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.
See the photos that got Ren Hang arrested
The 29-year-old releases a retrospective book featuring the controversial photographs that have seen him arrested in China yet gained him global notoriety
Photography Ren Hang, courtesy of Taschen
Admittedly, Ren Hang’s photography doesn’t have any particular purpose. He regularly denies being consciously controversial or political – in an interview with Tashen’s Sexy Books editor, Dian Hanson, for his new photo book, Ren Hang, he says, “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”. Interviewing him on this new release, the Beijing-based photographer preferred to let his work speak for him. When asked why now was the right time to release his first career-spanning book, he replied, “No particular reason”. Anywhere in the world he would particularly like to shoot? “No.” Is he frustrated that his work is always discussed in terms of being shocking? “It doesn’t really matter.”
Internationally known for his naked images, Ren is a subject of major controversy in China, where he has been arrested. Pornographic images have been banned in the People’s Republic of China since 1949 and the country does not allow for outdoor nudity. Despite this ruling, Ren often shoots his male and female subjects out in nature. These men and women, his friends, all have a slender figure in common. In the images, they become androgynous forms blurred into one, maximising the impact of the exposed genitalia and challenging the traditional perception of beauty in China.
The 29-year-old photographer, who suffers from cyclic depression, started taking photographs in 2007 because they made him happy. Shooting with a simple film camera Ren was initially drawn to shooting his friends at home after growing tired of his lifestyle studying advertising. Ren has since shown exhibitions across the world in cities such as Bangkok, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and New York. This book follows eight self-published monographs and is the first publication to showcase the full breadth of the photographer’s work. On the process of curation, Hanson says, “The design of the book was primarily for aesthetics, but also chronological, with Ren’s earliest works towards the beginning. After that, there is a grouping of like images, interrupted by jarring and surprising images, with blank pages interspersed to draw attention to particularly strong images.”
“Ren Hang” is published by Taschen and will be available to purchase from 20 January
Photography Ren Hang