“…talking about revolution, I don’t think there’s anything to revolutionize…. … I just photographed things in their more natural conditions.”
At times his work was like a snapshot of a moment you would be inspired to change cities for. A kiss on a rooftop, with sunlight breaking in and a regulation mist greeting the background.
It could also be downright terrifying, like a still image from one of the more intense scenes in Kuroneko or The Holy Mountain. Comedic and guileless in the sense of someone diving headfirst into a birthday cake. Transportive, provocative, sincere, alien, familiar, and so many more words have been used to describe Ren Hang’s work. Yet, he just thought he was taking pictures of his friends. No more, no less.
Ren was born March 30, 1987, in Changchun, Jilin, China. He was a true Aries equipped with aggressive furrowing brows and passionate eyes to match. When asked how he had fallen into such a deep depression, he simply said his childhood may have been “too normal”. Yet his work depicts that which is quite contrary, with slender bodies lying in the grass holding disemboweled heads.
His photography was a stark contrast to the personality depicted in his poetry, but it was handled with the same level of honesty. His work was not a reflection of his perceived view of the world, but what he desired from it. To be jovial even when presented with extreme circumstances, to be indifferent to the influence of chaos, and to find peace where it goes to die.
A signature of his was to include notable items and themes, with a particular proclivity to crimson and madder red. He especially focused on the topic of sexuality that explored underlying aspects of human nature like courage, confidence and even revenge. For instance, would be the choice of color for a long and elegant dress and a pair of heels that were planted into the heads of two men who are on the wrong side of a sexual conquest.
It could also be a minor detail. It was commonly the lipstick of choice, even when being applied to penises. He also made limbs seem endless, it’s hard to not think of Ren when watching Mahito use his domain expansion for the first time in Jujustu Kaisen or when looking at the cover art for Suspiria (2018). Animals were often played like strangers in the foreground, a peacock could look like a native New Yorker walking into a tourist’s group photo. They could also be used as stand-ins; it wasn’t uncommon to see a whole head replaced with a trout.
However His most notable trait, was his handling of nudity. His photography wasn’t mean to be erotic or even to be purposefully controversial. For him it was liberating, empowering, and above all, sensual. He worked to unleash the concept that there was nothing to fear, all within a culture that had a history of being heavily censored. Whereas Playboy and Hustler used nudity to invoke feelings of desire, Ren used it to unfetter individuals from social norms. But ofcourse, Ren’s work was misunderstood and vilified. He was arrested multiple times, but he didn’t let that stop him as he continued to search high and low for people willing to print his work. He relied on foreigners to pay for his art, and he had to continuously reupload his website after getting blocked. You would think that this would have worn Ren out. Yet, he persisted.
Drawing inspiration from Shuji Terayama’s film Butterfly Dress Pledge, Nobyoshi Araki, and to some degree, Terry Richardson, Ren had a knack for rendering painfully beautiful art against a seemingly plain background. It’s important to note that although his work came up in a politically charged time, it wasn’t solely based within politics. Ren was soley focused on capturing human connection. It made sense that he shot mostly friends with a point-and-shoot camera, I never feel intrusive looking at his work. Not when arms are sprawling out of a vagina and not when you peer into a bathtub to see a milky pale model surrounded by fish that are as menacing as her hair is jet black. To me, it feels like walking into a friend’s flat in Bushwick, after spending 8+ hours in House of Yes. It could feel dizzying and almost surreal to be witnessing, but never like you shouldn’t be looking at what you are seeing.
Sadly, Ren suffered from clinical depression and lost his battle with this terrible disease on Feb 24, 2017. At only 29 years of age, he was a master of his craft with an unbeatable eye. Quoted as saying “I only care about gender when it comes to sex”, he often did away with gender conformity in his work and really helped to break down the world’s view of sexuality in Asian culture. Be it men in whiteface French kissing, endless rows of naked bodies, eyes being covered by flaccid penises, and hands reaching down milky thighs.
I sometimes think about what Ren would have to say if he were still here. What would be his response to the 2019-2020 Hong Kong Protests? How much more innovative would his work be in a society that would be more accepting and aware of gender nonconformity? How would Covid and quarantine culture influence his art? Other times I just think about him.
I look back
You are still standing there
I look back again
You are still standing there
I look back once more
The door is now shut
I can’t see you
But I know
You are still standing there.