REN HANG: BODY AS FORM, PERHAPS NOTHING MORE
Ren Hang doesn’t care about what you think about him or his work. Really.
Born in Changchun—the capital of the northeastern Jilin Province in China—and currently based in Beijing, Ren is 28 years old and already has quite the list of accomplishments.
He’s published eleven photo books and has exhibited both solo and in groups over a hundred times. His photographs have been shown all over the world, from Ai Weiwei’s carefully curated show FUCK OFF 2 at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, to a more recent exhibition at the Capricious 88 (now called Company) gallery in New York.
Despite his impressive curriculum vitae, photography to Hang means capturing life through, in his words, an “idiot” automatic film camera that cost him a mere ¥100—roughly $16 in US dollars. With no formal art school training behind him and no desire to attend, Ren Hang is a stream of unadulterated consciousness.
He first started shooting back in 2008 when he was 21 years old. At the time, Hang was studying marketing in college which he openly disliked, pushing him to focus on what he did like: photography.
“I shot whatever I saw,” remarked Hang. “When I lived in the student dorm, what I saw most was my roomie’s naked body.”
That marked the beginning of Hang’s fascination with shooting people sans clothing. Using the human form as a structural element, topless girls with jet black hair, red lipstick, and ripe cherries in their mouths arch backwards, stacking up perfectly to form a mountainous pattern of bodies. A nude man lies on the end of a rooftop overlooking an urban sprawl. Two males clutch each other, contorted; one head peaks over the bottom of the other.
Hang’s use of the human body as his medium evades exploitation under the blanket of consent—he photographs friends and people that he has known for years. There is a level of trust, mutual respect, and honesty. It is a movement toward Chinese sexual freedom; it is pushback against a strict society.
Not surprisingly, China’s notorious conservatism toward nudity and sexuality has interfered with Hang’s art. He has been arrested for his work “two or three times” and is still “not sure what the legal reason was.” When he was a student, the police simply sent him back to school; since then he’s opted to run away from authorities.
Despite his seemingly intriguing lifestyle, Hang is a man of few words. Biggest inspirations for his photography? “Life.” How often do you shoot? “No plans.” How do your family and friends feel about your work? “Never asked them.”
Has anyone treated you differently? “No.”
Whether it’s an authentic disregard or a façade, Hang doesn’t seem to care about anything. One wonders if he’s even trying to be controversial, or if he’s simply taking pictures of what he likes and, well, that’s that.
In other words, he’s an art school kid’s worst nightmare—or wet dream, depending on how you look at it. Since he offers practically zero insight into the motives behind his photos, his work yields to endless interpretation. The photographs mean whatever you want them to mean, and you are never wrong.
For some, however, his ostensible lack of concern might make him a “true artist”; unfiltered and untainted, acting on impulse à la Jackson Pollock. Perhaps we can liken his process to the state of consciousness called flow, jargon coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the field of Positive Psychology—it occurs when a person is completely immersed in an activity with intense creative focus and enjoyable engagement.
But for others, an oeuvre based on impulsive, occasionally lewd photography could be deemed vapid, empty—shallow aesthetics for the sake of looking.
And perhaps that’s the beauty of it. His works are as easy or as complex as you want them to be, which can be considered liberating in and of itself. Whether you choose to pay attention to Ren Hang’s work or not is completely up to you. He will be shooting regardless, unaffected by any outside force, opinion, or criticism.