Death of a Poet: Coming to Terms with Ren Hang’s Final Show
Ren Hang’s first solo museum show Naked/Nude ended with a dark cloud over it. On 23 February, a few weeks before its closure at Amsterdam’s Foam Photography Museum, the Chinese photographer jumped from a building to his death. He was 29-years-old. Following this tragic news, Foam became something of a makeshift shrine in the show’s concluding weeks, as his bold images thundered the walls like a suicide note to the world he left behind.
Hailed as China’s Ryan McGinley, Hang’s work has been described as ‘controversial’, ‘provocative’, ‘boundary-pushing’ and ‘subversive’ due to constant run-ins with the Chinese authorities over censorship. As timely as this issue may be, Hang’s work as a photographer transcends the constant politicising of his images.
The show at Foam was the result of Hang winning the Unseen Photo Fair’s Outset Exhibition Fund 2016. The prize offers emerging artists a solo show and the opportunity for experimentation in the institution’s dedicated space. Upon entering the small room, high above a 16th century canal house, I’m immediately struck by a large print of one of Hang’s most iconic images: a portrait of a young Chinese girl with trademark red lips peering out at me from behind an iridescent peacock.
The space is bright, but contained, and the 23 images adorn the enclosed four walls like constellations. The images themselves are a combination of young male and female models, shot inside unassuming bedrooms, imposing city skylines and blending into nature. It feels like you’re swirling around the inside of the artist’s head. The curator Mirjam Kooiman, who worked closely with Hang on the show, confirms the layout reflects how he himself looked at his own work: “It was presented as a stream of consciousness,” she tells me.
Using a cheap point-and-shoot 35mm camera, Hang worked in collaboration with his models – a mix of friends and fans who found him online as well as his mother. Considering the censorship laws in China and the nature of his shoots – many of the models are naked and totally uninhibited – you can see why Hang was so particular about who he shared his world with.
The human body was his material, which he moulded into various sculptures. Cocks are playfully decorated in red lipstick, breasts get pulled into contorted shapes and heads poke out of pussies, spontaneously caught inside his flashlight. Dead octopuses and live birds, fruits and flowers all clash in an orgy of milky body parts. The result is beautiful, shocking and ethereal.
But Hang always shrugged off any deeper meaning to his work. “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context,” Hang said in an interview with TASCHEN’s Sexy Books editor, Dian Hanson, for his self-titled photobook. “I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.” Unfortunately, his beloved homeland saw his practice differently. In China, pornographic images have been banned since 1949 and outdoor nudity is prohibited, leading to many of his shows being cancelled, his work defaced or confiscated, as well as numerous arrests.
Despite asserting that his work is not about politics, Hang’s images stare down his generation’s restrictions – issues of gender, sexuality and freedom of speech to name a few. Kooiman believes that, within China’s socio-political context, the meaning of Hang’s work can only grow in significance. “He was a successful example of a generation that speaks another language, or at least tries to invent one that fits their lifestyle in the midst of imposed standards,” she tells me.
Kooiman isn’t the only person who saw Hang as a mouthpiece for his generation. The outspoken artist and activist Ai Weiwei included him in a group show, FUCK OFF 2, at the Groninger Museum in The Netherlands in 2013. The highly provocative show included 37 contemporary Chinese artists challenging China’s current sociological, environmental, legal, and political climate. “I think now, in this environment, ‘artist’ is a negative term instead of positive,” Hang admitted in a documentary around the same time. “So I don’t like to call myself an artist in Beijing or China. I just shoot photos.
”For those who knew Hang, his avoidance in engaging with these issues made sense. The softly spoken, self-taught photographer picked up a camera to alleviate “boredom” when studying advertising at university around 2007. Despite media attention and growing success in the following years, he claimed he took pictures as a way to feel less lonely and to fill the emptiness of his heart. Beyond the candid playfulness, Hang’s photos have an undercurrent of isolation, if you look hard enough. His blog, My Depression, documented his long battle with mental illness. “Every time I cross a bridge, I am afraid of myself, that I will jump into the river,” he wrote in 2013.
Following his death, the outpouring of sadness on social media wasn’t just from art world insiders. Hang’s honesty struck a chord with people from all walks of life. His friend and colleague Ai Weiwei opened up to TIME about how Hang’s work spoke to the struggles of a generation: “[Hang] represented a new generation of young Chinese artists [whose] works reflect the reality of China, today. The images are fresh, but also empty and superficial. They contain a deep sadness within.”
The passing of Ren Hang is still difficult to process. But his legacy will be a fearless exploration of what it means to be human – inhabiting our bodies, reaching out to connect to others and to the space around us. He taught us how to interact with the world in a more honest and open way. And for that, in our post-truth world, we can only be grateful.