(1987 - 2017)
The Art of Taboo: 任航（レン・ハン）- Ren Hang
|Photo by Ren Hang
Ren Hang (Chinese: 任航; March 30, 1987 – February 24, 2017) was a Chinese photographer and poet.
During Ren's incipient career, he was known mostly for nude photographic portraits of his friends. His work is significant for its representation of Chinese sexuality within a heavily censored society. For these erotic undertones, he was arrested by PRC authorities several times. He received the backing of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who included Ren in his 2013 Netherlands show, Fuck Off 2 The Sequel, and curated the photographer's 2014 exhibition in Paris, France. Ren's erotic, playful and casual yet provocative expression gained him worldwide fame.
Ren was born in 1987, in a suburb of Changchun, Jilin province, in northeastern China.
In 2007, in order to relieve the boredom of studying advertising at college, he bought a point-and-shoot camera and began shooting his friends. As a self-taught photographer, he said his style of photography was inspired by the artist Shūji Terayama.
Ren suffered from depression. He posted a series of diary entries titled "My depression" on his blog, recording the fear, anxiety and internal conflicts he experienced.
Ren died by suicide on February 24, 2017 in Beijing.
|Photo by Ren Hang
Ren first began taking 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.
Ren did not consider his work inappropriate: “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.” This may account for his reticence to limit his work to indoor settings. He said there were no preferred places for him to work, as he believed anywhere was beautiful and worthy to be shot, including sparse studios, parks forests, and atop buildings. Ren's photos employ nude groups and solo portraits of men and women often contorted into highly performative positions. For example, hands reach down milky thighs, a limp penis flops onto a watermelon and a series of backsides imitate a mountain range.
Questioning the purpose of his work, he once stated that his creation was a way to seek fun for both photographer and the photographed. However, once he had reached fame on an international level, he began to think deeply about his work. The British Journal of Photography quoted him as once saying: "I don't want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots... Or they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasures. I want to say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all." Ren also focused on marginalised people in Chinese society with gender identity disorders by 'indeterminating' sex and gender in some of his work: a group of naked bodies stacked together, men wearing silk stockings and wearing lipstick. He denied having a preference in models: “Gender… only matters to me when I’m having sex.” The international quarterly photography journal Aperture used his photo as the cover for its "Queer" theme. Commentators also see his work, the naked body and the starched penis, as evolving sexual mores and the struggle for creative and sexual freedom in a conservative, tightly controlled society. But Ren also announced "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".
It has been mentioned that Ren's work is softcore pornography because of the degree of nudity and sex in it, but he also worked with other themes. The most famous was titled “My Mum”. Although still under a fetishistic atmosphere, posing with usual props in Ren's works like animals and plants, Ren's mother posed as a clothed model, in a light-hearted way to represent her daily life. Ren's photographs have been included in magazines L'Officiel, GQ Style, and Vice. He worked with fashion companies Gucci, Rick Owens, and Loewe. Ren's work is included in Frank Ocean's magazine Boys Don't Cry.
Throughout his life, he endured a long battle with depression, an experience he would often document on his website under a menu item titled My Depression. Here he recorded, sometimes in the form of poetry, his inner struggles against depression, including frequent hallucinations and hearing voices. In one poem, he wrote:
Style and controversies
Ren Hang is noted to be greatly influenced by Chinese and Asian contemporary art and in particular, Japanese photographer and contemporary artist Nobuyoshi Araki.
Ren Hang mainly worked with a simple point-and-shoot camera. He would direct the models as to how to place their bodies and shoot in quick succession. Genitalia, breasts and anuses were not covered up, but featured, or accentuated with props and close-ups. Colors were rich and high in contrast, increasing visual impact. This, along with the fact all bodies were slim, lithe and relatively hairless, made the impact of his photographs more impressive. His work communicated a raw, stark aesthetic that countered taboos and celebrated sexuality. Someone concluded it was this contemporary form of poeticism in a visual context in which Ren Hang expressed themes of identity, the body, love, loss and death.
Nudity is not a theme in art which can be widely accepted by the Chinese older generation. Ren Hang's works are sometimes misinterpreted by the public as pornography. Although some have written that Ren Hang used his photographs to challenge Chinese cultural norms of shame around nudity, he did not believe he was challenging the stereotype and leading a revolution. For him, nudity and sexuality are natural themes which he used in his work.
He said he was not trying to liberate nudity and sexuality since he believed that the Chinese young generation was open-minded and less affected by the old-fashioned cultures. When Ren Hang talked about the question whether the topic of sexuality was still a taboo in China, he said:
REN HANG | BEAUTY WITHOUT BEARDS
Ren Hang: Obituary
Ren Hang 任航 (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 small Minolta point-and-shoot film camera and taught himself to use it.
Ren created several photographic series between 2008 and 2016, in concomitance with poems and free verses that we wrote between 2007 and 2017. Over the years, he gradually shifted from seemingly candid shots of individuals nudes to sexually-charged and explicit photographs, in which young naked bodies interlaced with one another in uncommon settings and complex compositions.
Ren was laconic when it came to discussing his works, which explains why he generally didn’t name them. With the exception of one series entitled “My Mum” (2014). Posing with the usual props in Ren’s works like animals and plants, the artist’s mother became another subject for his carefully staged and colourful images, while she retained her real-life identity in these fictionalised representations of her daily life. The rest of Ren series are populated with a mixture of his own male and female friends or people who approached him from the Internet.
His models posed naked, in impromptu choreographies, stacked like compression sculptures, often contorted in unnatural shapes. Their body parts were interlaced with flowers, hairs, and animals amongst other atypical props. Ren combined indoors, outdoors, natural and urban environments to create a playful raw vision of young people, regardless their gender. Tightly composed, his photographs were saturated and lit with stark flash. His goal was to “portray every organ in a fresh, vivid and emotional way.” Bright, lurid, blunt, the eroticism in Ren’s works is obvious. Yet they also convey a strong poetic and evocative force. “People come into this world naked and I consider naked bodies to be people’s original, authentic look,” Ren told vice magazine back in 2013. “I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies.”
Ren’s works were and are still celebrated and censored in equal measure. Although he was disinterested in any sort of political or social commentary, he eventually embodied Chinese artists’ battle for creative freedom. In fact his works suffered from enduring censorship and intimidation from the Chinese authorities, who defaced or confiscated his works and even arrested him. The main cause: pornographic and nudity images have been banned in the People’s Republic of China since 1949. As he said: “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’s creativity was warmly welcomed in the Western World, especially in the arty and fashion circles. His first exhibition abroad happened in 2011, when Ai Weiwei invited him in the group show “Fuck Off 2” in Groninger Museum (Netherlands). In his brief career, he had to his credit over twenty solo, seventy group shows, several self-published monographs, and an official monograph by Taschen. Two solo exhibitions are currently running at the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam, and the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm. He collaborated with the fashion brand Maison Kitsuné and published his photographs in Vice France Magazine, GQ style China Magazine, and TANK Magazine amongst many other. Today, Ren's works are collected by CAFA Art Museum and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in China; Kansas State University Art Museum in USA; Multimedia Art Museum in Russia; and White Rabbit Collection in Australia.
Ren endured a long battle with cyclical depression throughout his life. He turned to poetry to chronicle his battle with the disease, while having often foreshadowed his own death in postings on social media. "People suffering from depression may not exhibit any obvious symptoms, but if you find a friend down with depression, you need to spend more time with them and make the effort to call them more frequently, because you never know when it will strike," he wrote. "One minute I might be thinking the whole world is smiling at me, and the next, I might feel they all want to stab me." His struggle eventually led him to commit suicide on February 23rd 2017. He would have turned 30 in March. We will miss your outrageous poetry. Rest in peace Ren Hang.