Wednesday Art Idol
Ren Hang was a Chinese photographer and poet who even after his death in 2017 remains a leading light in China’s emerging photography scene. Hang’s performative and sexually explicit images make him both an icon among LGBTQ+ communities and a target for China’s strict censorship laws. Hailed by the likes of Ai Weiwei, Hang was exhibited globally and amassed a huge following over social media and his now defunct website.
Despite taking his own life at the tragically young age of 29, Ren Hang’s influence on photography, particularly in his native China, belies his relatively short career. It began around 2007, when Hang, who was born in north east China’s Jilin province, grew disillusioned with his studies in advertising while at university in Beijing.
Picking up a Minolta 35mm point and shoot, Hang refreshed his sense of stimulation through photography, initially documenting close friends and dormitory life. Though Hang maintained that taking photographs was a form of remedy, the depression he suffered from would inadvertently provide an underlying tone to his images, and one he would ultimately never overcome.
Untitled, 2015, © Ren Hang, Courtesy Ren Hang Estate
At a time when the world was avidly turning their attention to digital, Hang stuck with analogue. Shooting on film had become increasingly popular at the turn of the millennium with the rise of si sheying, or ‘private photography’, the sort of intimate, everyday portraiture pioneered in the US by Nan Goldin and Ryan McGinley and Nobuyoshi Araki in Japan.
Hang’s emergence was precipitated by the work of fellow Chinese photographer Lin Zhipeng (AKA No.223), who rose to internet-stardom with his erotic, fantastical images that he uploaded onto his blog, North Latitude 23. Unlike Zhipeng, who favours spontaneous shots for his photo diary-style portfolios, Hang carefully choreographed his images into humourous and sometimes absurd mise en scenes, in which contorted nude bodies were his principal props.
Four pairs of buttocks arranged in line like a mountain range; a group of hands clasp and writhe between a pair of bare thighs; five women lie naked on their floor, hands joined and hair flowing, to form the symmetrical outline of a lotus flower. These high-contrast photographs, shot between his apartment and natural settings, invite a voyeuristic gaze and reveal our own sense of prudishness. Through entangled limbs and hairless bodies they reveal uninhibited expressions of sexuality and defiant queer identities, all in a country that classified homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’ as recently as 2001.
With their explicit displays of nudity, irreverent poses and celebrations of fetish, Hang’s works were deemed pornograpphic by the Chinese government (where production or dissemination of pornography can lead to imprisonment) and became an immediate target for censorship. During the course of his life, Hang was arrested several times, his work publicly vandalised and his exhibitions shut down, yet to paint him as an iconoclast who deliberately provoked authorities would be a mistake. Hang was never interested in breaking taboo or creating profound statements against Chinese state oppression, it was more the reception of his work that propagated this image of a dissident artist.
In the only internationally produced monograph of his work, published by Taschen in 2016, Hang wrote, “I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do… I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies… 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.”
Hang’s breakout and continued success is intimately tied to the rise of zine culture and independent publishing within China. His work operates in the underground peripheries of what is otherwise a strictly controlled cultural machine, and despite being perceived as pornographic by the authorities, is produced and distributed in China to this day.
As well as posting images on social media and his website, from 2011 until his death in 2017, Hang self-published 16 books, all with limited print runs. In the year leading up to his death he released a book of photography every month for an entire year, some of which now fetch up to $600 at auction. Hang’s self-propelled mainstream success (he shot campaigns for Gucci and Maison Kitsuné) via independently produced photobooks and zines reflects a wider creative scene driving China’s underground publishing frenzy, both online and in print. World renowned contemporary talents like Luo Yang, Pixy Liao and Alexandra Leese owe part of their success to these formats, and despite all leaving their homeland, continue to add to its burgeoning photography scene from abroad.
The gender-fluid, identity-orientated work of these photographers may appear at odds with China’s stringent censorship rules, but they represent a new, cultural direction for the country. In 2009, the cultural industry was listed for the first time as a pillar industry by the State Council, who recognised its potential in terms of both revenue and reputation – projecting an image of an inclusive China. Massive state investment has followed, resulting in an explosion of national photography fairs, fringe events and zine festivals that undergird China’s new commitment to this globally exported form of soft power.
Like his photographs, Hang’s poetry is intimate, surreal and sexually charged, fed by the same despondency and failing mental health that characterised his lens. Hang’s poetry carried the tone with greater force however, and under a section of his website titled ‘My Depression’ he produced a journal of his written work that accompanied his photography, from 2007-2016.
Shortly before he died, Hang was scheduled to publish his first book of poetry, Word or two, consisting of over 200 poems translated into English. The summer after he passed the book was officially published, translated with the help of his friends, Ho King Man and Casey Robbins, and distributed among a select number of bookstores and friends.
In one, titled You Walk In My Mouth, Hang evokes the arresting poses in his photographs:
I help you take off your shoes
Take off your socks
I lick your toes.
I keep them in my mouth,
As if you were walking in my mouth,
You can walk straight into my heart.
Others, like Love, written months before he died, convey a darker tone:
I’ve bought a knife
We can use it together
If you don’t love me anymore
I will kill you
If I don’t love you anymore
You will kill me