A Desire To Be Seen and To Be Loved: Ren Hang

Untitled, Ren Hang, 2016. Courtesy of Stieglitz19, Belgium.

As his his first UK solo exhibition of photography, Wake Up Together, draws to a close, Laura Robertson takes another look at Ren Hang…

What do you see when you look at Ren Hang’s portraits?

I see people at ease with their sexuality, first and foremost. Touching, licking, sucking toes; spitting and pissing while making eye contact with the camera (and us). They’re confident. They make me think about my own skin and the heat of the person next to me, but also they don’t. Ren Hang’s naked bodies are far away, thanks to the illumination of the camera flash, the white bed sheets and wet tiles, and the 2D, printed image behind glass or between magazine pages.

Ren Hang (1987-2017) had a great sense of mischief. He and his friends, his models, staged contortions of gymnastic ambition. Upside-down bums squirt liquid at flowers; they sit in a line, making one many-limbed goddess; buttocks are lifted high and legs are used as sun shades. One sits on a swing made from two bound men. Props enhance the shape and texture of the body: women peek through fish mouths, braid octopus tentacles into hair. His subjects are not submissive, rather complicit with being photographed. “I usually shoot my friends” Ren Hang said, “because strangers make me nervous.” He would not go through with an idea for choreography if all involved weren’t in absolute agreement. The intimacy he gains from these decisions is more than a sexual one. The gaze veers from deep thought to defiance, depending on the setting; his friends are all young and beautiful, forever. We all want to be this alive and this loved.

“His photographs had to be taken behind closed doors, or at night in woodland, at lakesides and on rooftops”

Those that fleetingly encounter Ren Hang’s work — In Vogue, in Harper’s Bazaar — might initially conclude from the earnest, carpe diem-tone that this is simply surface. Upon closer inspection, they lay bare a sincere desire for change and acceptance, for liberty and equal rights in China and everywhere. That’s why they’re so relatable. As well as being an astonishingly talented photographer, Ren also happened to be a gay man, and suffered from crippling depression. The illness eventually killed him at the age of 29. There were times when he felt acutely alone.

His friends were his family. Moving to Beijing when he was just 17, he started to take pictures of his roommates with a cheap camera, a Minolta Freedom (currently on sale at eBay for £12). Photography became an outlet for expression, for fun, for creative play. It also became a subversive act; outdoor nudity violates Chinese obscenity laws, so his photographs had to be taken behind closed doors, or at night in woodland, at lakesides and on rooftops.

Ren Hang, Lizard. Installation shot courtesy Scott Charlesworth for Open Eye Gallery, 2018.

In practical terms, this meant that public presentations of his work were dangerous. His exhibitions were shut down by police. He’d replace censored photographs with empty frames. Some were returned covered in spit. Can you imagine the bravery and persistence that was needed? “True freedom”, he said, “should be forgetting the concept of freedom.”

Freedom, nonetheless, was contested and restricted. Despite the harassment at home, and international commissions from magazines and galleries, Ren Hang remained in China. To the end, he wanted his own country to accept him for who he was and what he did.

“This amatory set of images carry an enormous cultural and contextual weight, namely the desire to be recoginised, to be seen and to be loved”

Given the political situation, Ren didn’t define himself as an artist. He didn’t “have to photograph to live”. He liked to play pool, mahjong, go out to eat. He was also a gifted writer. His blog, an extraordinary series of candid diary entries, is a dizzying, almost unbearable, account of mental illness, shame and anxiety. In it, Ren says he is a “disappointing person”, sometimes unable to leave the house and worried that his friends will find out “how shallow I am”.

It is also imbued with naughtiness, as his poem ‘Each time I did something bad’ demonstrates:

Yesterday I being in the supermarket

Stole a tube of toothpaste

Day before yesterday with gun

Plugged up the neighbour’s keyhole

Last week flipped over

at the park’s gate

The full row of trash cans

From the building entrance

Each time I did something bad

Already it felt like life

Returned to better some.

Ren Hang’s work makes me feel less alone. Portraits can communicate a lot, as currently demonstrated at Open Eye Gallery, who are exhibiting his first UK solo show, Wake Up Together, alongside Where Love is Illegal by Robin Hammond. In commune with each other, both exhibitions inspire great empathy. The people in the photographs will never know me and I’ll never know them. But this amatory set of images carry an enormous cultural and contextual weight, namely the desire to be recoginised, to be seen and to be loved.

Laura Robertson

See Wake Up Together at Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, until 17 February 2019 — FREE. Part of Homotopia Festival 

Read Laura’s response to Ren Hang’s diaries, I Just Want to Lie Down, written for Open Eye Gallery

Images from top: Untitled, Ren Hang, 2016. Courtesy of Stieglitz19, Belgium; installation shot courtesy Scott Charlesworth for Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, 2018

Ren Hang poem translated by friend and collaborator Ho King Man, Word or Two, 2017, BHKM press

Posted on 04/02/2019 by thedoublenegative