlighting the natural beauty of the naked body. His work was championed by Ai Weiwei, with whom he collaborated.
“My pictures discuss survival,” Ren Hang once commented, “I don’t want to isolate human being from animals or plants, and I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies, or that they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasure. I wanna say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.”
“I just want to lead a quiet life,” he went on. “But in China, I’m not allowed to do that.”
Currently, Ren Hang is showing at Foam, a photography museum in Amsterdam, now through March 17. The museum’s curator, Mirjam Kooiman, said to CNN, “He makes the work in a context that isn’t free and open, so even though it’s not his intention to work against the grain, he cannot go around it completely. It is telling us something about not only him as an artist but also the generation he’s from.”
Exhibitions have taken place in Antwerp, Athens, Bangkok, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Paris, and Vienna, and Ren Hang has cultivated a passionate audience on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr. He will be remembered in the tradition of artists such as Guy Bourdin and Robert Mapplethorpe.
“In my opinion, digital cameras don’t count as photography. Digital cameras are just images, or a form of new media. Digital photography requires a lot of post-production. Shooting on film is different. It’s the most authentic form of photography. You just shoot and see what happens. What you see is what you get. It’s pure shooting and instincts. Film is the most straightforward medium. I like things that are straightforward.” – Ren Hang.
SELECTED WORKS BY REN HANG
Disclosure: Abigail Lomboy is a contributer to Glossi Mag.
Heidi is the president of Matte PR and a mentor with Toronto Fashion Incubator. She’s inspired by brutalist architecture, sculptural fashion, and Italian“Giallo” films. Influences include John Waters, Yoko Ono, and Suzy Lake.