Ren Hang’s photographs are poetry, open to interpretation, like Rorschach inkblots made up of naked bodies. Some see sex, others humour. Beauty, foreignness, taboo, joy. Fellow Chinese artist Ai Weiwei saw sorrow and loss. They are photographs that overwhelm with emotion – emotion that would become too much for Hang to contain. After a long struggle with depression, he took his life on February 24, 2017.
Just a couple of months earlier, in December, Hang had celebrated the publication of the first full monograph of his work by art-book giants Taschen, simply entitled Ren Hang. The photographer was, by all accounts, joyful when he first held the book, the imperial- red sleeve revealing his long-term partner, Jiaqi, through a cut-out star on the cover.
The book collates, for the first time, work from the 16 monographs that Hang self-published across his six-year career in Beijing, alongside photographs never seen or exhibited before. It is a vital testament to a career that burnt bright and fast. Those photographs define Hang’s entire oeuvre – an intense, joyful fascination with the human form. Sometimes bodies are slotted together like puzzle pieces, other times they are raw – cocks are hard, people piss, things are stuck inside the body’s various holes. And while there is an elegant, sculptural composure to the images – many taken on sharp white backgrounds – the joy is in the way the composure looks ready to disintegrate at any moment.
Animals feature throughout the book and Hang’s work. In one famous image, disseminated at first through social media (as many of his photographs were), an octopus engulfs a woman’s head. In others, a dove is held in the crook of an arm, snakes twist around a woman’s head. It’s visceral stuff. His subjects teeter atop balconies or skyscrapers, their naked bodies ready to plummet into the abyss below. Put simply: his photographs are a rush. But how do you discuss the work of somebody whose loss is so recent and raw? Does it change the way you approach it? Should it?
That is the struggle that Dian Hanson, the book’s editor, faces. “I still speak of him in the present tense because it’s hard to know he’s gone,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. It is an uncomfortable fact that, since his death, the book has had to be reprinted, along with a portrait of Ren, to satisfy a growing fascination with his work and life.
As Sexy Books editor at Taschen, Hanson herself is a prominent figure in the world of the erotic. So the story goes, when she was 19 she got birthday money and spent it on porn magazines – eventually helming her own, including the gloriously titled Juggs, Leg Show and Big Butt, before moving to Taschen. There, she famously published The Little Big Penis Book, as well as taking a chance on photographers like Terry Richardson.
Clearly, Hanson is a woman who enjoys success. Extra print runs are usually to be celebrated in the world of publishing. Here, though, it was different. “I don’t want things to be successful for that reason,” she says. “I think it blurred it. I would have preferred that the book could have just been the success it already was and we could have gone on to do more books.” Hang and Hanson had discussed those books. One was to be an entire volume on Hang masturbating – his techniques, his fantasies. That book was actually his first suggestion for Taschen – Hanson liked the idea, but it was too strong for a debut. In a different world, it would have been his second or third book.
The other was a monograph all about his mother, a woman he photographed extensively throughout his career. He loved her. But her generation remains, as much of China does, conservative – particularly on the subject of same-sex relationships. She only found out about Hang’s own sexual orientation after his death. There was a lot his mother didn’t know about him, even though they spoke nearly every day on the phone. She thought he worked for a magazine. She never knew him as an artist, or of his success outside China.
When Hang died, his parents made Jiaqi, who was also Hang’s business partner, move out from their shared apartment in Beijing. They drained the couple’s joint bank account, taking with them the negatives of Hang’s entire collection of photographs. Hanson has tried to contact them, to explain what the archive is and what it is worth. But she fights a battle that isn’t easy. His parents have no idea what Taschen is or of its importance to the art world. They have even less concept of who their son was – of how many people from around the world followed him.
None of that lessens the effect of the short series of photographs he took of his mother. Entitled simply My Mum, they remain on his website. The images thrill with a strange intimacy, his mother acting as one of his models – wearing just a black bra and vermillion lipstick, she lies in a bed with a pig’s head, or places a bird in her mouth. In another, she simply looks towards the camera and grins. Their relationship was but one of the many dichotomies in his life.
Hang was born in 1987 in the suburbs of the city of Changchun, the capital of the Jilin province in the northeast of the country, or the “Detroit of China”, as it is less affectionately known, due to the automobile industry that controls the land and pollutes the air. It is a city of rapid industrialisation and scarred by civil war, during which communist soldiers rounded up nationalist forces, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. But Hang loved his hometown. To him, it was China. And China was a country he loved, despite what some narratives placed on his work assert.
“He liked Chinese food, he felt pride in his country, he liked the little town that he came from, he loved his parents, he loved his boyfriend,” Hanson tells me. “And for all its faults, Ren loved China. It’s why he continued to live there. It is one of the curious traits about his work.”
China has fascinated Hanson, too. She had long sought erotic photographers in the country who went beyond the stiff, statue-like portraits where the subjects turn their faces away from the camera in coyness or propriety. One of her biggest regrets, she says, was that when she put together The Little Big Penis Book, she couldn’t find Asian photographers taking pictures of Asian dicks. In Hang’s work she found plenty of them.
“I had been wanting to do something on nude photography in China, off and on, for the past 10 years or so,” Hanson says. “I had researched and looked online and I hadn’t seen anything really unusual or interesting. Then one of my design interns said, ‘Have you seen this guy, Ren Hang?’ He was following his work and as soon as he sent me the link to it, I knew this was the person I’d been waiting for. It turned out everyone was aware of him, everyone was following him – gay, straight, male, female.” She describes finding Hang as him “falling into her arms”.
“I think the images that got me first were the ones against the stark white wall and the way he brought colour in through make-up and just the touches of red, which are so Chinese, and the beauty and the appeal of his young models,” she says.
China remained at the forefront of Hang’s work. He created work that demonstrates a deep pride in the country of his birth – its colour and landscapes, but most of all, the people within it. It was the Chinese body that he was fascinated by, that he wanted to photograph. Once asked if he could photograph outside China, his reply was why would he? China is where all the Chinese are. They were the only people he was interested in photographing.
But it is, especially to the Western eye, a curious love affair. Curious, for the undeniable fact that much of his work clashes with a dominant society where sexual transgression is not only discouraged but suppressed. In some cases, the work that Hang was doing fell outside the law itself.
You probably don’t need me to tell you about censorship in China. Even in the past few months, laws have been tightened, prohibiting any content that depicts promiscuity, smoking, insults to China, sex-education videos, bad language and anything that clashes with the state’s socialist ideals. By 2018, it is intended that VPNs – the private networks many use to access the outside world – will be shut down.
For Hang, that censorship was real and tangible. He was arrested “two or three times”, according to an interview with Pacific Dissent in 2015. He claimed not to know the reason why. The implication, though, is that his pornographic (a word he embraced) photographs challenged the obscenity laws that the People’s Republic of China have had in place since it was established in 1949.
And other laws worked against Hang, too – such as the ban on self-publishing. Books in China must go through an official publisher and gain an ISBN number, both of which are heavily monitored by the state. It was a two-pronged sword, considering the content of the books – legitimate publishers were never an option, so he was compelled to publish his own. He broke the law to make his work seen.
“Eventually I found a friend,” Hang said of the man who agreed to publish his monographs. “He’s very afraid of it, too. We can’t sign contracts, no receipts when receiving money and I can’t have his contact information, nor could I go to his factory. It’s always him driving to find me. He even said, ‘You need to delete the messages as soon as you read them.’”
Even by the time the Taschen monograph was being put together, Hang was struggling to find ways to distribute his images in the outside world, to commit them to the page. “It wasn’t possible for him to send a hard drive of images,” says Hanson. “He had to send just a few Jpegs at a time through WeTransfer, so that it would stay below the radar. A certain number of days would have to go between each delivery. It was never an easy process and it stretched it out over a number of months in order to be able to do things, to keep it under the radar of government curiosity.”
Hang continued to distribute work until his death. He never stopped. Art was important, so was his voice, even as people spat at his photographs in exhibitions or wrote vicious comments on his social-media accounts in Chinese. But “rebel” was a label that sat uncomfortably. Hang insisted his work was art for art’s sake – it had no higher meaning to it. It was about capturing people and moments. As he is quoted in the foreword of the book: “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.”
He rejected comparisons with the radical artist Ai Weiwei, even though he was a man that Hang greatly admired. He spent his life distancing himself from Weiwei’s overtly politicised art that criticises government and state. “He’s a different generation. My generation is different, I am of my generation,” Hang said.
And generation was a word that Hang consistently repeated. His was a generation, he believed, that had moved on, at least in part, from the strict confines of communism that have defined modern China. “He came up in the generation that, because of the internet, has known freedom that can’t be controlled by the government,” Hanson says. “So I think there was this rebellion that he probably wasn’t aware of, that was just natural to people of his age. But he always wanted to deny it because he was the one who was going to be quoted and he wanted to be very careful about what he was quoted saying.”
But at times, Hang let that slip. His understanding of his own suppression, of the complicated nature of growing up in a changing China, was captured in an anecdote about a day he spent in Shanghai, told to Erik Bernhardsson of Vantage magazine. “Once I was passing by People’s Square, I was looking at it from far away, because I was on a bus so I could overlook it. And I saw there are actually police all around the park, watching. My friends say that there are a lot of plainclothes police inside the park as well.
“Everyone looked so happy, they were flying kites. And then I was like, ‘Why are they so happy?’ It was like a place in prison where they let the prisoners out to exercise for a certain period of time. People were actually watching them – people who don’t know about this even feel that they are free. So maybe people think it’s free but… ”
It allows the possibility that, behind Hang’s work, there was something more – if not a message, a motive. “I think he never tweezed his depression apart,” Hanson says. “He knew he felt suppressed and that was the part he didn’t like. He didn’t like that the government cared about what he did, he didn’t want to be controlled.”
Control radiates through his work. There’s this attempt to organise bodies, to fold them up into careful units. In one image, he lines up the bodies face down, their arses arranged like a mountain range. But that control never quite defined his work. Because these are real bodies. Bodies that piss, that are elemental – they are wet or surrounded by fire. Puffs of smoke emerge from between their legs. Men get hard, women open themselves up.
That lack of control is like sex itself. And like sex, the harder you try to control it, the less it can be. Hang’s work captures that very thing. As Hanson says in the foreword, for Hang, “sex was the whole problem”.
Weiwei wrote a tribute to Hang in Time magazine after his death. He concurs. Sex is problematic – an age-old dilemma for Chinese artists. Asian sexuality has been held for so many years by the West somewhere between blinking innocence and violent fetishisation.
“His works interpreted sex in a Chinese way, which contained a sense of loss and sorrow,” Weiwei said. “In Chinese literature or poetry, sex is about something which is impossible. It’s very different from the West. It’s sexier.”
And the struggle to portray sex and the human is exactly where the beauty of Hang’s works lies. He said he liked big dicks, hard ones, not flaccid ones. He talked about his work playing on fantasies, of his subjects submitting to him. When asked by Purple magazine what seduced him, he answered “everything”. All he needed to do, he said, was to think of something, anything, in a sexual way. He said the work of artist Shuji Terayama could bring him to orgasm.
He remained defiant on the subject of sex: “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 keep them as some secret treasures. I want to say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.”
The body was Hang’s medium, the camera his tool. With them, he formed a visual language that was his very own.
His loss lingers.
Ren Hang by Dian Hanson is out now, published by Taschen
Taken from Issue 46 of 10 Men, on newsstands now…