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Looking at Ren Hang’s Art

by Sylvie Schwartz

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In writing this editorial, I want to begin with the caveat that I have never formally studied Ren Hang, nor am I even well-rounded in my knowledge of contemporary Chinese art and culture more generally. I cannot do justice to his career, or the depth of what his loss means for the world. He is an artist that I admire, whose photographs move me, and whose premature death deserves acknowledgement. Due to my limited knowledge, however, I can only write about him through the lens that I’ve experienced him in, and am entirely unqualified to make any grand statements about his career or the context that he was living and working in. 

The first photograph I saw by Ren Hang was one of his earlier ones, from 2008. It was black and white: a couple kissing on a couch, eyes closed, while the woman flipped off the camera. The photograph captures a moment that is playful, intimate, and ordinary. It’s a moment between two lovers that could have been captured anywhere, as long as a bystander happened to have a camera. Ren Hang’s photography, known for its nudity, erotic overtones, and sexually explicit content, presents sexuality as it is, just there. Indeed, in an interview with Dazed and Confused, he stated that “it’s just more natural if [the models are] not wearing clothes.”

His photographs feel personal; many of them are taken of his friends. Even when they feel surreal, when women’s bodies come to look like landscapes or you wonder how two bodies could join to make that shape, Ren Hang makes you as a viewer feel like you’ve been let into his world, which he really opened up to us. One of his early photo series is about his mother. He also wrote poetry, much of it was about his struggle with depression. In February, he committed suicide. 

Because of the explicit content of his work, Ren Hang often came into conflict with Chinese authorities. Despite that, he claimed his work has no political agenda. His works are subversive, and not subversive. If an artist’s work isn’t intended to be political, but incites controversy nonetheless, can the artist still be considered apolitical? I don’t know. Ren Hang’s work was created in a complex political context. In an interview with Taschen, he said “I don’t intentionally push boundaries. I just do what I do.” 

I don’t think that I understand enough about the world, about what it’s like to live in contemporary China, about what it means to lose a brilliant artist too young, to fully comprehend the full significance of his work, and of his legacy. But I do feel a lot of gratitude for a man who gave us a lot of beauty, sincerity, and intimacy without comment, without agenda, to be there as it is. Ren Hang left us a view of his world, the way it was, as he saw it and that, I think, is invaluable.

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