Writ­ten on the body

The pho­to­graphic and lit­er­ary legacy of artist Ren Hang

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By Catherine Val­ley Page Ed­i­tor: duqiong­fang@glob­al­times.com.cn

Mod­ern Art Base and KWM art­cen­ter have just fin­ished wrap­ping up the suc­cess­ful solo ex­hi­bi­tion Beauty with­out Beards, which show­cased the work of the renowned erotic Chi­nese pho­tog­ra­pher and writer Ren Hang. The show was de­signed to give art lovers a deeper un­der­stand­ing of Ren’s artis­tic vi­sion through 19 of his pho­to­graphic works that were on dis­play at Mod­ern Art Base on Jian­guo Road Mid­dle. This ex­hi­bi­tion had par­tic­u­lar poignancy in that Ren, who would have turned 30 in March, sadly took his own life in Fe­bru­ary of this year.

Youth, de­sire, and cock­i­ness

The ex­hi­bi­tion was staged in a vis­ually min­i­mal­ist set­ting: a bright, two-storey stu­dio fea­tur­ing white­framed pho­to­graphs of young nude males equally spaced apart. There was no mu­si­cal back­drop and no ac­com­pa­ny­ing photo ti­tles. An ex­hi­bi­tion in­tro­duc­tion, penned by joint cu­ra­tors Zhang Yul­ing and Tim Crow­ley, ex­plained that in Greece of the 5th cen­tury BC the most beau­ti­ful liv­ing form was com­monly held to be that of a young man be­fore reach­ing pu­berty or show­ing any signs of fa­cial hair, hence the ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle.

How­ever, in stark con­trast, much of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese and Western artis­tic cul­ture vis­ually over­whelms the viewer with images of the fe­male body, af­firm­ing a quite dif­fer­ent stan­dard of beauty. To­day, the male form is rarely held up as an aes­thetic sub­ject in it­self and is of­ten de­tached from any dis­course re­gard­ing ideals of beauty.

Ren, who de­scribed his own sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion as “non-stan­dard,” at­tempted in his work to over­come con­tem­po­rary sex­u­al­ized in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the body.

Seek­ing to rep­re­sent Chi­nese sex­u­al­ity, he pho­tographed both highly styl­ized com­po­si­tions, as well as more ca­sual and play­ful nude snap­shots of his male friends and strangers.

“They evoke naivety, youth, de­sire, un­cer­tainty and cock­i­ness in equal mea­sure com­press­ing a gen­er­a­tion’s ex­is­ten­tial­ism with­out com­pro­mise,” the in­tro­duc­tion says of the mod­els used in the images.

A body is just a body

Ren Hang be­came fa­mous both within China and abroad, for his bold per­cep­tions of the hu­man form. Crit­ics and fans from France, the US, and many other coun­tries praised his strik­ing nudes and sin­gu­lar pho­to­graphic vi­sion.

At the time of his death he had amassed 284,000 fol­low­ers on In­sta­gram and 220,598 fol­low­ers on his Weibo ac­counts. Ren also ran a per­sonal web­site con­tain­ing an on­line di­ary de­tail­ing his ex­hi­bi­tions.

The pho­tog­ra­pher fa­mously said that the “body is just a body, noth­ing else.” And he ap­peared to treat the hu­man body with both re­spect and dis­re­spect taking pho­tos of women and men in var­i­ous states of beauty, ug­li­ness and ne­glect.

Among his more out­stand­ing images, one captures the face of a beau­ti­ful Asian woman ap­pear­ing just above the surface of wa­ter while her body is cov­ered in dozens of lo­tus leaves. Her tightly fixed mouth and bright red lipstick sug­gests an am­biva­lent en­tice­ment for the male viewer to fol­low her into the wa­ter.

In con­trast, the ad­join­ing pic­ture of a young boy is far more sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous and dis­turb­ing show­ing only the up­per body of a slim male whose fa­cial fea­tures are ob­scured. Four hands with red-nailed fin­gers cover the boy’s cheeks, eyes, fore­head, and ap­pear to be tear­ing into his skin from all sides.

How­ever, Ren al­ways claimed he was never search­ing for truth or ideas in his work.

In a video in­ter­view screened at the en­trance to the ex­hi­bi­tion, he com­ments: “I nei­ther have de­sign nor goals. I am a lazy per­son. I just do it for fun.”

Manic de­pres­sion

Ren suf­fered with manic de­pres­sion for many years. He com­mit­ted sui­cide by jump­ing from the 28th floor of a Bei­jing tower block. His un­fin­ished col­lec­tion of prose po­ems en­ti­tled My De­pres­sion recorded his in­ner strug­gles with the con­di­tion.

And yet, his death still came as a shock to friends who re­called how he al­ways hid his ill­ness in com­pany. In his own words he de­vised cop­ing strate­gies to deal with “lu­di­crous nerves, anx­i­eties, and pan­ics that could un­ex­pect­edly push them­selves to the surface.”

In his on­line di­ary en­try of Septem­ber 17, 2016, he noted: “I am afraid of step­ping out and hear­ing the con­cerned, the doubt­ful: ‘You look so happy, how could you pos­si­bly be de­pressed?’ ‘You are such a hyp­ocrite.’ These voices make me more ner­vous than the ones in my head do.”

Amanda Lee Koe, fic­tion ed­i­tor of Esquire Sin­ga­pore, who trans­lated the last 10 en­tries of Ren Hang’s di­ary com­ments that “sui­cide is never re­ally a sud­den sun­der­ing of the fab­ric of re­al­ity, although it might ap­pear as such to oth­ers from the out­side.

“Af­ter all, while 60 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide suf­fer from manic de­pres­sion, Ren was the one mak­ing real ef­forts to con­tex­tu­al­ize his ill­ness even af­ter the mean­ing of ex­is­tence had be­come un­cer­tain,” she added.

The work of the late Ren Hang, pho­tog­ra­pher and poet Pho­tos: Cour­tesy of Mod­ern Art Base

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