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.
– Ren Hang
Ren Hang (1987-2017) was a poet and photographer born in Nong’ An, a suburb of Changchun, capital of the northeastern province of Jilin, called the “Detroit of China” for its automotive industry. At the age of seventeen, he left his hometown to settled down in Beijing to study marketing. His college work didn’t interest him so – in order to kill boredom – he bought himself a point-and-shoot film camera and taught himself to use it. He first took pictures of his roommates and friends in 2007, shooting them in the nude as all were close and seeking excitement. In an interview, he also admitted: “I usually shoot my friends, because strangers make me nervous.” He arranged his subjects’ naked limbs in his photographs. He then created several series during a decade, in concomitance with poems and free verses.
Ren Hang’s work has been exhibited in many galleries around the world and regularly published in fashion magazines including Purple and Numero. After his suicide in 2017, he left behind a wide-ranging body of work, which deals with all aspects of his artistic practice, from photography to books and self-published texts.
Ren Hang’s audacious work explores the relationship between identity and sexuality, and because it was produced in China, its subversive tone had an all the more destabilising effect. His work, which has often been censored or deemed pornographic by the Chinese authorities – Ren was arrested multiple times over the course of his short life even though he often stated that it did not set out to challenge the political establishment – remains, with respect to a repressive context, the expression of a yearning for creative freedom, freshness and impulsiveness. His unique vision is clearly influenced by “cynical realism”, a Chinese artistic movement rooted in the events that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Ren Hang’s instantly recognisable work is mainly composed of portraits and landscapes often within the naked bodies of his male and female models. He worked with people close to him – his friends and his mother – and with young Chinese people he reached out to online. He produced his emblematic images in the confined space of his apartment or in the outdoor spaces of the city. Although his photographs appear staged, they are the result of a spontaneous and instinctive process, and their candidness imbues them with poetry and humour.