Remembering Ren Hang
By Lily Spencer
On 24th February, 2017 the provocative and controversial Chinese photographer and poet, Ren Hang, aged 30, leapt from a building to his death. He had long been known to have clinical depression, partly being famous for his blog titled “My Depression” that he began in 2007. His work, which tended to place the naked body, both male and female, either within nature or modern urban landscapes, was dark, emotional and corporeal. In his work flesh was tangible, sensual and sordid. However, the photos also have a feeling of gentleness and intimacy, even innocence. Soft youthful bodies displayed themselves, the nervous faces making tender but sombre eye contact with the viewer.
Ren Hang was interested in the human body - how it can be beautiful and how it can be grotesque. He experimented with shapes, pattern, colour, innuendo and allusion. One image shows the upside-down body of a man, contorted so nothing but his back and the curve of his buttocks are visible, with a python slithering down over the man’s back, giving implications of the homoerotic and possibly even making a Judeo-Christian reference to Satan’s serpent. This man is nothing but his body. He has no head, face or any other identifying feature. He is nothing but a lump of flesh and his implied desires.
Another piece shows the same python wrapped around the head of a nude, red-lipped, young woman. The colour of her lips is emphasised by the red background she is lying on. She makes direct eye contact, confronting the viewer. The phallic serpent ensnares and imprisons the incapacitated female; its tail caresses her breast in a powerfully sexual way. However, her gaze is active and she appears to make no resistance. In light of these two pieces it can appear that Ren Hang’s work concerns bodily desires and the corporeality of the self. The representations in other pieces of young men and women in nature enhance this idea. One shows a naked man hanging from a tree-branch, like a monkey, over a vast lake. His pieces appear to be about sexual liberation, humanity and the sordid but comforting realities of human flaws. Through his sensitive photography Ren Hang comments on the secret and hidden sexuality of a nation of young people in a highly conservative culture. His work has been seen to embody the frustrated but growing sexual culture of China’s youth.
His work is tinged with politics too, however. The prevalence of the colour red in his photography can not only be seen to relate to the cultural importance of the colour in China, being the symbol of luck and prosperity, or the colour of blood, further referencing bodily fluids and the baseness and essence of humanity. However, it can also be seen to reference the Communist government of China. Ren Hang often denied that his work was political, however it is difficult to ignore particular references. For instance, the cover of the book about him and his work published by Taschen is red with a cut out star that frames a photograph of a man attempting to lick his own armpit. It is difficult not to read this as a representation of the confinement of bodily and creative autonomy under the political regime (the key symbols of which are the colour red and a star). Furthermore, the prevalence of the colour red and the hyper-sexuality of the pieces push the social, cultural and political boundaries of China (where pornography is illegal) to an extent that it is difficult not to see these allusions as deliberate. However, he said in an interview with Dazed magazine in 2015 that ‘my pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art.’ This makes reference to his multiple arrests and controversies over exhibitions, however it can also be seen to refer to how our knowledge and understanding of a particular context, both political and cultural, can colour the way we look at art.
In this way Ren Hang’s powerful art is both universal, exploring the nature of humanity and the physical body, and specific, making reference (whether deliberately or not) to the social, cultural and political context of his home and environment. His work was exhibited all over the world, in places as far reaching as Beijing, Stockholm, Paris and Los Angeles, and his means of distribution ranged from exhibitions and books to social media. His success and popularity, despite his youth, is a testament to his ability to capture the mood of a generation and the incredible strength it took to assuage his own difficulties and illness, even if that could not be maintained. He is a figure whose loss should be lamented, while we continue to marvel at and appreciate his unique and intriguing art.
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