Born in Changchun, the capital of the Jilin province in the northeast of China, Ren Hang settled in Beijing in the early 2000s to study marketing. Bored with his studies, Ren decided to dedicate his time to photography. After buying a Minolta 35mm, he began shooting photographs of his friends and surroundings. Ren was influenced by photographers such as Nan Goldin, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Li Zhipen (also known as No.223). While these photographers embraced the Private Photography (si sheying) movement, constructing their art on spontaneity and fleeting moments, Ren Hang was a meticulous photographer who carefully arranged and composed his shots. His images feature naked bodies positioned to resemble mountains and hills, hands with red nails that grab and pull the skin, animals—snakes, birds, and iguanas—that cover and frame the body.
La Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) celebrates the artistic journey of Ren Hang (1987-2017), one of the most influential Chinese photographers of his generation. The exhibition Love, Ren Hang is a luscious, melancholic, and provocative journey through bold colors, animals, naked bodies, and nocturnal shots. With 150 photographs and the artist’s personal writings, this chromatically organized exhibition presents the works of Ren Hang for the first time in France.
Although some of his works can remind of Robert Mapplethorpe’s provocative photographs (the use of flowers, nudity, and bodies as architectural constructs), Ren Hang’s art was deeply rooted in Chinese symbolism and aesthetics. The color red, commonly associated with luck, happiness, and the Chinese national flag, was used by Ren to frame his models and highlight certain features (lips, nails). The red elements in his images are in contrast with long, flowing, black hair, a symbol of sensuality and femininity, or acid background colors. In the same way, lotus flowers and blossoming branches were employed to create a game of hide-and-seek between the viewer and the models, enhancing the erotic components of the photographs. “His photos have a kind of dirtiness to them,” said one of his models, Ke Xing, during an interview with VICE magazine in 2013. “He doesn’t shy away from sex or the human body. [...] I realized later that, despite this, his photos have a purity about them.”
Despite the support from his models and critics about his work, Ren Hang had frequent negative encounters with the Chinese authorities. Because nudity and pornography have been illegal in China since 1949, Ren was arrested while shooting outside, his exhibitions were canceled by the government on “suspicion of sex,” and his books could not find a Chinese publisher. During the 2013 interview with VICE, Ren Hang stood his ground: “My inspirations are derived from my life experiences up to that point. I don’t edit my thoughts.” Yet the constant struggles with the strict Chinese censorship and the depression that accompanied him for all his life were hard on Ren. “Not being able to do what you want in your own country is such a tragic way to live,” he said to VICE.
On February 23rd 2017, Ren Hang ended his life jumping from a twenty-eight-floor building in Beijing. One of his poems reads now like a prophecy: “If life is a bottomless abyss, when I jump, the endless fall will also be a way of flying.”
Love, Ren Hang is at the MEP until May 26th, 2019.