Ren Hang, the tragic destiny of a photography prodigy

Ren Hang Paon
Ren Hang, Peacock (Extract from Foam Museum’s exhibition poster)

The Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris is organising the first exhibition dedicated to Ren Hang’s work since his tragic passing. In this article, Artsper pays tribute to the young artist, a talented photographer known for the originality of his nude photographs. His work, as intense as it was brief, celebrated sensuality and the naked beauty of life with melancholy. He passed away before even celebrating his 30th birthday but his poetic art lives on for him.

He became famous for his poignant nude portraits

Ren Hang Exposition Los Angeles
Ren Hang, From the exhibit “What we do is a secret” (2016)

Ren Hang revolutionised nude photography by treating the female and male body on an equal footing, with nonchalance, poetry, and humour. He entangled bodies to create compelling and moving photographs. Through his art, he reflected on nudity, eroticism, beauty, and more broadly, on life. His photographs reflected his tormented soul: he claimed that he became a photographer because “it fills the emptiness of my hear”.

He kept a diary on what he called his “light depression”

Ren Hang fleurs
Ren Hang for Antidote Magazine (2016)

Ren Hang dealt with crippling anxiety and he coped with his uneasiness by putting it into words. Through lyrical statements, which were often both sad and troubling, he confessed to his readers: “I wake up every morning asking myself why am I still alive.” Raw poems and personal notes related to his depression filled up a whole section of his website.

He always used the same camera for his photographs

Ren Hang Beauty Papers Magazine
Ren Hang for Beauty Papers magazine (2016)

Ren Hang only worked with a simple analogue Minolta camera, easy to use and to carry: he asserted that he wanted to take photographs freely, in a single press of a button. This spontaneity helped him create beautiful and representative images: with no assistants nor artificial lighting, his photographs were slices of life, captured in the moment.

His work was very controversial in China, his native country

Ren Hang, MARCH  (2016)

His erotic and humorous photographs did not appeal to the Chinese government who censored them several times. Ren Hang’s work caused him to be arrested several times during his photoshoots. While his work was deemed dangerous for China’s communist ideology, Ren Hang was not explicitly rebellious. The photographer never considered himself to be in conflict with the party: “I like to think that my artistic practice goes beyond the political realm.” China still exerted its one-child policy a few years ago, and thus put heavy pressure on the millions of only-child Chinese youths of that generation. In this context, Ren Hang chose artistic sensibility rather than meritocracy and academic excellence. This approach was already a revolution of its own.

He studied marketing, not photography

Ren Hang couple
Ren Hang for Modern Weekly Magazine (2016)

Ren Hang thought his studies were dull and started to photograph friends and dormmates as a new found hobby. He’d try to organise photoshoots where he would get his amateur models to pose as naturally as possible.

His models were his friends, and later, his visitors from his website

Ren Hang maman
Ren Hang, My mum (2015)

Ren Hang stated he needed mutual respect for carrying in order to carry out his photoshoots in the most natural way possible. The artist preferred to get acquaintances to pose for his photos: even his mum played along. It was vital for him to work in an atmosphere of mutual trust. The same went for the people who would apply to model through his website. It was essential for him to talk to them before the shoot. He wanted to make sure he got along with the person he photographed. If that wasn’t the case, he’d put an end to the shoot.

He organised an exhibition of empty frames

Ren Hang Exhibition TOKYO (2016)

China’s government censored some of his photographs because of their pornographic nature. The authority even cancelled one of his exhibitions under the motive of “suspicion of sex.” He was thus prohibited from exhibiting his photographs. Ren Hang responded to these pressures by maintaining his exhibition but displaying empty frames instead. He then claimed that “politic ideologies in my photographs have nothing to do with China. It is solely Chinese policy that wants to meddle with my art.”

Most of his audience is from abroad

Ren Hang poids
Ren Hang for FFF Zine (2016)

Although Ren Hang wasn’t to China’s taste, foreign countries opened their arms to the young artist and his explicit images garnered acclaim worldwide. Ren Hang exhibited at the FIAC in 2014, at the Amsterdam’s Foam museum, as well as at Stockholm’s photography museum from 2016 to 2017. He also worked for many fashion magazines and created the “Sex” cover for Inrock magazine in the summer of 2014.

He was compared to Ai Weiwei and Ryan McGinley

Ren Hang portrait
Ren Hang, October (2016)

Ren Hang’s style was similar to the photographs of the American artist Ryan McGinley. Both pictured young and liberated bodies, often surrounded by elements from nature. However, many consider Ren Hang’s work as “heavier” than the American. Ren Hang has mostly been compared to Ai Weiwei for the character he incarnated. Some thought of Ren Hang as Ai Weiwei’s artistic heir. The older Chinese artist is also controversial in China, though Ren Hang’s opposition to the Chinese authority was less forceful and less direct. These two artists censored by the Chinese government collaborated in 2013 for the FUCKOFF exhibition at the Groninger Museum. Weiwei paid tribute to Ren Hang right after his death. In an interview for the magazine Time, he talked about the tragic destiny of the young photographer.

Taschen published his monography in January 2017

Ren Hang Taschen
Ren Hang, Taschen (2017)

This publication is the only available selection of Ren Hang’s entire work. It includes his most famous photographs, as well as many unpublished ones.

Discover more than 150 photographs by Ren Hang, both European and Chinese, at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris from the 6th of March to the 26th of May 2019.

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