The controversial Chinese photographer pushed the limits of the body to create an intoxicating beauty
Last month, a photographer reached out with news that Ren Hang had reportedly committed suicide. I could see tributes beginning to form on Twitter, but, I thought, it can’t be true. But when publisher Pierre Bessard announced “Mon ami Ren Hang left us this morning” on his website and Belgian gallerist Dries Roelens paid tribute to his friend on his Facebook page, as have numerous others, the news quickly became more of a reality than a rumour.
Born in 1987 in North East China’s Jilin, dubbed the “Detroit of China”, at 20-years-old Ren was studying advertising but found himself restless. He found a remedy with a point-and-shoot camera and he began taking photos of his friends – namely, his housemate in the nude. “It was not because I was bored of advertising particularly, it was because I was bored of life (living in that way) in general”, he told me over email in January. Less than a decade later, his work would have crisscrossed the world with exhibitions in cities such as Athens, Bangkok, New York, Paris, Vienna, Hong Kong, and more. Based in Beijing at the time of his death, tragically he was just one month shy of his 30th birthday.
Last September, Ren was announced as the recipient of the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund – a prize bestowed upon an outstanding photographer who is yet to have a solo exhibition in the Netherlands. The prize was a solo show at Amsterdam’s Foam Fotografiemuseum, which opened in January and runs until March. Earlier this year, Ren released his seventh monograph and first retrospective with Taschen, entitled Ren Hang and curated by Dian Hanson, who described the photographer as an “unlikely rebel”.
I first came across Ren’s work when I was interning at Dazed in 2013. I felt exhilarated by his photographs. While there was absolutely no reason given as to why the photographer had mashed up limbs and body parts in the most absurd and exciting of ways, I liked it. It was as simple as that. His images were fun – the entire premise as to why he had started taking them in the first place. Fantastically, Ren challenged the human body by choreographing his models (who were his friends, sometimes fans) like puzzle pieces; hands layered over breasts or pulled between legs, fingers covering faces and legs akimbo. Gender was never a focal point and each model was as nude, skinny, often shaven, and creative in their poses as the last. “Gender… only matters to me when I’m having sex”, he once said.
But alongside his fun and astoundingly awe-inspiring photographs were his poetry and writings, collectively titled “My Depression” – they detailed the severe bouts of depression that he suffered with. A post in 2010 wrote, “longing for death – is the driving force to live”. It remains published with many more musings that explored death, life and existence. As I didn’t know Ren personally, to me, his words felt parallel to his imagery; as if they were penned by someone else entirely. There was no point looking at his photography for answers, he told me once that they “do not really relate to one another”.
Staunchly censored in China, his work was often defaced when it was displayed in public and he was arrested several times. The climate felt ripe for him to anchor his work with a political statement. And while people (myself included) attempted to tease this sort of commentary from him, Ren always refused, telling Taschen, “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.” He also denied that his work was influenced by his home country. “My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art,” he told me in early 2015, adding that “China has had little influence on me. If I as born in American, I would like American models.” The nudity? “It’s more natural if they’re not wearing clothes”, he explained. Although sometimes they did, and Ren was tapped by numerous magazines and brands to shoot editorials for them, including Frank Ocean for “Boys Don’t Cry”.
Despite his numerous run-ins with the Chinese police and censorship, Ren never changed. He never even gave the inkling that he would. He continued to shoot what he wanted and was never, at least publicly, afraid. He told us: “China doesn’t allow outdoor nudity. I’m very careful about taking pictures outside. If I see police, I’ll run. But I’m not hiding as I’m taking pictures.”
To me, Ren used nature and nudity to create an alternative, beautiful and free world. A kind of paradise that I never felt was specifically connected to a time or place. Snakes slithered around feet, birds perched on a bare butt, fish swam around a model’s face submerged in a bathtub. He turned what should be wrong into right. Ren made me laugh too. Pissing on a toy dinosaur, an octopus wrapped around a model’s head, lipstick on a labia. He balanced beauty with humour. Transitioning from his white-walled flat, his work quickly transformed and he immersed his models in tufts of grass, under lily pads in a pond, amongst cliffs. All the while he gave no reason for creating other than for doing what he loved. And we loved him for it. It was an absolute delight to follow Ren’s journey and it is an absolute tragedy that it has ended so soon.