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“Gender … only matters to me when I’m having sex.” That simple and candid conviction, uttered by the late photographer Ren Hang, is conveyed clearly through his art, which takes as its primary formal subjects the naked bodies of youthful Chinese individuals. Genitalia, breasts, and buttholes abound unabashedly in Ren’s pictures, which, like his stated attitude toward gender, are waggish in their explicitness. But standard definitions of male and female identity collapse in these fantastic realms, where bodies are beguiling shapes and every human connection simply beautiful and rousing.
As Ren’s work has been victim to government censorship and has led to his arrest on multiple occasions, many have described it as controversial. To do so disregards his message. He wasn’t trying to challenge strict Chinese policies; as he explained in the introduction to a monograph recently published by TASCHEN: “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.”
Born in the province of Jilin in Northeast China, Ren began taking uninhibited photographs that innately challenged his country’s conservative stance on creative expression in 2008. He self-published 16 monographs of bodies laid bare, but only this year did TASCHEN release his first international collection, which features over 300 of his tantalizing photos in chronological order. It preceded worldwide exhibitions of his work at Beijing’s KWM Art Center; at Amsterdam’s photography museum, Foam; and at Stockholm’s Fotografiska museum, where his solo show is ongoing. Ren Hang now also represents the most comprehensive published survey of the young artist’s career: Ren committed suicide last month, reportedly jumping off a high-rise building in Beijing, his home for over a decade. He would have turned just 30 at the end of this month.
Bright, dynamic, and often playful, Ren’s images don’t plainly speak to his personal pains. Suffering from cyclical depression, he expressed inner turmoil most freely through words, published on the very public platform of his website. In a section labelled “My Depression,” he posted, in Chinese, diary-like entries relaying his feelings of helplessness, paranoia, alienation, and anxiety. His last entry, from September 17, 2016, translated by writer Wilfred Chan, includes the following passage:
It’s fine if I don’t leave my house, seeing as how every day before I open the door, even wearing a carefully chosen outfit, I look in the mirror and feel like I’m going to my own funeral. My pessimism is grand. Every destination seems like a funeral I rush through to mourn myself.
Ren rarely captured his own body and grief in pictures. His camera was not his mirror; instead it was trained on his friends, whom he often photographed in his Beijing apartment or in nondescript corners of nature. The portraits, taken with a point-and-shoot film camera, seem like snapshots, yet they are crafted with deliberation, with bodies — and body parts — set in utterly awkward positions that form charismatic, frisky visual poetry.
To me, his work at its core simply cherishes human desire, celebrating relationships regardless of the identities involved. Although sexual, they don’t exude the same eroticism as the explicit images of Nobuyoshi Araki, for instance. Yes, Ren captures plenty of bodily penetrations — fingers in vaginas, fingers up asses, fingers in mouths, dicks in mouths, even a bottle up a butt and a snake seemingly crawling out a vagina — but these are just part of his broader visual vocabulary, which is fascinated with connectivity. Touch, ultimately, is the thread that binds all Ren’s photographs, and not simply between humans, but the touch of humans. It’s from this emphasis on open, unapologetic contact that desires emerge.
In his images of multiple individuals, bodies are somehow always continuous with one another. Body parts are topographies, positioned closely to create uniform landscapes. Anonymous arms and legs reach for and hold each other from beyond the frame, forming striking patterns. Strange bonds transpire: a head rests on someone’s behind; a foot prods a butt; a penis pokes through two bodies; hair is intertwined with hair and other body parts. But in Ren’s world, a woman licking a nipple is as normal as a man licking someone’s toe, those points of contact given the same weight as a penis reposing on a couch, as a cat perching on someone’s bent-over back.
Ren makes physical tension incredibly tangible to us, as voyeurs, even in his portraits of individuals, which always feature a cheekily placed prop. His objects of choice seem random — reptiles, feather dusters, fish, roses, birds of all kinds, and even a cephalopod feature in his pictures — but they all carry a sensuality conveyed through texture: these are slippery, soft, velvety, silky, and moist things. Water, in general, takes on various forms throughout his photographs: pools, lakes, bathtubs, and showers are common settings, while fluids often stream through scenes, from milk to piss. Ren is adept at deploying such visual codes to subtly stir in the place of straightforward erotic acts.
Color, too, enhances the seductive nature of his work. Bold red is a recurring motif, painting fingernails and toenails, lips, and walls, and appearing via objects from a suitcase to cherries, watermelons, and strawberries strategically wedged between butt cheeks. Ren plays on notions of appetite by sometimes incorporating food into his portraits, although these at times push his work toward kitsch — see, for instance, the image of a man eating noodles off a pelvis, or another of a fork poking a phallus on a plate.
But most significantly, as a queer Asian artist, Ren was creating a realm without parallel. Nowhere else have I seen yellow bodies rendered again and again with such unflinching honesty and without an agenda to satisfy anyone in particular. In my own experiences of growing up firstly in a conservative Chinese society and then in a Western world, representations of myself almost always fit into traditional, accepted roles, or, if “edgy,” were generally exploitations of the exotic. With his stark flash, Ren literally shone a strong light on Asian bodies too long unseen, capturing individuals liberated of identities and associations, simply being without judgment or without need of acceptance. His subjects’ bodies, almost sculptural, radiate love and longing in the lawless realm where Ren captures them.
In some frames, it’s almost impossible to count the number of people present, with limbs and torsos angled to confuse the eye. A body may be bending into itself, or it may be a pretzel of two or three interlocking figures. But dissections are futile in these photographs that skirt logic and our desires to classify. Instead, they coax us to accept their complexities and, in turn, revel in our own skin.