Staring at the photos, you’ll first notice pale, naked Chinese youth, all wearing blasé expressions and nothing else.
“What am I looking at?” you may ask.
Men squeezed midair between a couple of trees. Numerous flowery fingers blooming between a couple of bowed legs. A bodyless face that’s framed by the waists of two females. You have now accessed the world of Ren Hang.
Ren Hang was a young artist who lived in Beijing and had created controversial art that gained international recognition. At home, however, his compositions were heavily censored.
‘We were born nude… I just photograph things in their most natural condition,’’ - Ren Hang
Considered by many as the Nobuyoshi Araki of this generation, Ren Hang had an exceptional eye for color, composition, and for creating optical illusions. Despite appearing staged, Ren’s art resulted from instinct, improvisation, and spontaneity.
Exploring the unique relationship between sexuality & identity, Ren Hang’s art is like no other. His photos are famous for being bold and erotic.
Sex wasn’t the primary subject of his photography. Instead, he was interested in how nudity, which he said is the “human being’s most fragile and real state”, can reveal the truths of an unguarded mind.
Ren Hang was a prominent photographer of the new Chinese youth, capturing the nation’s zeitgeist, where positive sexuality and nudity weren’t considered to be negative, embarrassing, or sinful.
Not everybody was a fan of Ren Hang’s Photography. His photos and their nude nature caused controversy in conservative China. Ren was arrested numerous times in China and his photographs have been disfigured at exhibitions and even confiscated. His own websites have even been removed from the internet.
Whether it was his intention or not, Ren Hang’s art was interpreted as socially charged. One could look at it as a firm stance in opposition to censorship or a clear middle finger at Chinese conservatism.
The Rise to Photography and the Fall to Depression
Ren Hang had said that he took interest in photography back in 2007, purely out of boredom, as he was studying advertising at Beijing university. Using a Minolta 35mm film camera, he photographed just about anything around him. His dormmates, who were walking around naked in Beijing’s hot summer, became his primary focus.
Hang was not able to escape his battle with depression. In a post he published on Weibo, he once wrote “Every year my wish is always the same: Die earlier.” He rapidly followed the message up with an additional post saying: “Hopefully this year [I] can achieve it.”
Ren’s life and career were tragically cut short at the age of 29 in 2017, as he committed suicide in his home city of Beijing.
"His photographs were a radiant celebration of sensuality and the naked beauty of life that he continued to create despite constant censorship from the Chinese government."
- Alexandra Genova for TIME Magazine
"People come into this world naked and I consider naked bodies to be people's original, authentic look. So I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies."
AUTRE: Who are some of the subjects in your photographs?
HANG: My lovers…..my friends. Ren Hang interviewed by autre.love
"Having to live in that careful, careful way is sobering. I had long wanted to do a book with a Chinese artist because I wanted to see what they went through, how difficult it was, and then Ren came along just doing anything he wants—pissing on Godzilla (which represents Japan), people shoving things up their assholes—and you wonder, “How does he think of this?” They are living free lives within their apartments, and when you look at where Ren shoots, they can live a free life way on the top of a building where no one can see, they can live a free life way out in the woods, so they’re choosing where their freedoms are, and when they get to those places, they live to the fullest… His assistant says that when they are on a shoot they are all very happy, and Ren is very happy. He’s smiling. It’s a time when they feel free." - Dian Hanson on creating the "Ren Hang" book for Taschen, in an interview with Evan Orensten for Coolhanting.
What's with all the pee in your photos, too?
"Again, I don't use urine on purpose. The models urinate, I shoot."
"My photos, especially the ones of naked bodies, are forbidden to be shown in Chinese galleries. Only occasionally can the ones that aren't explicit be shown, but I still face many difficulties even with them. For example, one of my shows was cancelled by the Chinese government on "suspicion of sex" and, another time, a visitor spat at one of my photos. And those are just a couple of examples of the problems I've had. None of China's press will publish my books and I've been arrested while shooting photos outside before."
Ren Hang Interviewed by Jamie Clifton for vice.com
"Ren likes to look at big penises more [than smaller ones], so he photographs big penises, and he seems to have no trouble finding them. That was the main thing that made me want to do this book. I felt I owed it to every Asian man in the world."
- Dian Hanson on creating the "Ren Hang" book for Taschen, in an interview with Evan Orensten for Coolhanting.
"Life indeed is a
but I often think
it seems sent to a wrong person." Poem “Gift" written by Ren Hang, July 2014.