Photographer Ren Hang was born in Jilin, China in 1987, and never went to art school. After briefly studying marketing in college, Ren abandoned his schooling for photography, and soon became notorious for sending the Chinese government scrambling.
In 2013, Ren’s photos were featured in the ultra-renowned Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit, “FUCK OFF 2” at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. In 2016, Ren’s career was encompassed in its first and only international monograph by art publishing company Taschen. On February 23 of 2017, Ren committed suicide.
In his short six-year career, Ren joined the ranks of top Chinese artists who strove to encourage the people of China to pursue personal freedom, and demand more from their society.
As per Jenna Homen’s write up on Ren for Pacific Dissent, “[Ren]’s use of the human body as his medium evades exploitation under the blanket of consent—he photographs friends and people that he has known for years. There is a level of trust, mutual respect, and honesty. It is a movement toward Chinese sexual freedom.”
Later, she writes, “[Ren] doesn’t seem to care about anything.”
While Ren may not have cared about the opinions people had of his work, it is clear by the advancement of his career and quality of his work that he put great care into his photos.
His photos, stark, bright and still on their subjects, are as dreamlike as they are concrete. The photos are never quite surreal, but they are intensely focused in a way that waking life rarely allows.
The people in the photos, often nude, smack into the eyes of the viewer. Unflinching and well-lit, they remain inscrutable and calm, nearly making the audience feel as if they are in the wrong, like they made the mistake of stumbling into a room they were not supposed to be in.
In judging his work, it is as easy to say that his photos are challenging points of honesty as it is to say his photos are stale attempts at provocation. It might depend on where you’re from.
During the rule of Mao Zedong, love was deemed bourgeois, and therefore any aspect of love became defined as a mechanical act only necessary for procreation.
Certainly, with the Chinese government’s critical role in media, the presentation of images containing erotic themes that are neither sleazy, nor robotic, nor violent are both rare and touching to those who wonder if any inkling of sexuality is base at best, and dirty at worst.
With his level of critical acclaim, one might wonder why Ren Hang would stay in China, in a country that so frankly does not take kindly to his work. But the opinions of the government are not necessarily the opinions of all people, and maybe, that’s where the answer lies.
There is an annoying, nearly unavoidable connection people make with those things that mother, be it a literal mother, a mother tongue, or a motherland. Often, these mothering elements are the soil for dreams of the future and the roots of memories from the past. Though they are not chosen, it is practically impossible to not, in some way, devote part of yourself to them.
For Ren, it is possible that the praise and welcome of the world could never compare to a satisfactory progression in China.
Photos, especially those that follow the style of Ren’s, are like a Jungian dream. Their figures are symbols that plead to their viewer: see me, and do not try to change the subject. Answer me.
Ren’s photos are available for viewing at http://renhang.org/ , where his poems are also available, as well as a section of entries where Ren discussed his depression.