Ren Hang doesn’t have a lot to say about himself. In the fine art environment, where emphasizing one’s own importance (or having representation to do so, while you maintain the air of expensive mystery) is the norm, this resistance to pretense could be considered a form of madness. But this hasn’t stopped the twenty-seven-year-old photographer, who’s gained international recognition by aiming his camera up the skirt of Chinese culture, and deeper, into its heart.
Hang’s aesthetic varies, but sexuality, freedom, intimacy, China, and a certain joie de vivre are themes that surface throughout all of his work. There are moody, apocalyptic images of the city where he lives and works, with mysterious girls and boys looking out of dirty windows, clinging to each other, their vulnerable bodies arranged amidst towering cement and steel.
There are lush shots of naked people romping amidst countryside greenery, strewed in cabbage patches, posed on mountaintops.
And lately, there is more and more extra-raw nudity, kaleidoscopic configurations of human flesh, props ranging from comical fruit and children’s toys to makeshift fetish objects, bodily fluids and live animals – all in tense, flash-lit, dead-pan compositions that make the audience into voyeurs, whether we like it or not.
From an interview with Ren Hang over at Ponczblog:
What my pictures are discussing about is survival. I don’t wanna isolate human being from animals or plants, and 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 wanna say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all. Therefore my works are not only showing the importance of sexual genitals but also explaining that human being is just a form of existence. True freedom should be forgetting the concept of freedom.
Hang aims to lift (and maybe pee on) the veneer of pretense around Chinese sexuality, and to expose the sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, and always playful humanity underneath.
In China, where nudity in art is risky business, exploring the shadow side with such buoyancy comes with a price: Ren Hang’s been exhibited internationally, but his work is denounced as pornography and banned from galleries in his home country. His cameras have been confiscated, he’s been arrested, his photos have been spat on in galleries.
Self-publishing books of his work was a gamble, as was distribution. The printing itself was a hurdle and had to be done in secret, after hours, as it was difficult to find a press willing to take on the threat of being shut down. Still, he continues to shoot and exhibit, meeting like minds online, finding representation and publishers overseas while sustaining his arduous love for his country. From an interview with Vice:
“I love China and I like shooting Chinese people. I was born here and I feel a big connection with my hometown. True, I’m restricted here, but the more I’m limited by my country, the more I want my country to take me in and accept me for who I am and what I do.
The AltBeijing crew got an unprecedented look into Ren Hang’s process, following the reclusive photographer from his apartment, where we leafed through a huge scrapbook filled with black-and-white photos and intimate objects like locks of hair and used condoms, to a clandestine photo-shoot at the filthiest motel I’ve set foot (and been topless) in, to date. This video is very Not Safe For Work – consider yourselves warned.
Text by Zoetica Ebb, photos by Ren Hang. Visit his official website for much more, including his limited edition books.
Special thanks to We Play Records for the music in the feature, and to Ren Hang for sharing those delicious spicy squid snacks.