Written on the body
The photographic and literary legacy of artist Ren Hang
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.”
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