REN HANG / The art of the past comes to life on film

by Alexandra Gilliams

On the internet and elsewhere in recent years, the late Ren Hang has been on the rise as a photographer blurring the lines of what is acceptable art practice in a conservative China. His photographs evoke a surreal reality in a vein similar to that of Ryan McGinley’s – a sweeping landscape of youth, bodies, and humanity. Even his most unapologetically explicit photographs can be read as a straightforward portrayal of the physical because according to Hang, sex and sexuality are a “part of a normal, healthy life, just like eating and sleeping.”. Vibrant colors seep from images of men and women who have been caught and illuminated by his sharp flash. When Hang allows us to see the faces of his subjects, their gaze locks tightly onto yours, leaving you with hardly any will to look away. 

ren hang

Untitled
China, 2015
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Bodies lie limp and are piled on top of one another. The models are at ease despite their contorted, often awkward positions. They are frozen but not cold; you can see how they have performed for Hang. He who sculpted them, twisting their limbs and carefully placing each element of the body until the composition revealed itself. Natural elements coalesce: snakes have been wrapped around women’s faces and the reflective patterns of dark water engulf ghostly bodies. In another image, a woman’s turned, elongated back sprouts out of a bed of leaves. 

Untitled
China, 2015
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Part of Hang’s influence clearly lies in the works of the Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Araki’s models often appear to be as absorbed in being photographed by Araki as he is absorbed in being in control of them. His work exudes a sort of calm violence, and Hang’s photographs contain a similar quality. Looking closely at the tangled bodies and heads that are illusively decapitated may make viewers anxious while the models appear entirely unaffected.

Untitled
China, 2015
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

His use of a bright flash and point-and-shoot camera give the impression that his images are personal snapshots. Hang would not take the time meddling with aperture sizes and shutter speeds; the moment, though generally posed, is fleeting. The subjects remain anonymous; they are simply an aspect of the overall image. Their personalities do not show through, apart from playful portraits of his mother. 

Untitled
2011
C-print
40 x 26 cm
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and Blindspot Gallery

Hang tragically committed suicide in February 2017 at age 29. He wrote numerous journal entries and poems chronicling his experience living with depression. They were available to read under a tab on his website which accompanied his photography. His photographs may emanate youth and even a light humor, but when you look on longer, an underlying tension begins permeating through the surface. From his writing, it could be understood that he hid his turmoil under a lighter exterior. Despite the ease of looking at his images online, it is imperative to see Hang’s photographs in-person. 

Untitled 2016 100 x 67 cm © Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and stieglitz19

It is an entirely different experience, as it is in most cases, to see them as large prints, coupled with other images of similar subject matter. It gives us the opportunity to take a step back and draw connections between the themes of his images, his manipulations of the body and repetition of patterns and colors, and his link between nature and eroticism. Reds and greens are reoccurring tones in Hang’s work, colors in Chinese culture representing good luck, health, and prosperity. Colors, as well, representing nature and life, blood and sexuality. 

Untitled
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Untitled
© Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and OstLicht Gallery

Despite his troubled thoughts, he still wished to capture an essence of humanity in a pure way. His images break us away from societal taboos about the body, they make us uncomfortable, excited, disturbed – they make us feel something. Even if in Western society we are more accustomed to these taboos, the taboos surrounding the body – bodies of which we all inhabit – exist and are felt in different ways around the world. Hang mentioned in an interview with Purple Magazine that “The way I see it, bodies are pre-existing regardless of whether I photograph them or not. They’re also part of the natural world.” His photographs evoke oppositions, a push and pull between personal and anonymous, lightness and tension, boldness and nonchalance. The photographs induce feelings which fluctuate and are fleeting, reactions that are a part of everyday life. It is true that Hang has successfully captured a beautiful fragment of humanity.

Alexandra Gilliams