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The World Zooming In: Remembering Ren Hang
Karl Smith , February 26th, 2017 11:20

Karl Smith pays tribute to Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang who died this week

Ren Hang, Untitled, 2015

“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.”
Ren Hang


“Controversial” is a relative term. Like “boundary-pushing,” and other interchangeable permutations of that same idea, so often trotted out in place of any real engagement, it relates more to the constricting apparatus than it does to the subject itself.

To say, then, that the Chinese Photographer Ren Hang, who sadly died on Friday at the age of only 29, was “controversial” may well be true – his work did challenge conservative attitudes and the topics they subsequently render taboo in his native China, and will continue to do so long after his death – but it also does the artist and his work a real injustice.

A brightly exploded view of desire and of longing, of the intensity of the physical and emotional connections that exist between people – a visual representation of the dialogue that exists between a body, the person who inhabits it and the world around them – Hang’s work is challenging for all sorts of reasons. But most importantly it’s human in a way that extends far beyond his use of the human form as a mode of expression.

Apolitical when taken out of the context of their geography, his photographs of friends – which occasionally recall Sun And Health-era Ryan McGinley, the grimier work of Sandy Kim, or the Swedish diary photographer Lina Scheynius in their composure and their candidness – are a high-flash rush of blood; still images that give the illusion of movement; eruptions of light that simultaneously reach out even as they pluck with sharp tweezers from within; firing synapses, invariably looking to connect.

A self-taught photographer raised in the Jilin province, in one way or another, it seems like Hang's photographs were always searching for something – that they were acting as a form of communication as much as, if not more than, documentation: while I don’t remember the first time I saw a Ren Hang photograph exactly – no doubt posted by one of the innumerable magazines or galleries that populate my Facebook feed so densely; some pixelated shadow version of its technicolour self – I do remember the feeling of excitement that came with letting their peculiar phosphorescence into my life, the curiosity his work necessarily invites, and the hours spent rendering bad Google translations of his diary entries.

Ranging from the more abstractly poetic (‘I sit on the edge of the road / Afraid to cry’) to straightforward memorandums of self care (‘Squat on the toilet to give yourself an hour to call on the phone’) these insights, titled My Depression with characteristic transparency, not only spoke – and continue to speak – personally to my own uneasy of mind, but also came to permeate my understanding of Hang’s work. Their abject despair, which somehow never conspired to appear self-pitying, contextualised the vividness of his images in new ways. Those photographs suddenly seemed more like searchlights in the gloaming than a testament of youth; bright naked bodies alone in sprawling urban landscapes or interlocked in the vastness of nature, little comets streaking briefly through a darkling space, probing by way of a fleeting illumination. Like all good art, these photographs function as both mirror and lens.

"A lot of pictures kept turning,
The whole room is turning,
The bed is turning in the opposite direction toward the room,
My head seems to have a mirror,
But the object in the mirror
Are still, and my face
In turn. You are seasick.
So all the objects are turning!"
– Ren Hang, '2009.09.05'

With all this in mind, and with it being clear that pigeonholing Hang as a political provocateur is as inadequate a description of his talent as you're likely to find, the fact still remains that this work is radical – that photographs of naked bodies, composed in the ways that Hang often mischievously did, are a reaction to external hardline conservative ideologies as much as to the thoughts that clearly throbbed, like an always imminent electrical storm through his mind, precipitated onto the pages of his website and burst into the physical world through the flash of his camera.

This internal/external dichotomy, however – for Hang as it is for so many others – was ultimately a false, or at the very least blurred one: not only did his work directly challenge a socially ingrained modesty (he told the British Journal of Photography, “I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies... I want to say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all”) leading to multiple arrests, but in China there are no civil rights laws protecting homosexuals (as Hang identified) from discrimination nor are same sex couples the same rights as heterosexual families. In many ways, Hang's very existence was a provocation – his commitment of that existence to film even more so.

Controversy may never have been the photographer's goal, but it was always guaranteed to be a byproduct of his extraordinary output: he told Dazed & Confused in 2015, “My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art,” but Ren Hang – as he was described in an interview with Pacific Dissident – was “a stream of unadulterated consciousness.” And that consciousness stood in stark opposition to the ideologies that strictly govern his homeland.


“Depression,” as a friend noted in a post on the very place I first discovered Ren Hang, “is a thief.” But even in his passing, Ren Hang's photographs will still prompt others who suffer quietly to look both within and without – if not for answers, then to ask the questions that are, in some ways, much harder to confront.

A creative light has gone out all too early, but there are still bright bodies – always reaching.

“I'm never sure
The world is zooming in
Or I'm shrinking.”

– Ren Hang, '2014.02.18'