The authorities classify him as a pornographer but Ren Hang is simply a photographer pushing for freedom in his field. His go-to themes of nudity and homosexuality are on the verge of giving his conservative society a nervous breakdown.
Thick yellow snakes sleuthing between white thighs; close-ups of polka dotted crotches; playfully pornographic images of men with men, women with women, men with men and women. There are few boundaries to Ren Hang’s work. Flipping through archives will show you half-naked ladies squatting defiantly in fields of red poppies; obliquely erotic images of a man looking down at his genitalia on a plate, knife and fork posed above as if about to cut into a juicy sausage. Keep flipping and you’ll encounter cherry pies served out of ass cracks, fields of complacent derrières and couples performing sexual acts with their gaze – aloof, cheeky, stimulating – fixated straight out of the frame and into the eyes of the innocuous viewer.
Yet with all the full-frontal (and back, side, upside down, inside out) nudity, Ren is not after the shock value. At least, not entirely. To understand Ren’s work is to understand a little about where he comes from, and how that very particular mentality has helped shape his vociferous voice of freedom and youth, sexuality and desire.
A photographer and poet from Beijing, the 24-yearold artist is in many ways a symbol of China’s volatile status in the world at large. His flagrant images of nudity and homosexuality are – pun intended – thinly veiled declarations of uncensored purity, all the more emphatic coming from a nation whose censorship laws have banned his work from national exhibitions. “My photographs, or at least the explicitly nude photographs, cannot be shown in any Chinese galleries and even some foreign ones. I encounter so many difficulties, like the Chinese government cancelling my shows because of its allegedly “pornographic” content, or having viewers spit on my pieces in the middle of an exhibition. Sometimes I’m just taking pictures outside and the Chinese police will come and arrest me. There is no way a single Chinese publishing house would even consider publishing my book. There have been too many of these occurrences to name.”
While China’s booming economy has made it a central contender in world discourse, its more intimate sides, like individual artistic expression, have only just begun making their mark on Western viewers. These kinds of uninhibited images have emerged from an exciting shift in globalisation in which China’s cultural fringe is finally being heard. At the vanguard of this movement are Ren and his intimate group of friends and models, stripping naked and letting what will be, be. “We play naked together”, says the artist, “It’s like a party. The actual picture taking process is not supposed to be an evocation of sexual awareness or behaviour. I would love to have an atmosphere of real and full sexual desire, but right now the photographic ambiance is quite calm, quite pleasurable. I like photographing my friends because we trust each other the most. We are all so relaxed when we’re together. It is this pure and natural state that I shoot my best photographs. Trying to photograph strangers often makes me feel nervous, and it detracts from the essence of the piece.” It is this pure and natural state that the artist wishes to express. Dubbed as blasphemous and inappropriate by the Chinese government, Ren’s photographs and their graphic subject matter ironically portray the beauty, comfort and openness of the artist’s philosophy of life. “Chinese education teaches everyone to be the same, and that every question has a standardised answer. I don’t see it this way. I think there are many different answers in this world.”
What is striking about Ren’s work is that he manages to show these elements without adhering to a specific Chinese dialogue. He doesn’t have to claim Chinese-ness to show us what he’s all about, mostly because his work is not at all for our benefit. While his searing portraits provide a glance into a mysterious cultural identity tucked away from Western view, his intentions are a much more organic symbol of love and liberty. “I don’t intend to deliberately challenge China’s censorship laws, but that ends up being the case. Why can’t I be in my own country and do what I love? What makes nudity and sexuality a sin? Why must the nation do everything in their power to suppress it? I want sex and nudity vindicated!”
Though China’s censorship laws do ban large Internet sites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, there are still dozens of online platforms, including niche Chinese publications as yet undetected by government censorship, that help Ren’s photographs reach a broad international audience. And while his Internet presence is a constant game of cat-and-mouse (he launches a site, the government quickly closes it, he immediately launches another, and so forth), his alluring images have attracted the attention of numerous fans eager to help the young artist be heard.
His most recent project, a published book of photographs, was funded entirely by an Internet fan that had never even met the artist in person. Even the printing of the book – an act deemed criminal under the claim of “spreading photographic material” – was done by another Internet fan that owns a private printing press in Hebei province. The book was printed in the middle of the night after the workers had gone home.
Yet despite the constant challenge of promoting his work, the artist is adamant that his pieces belong in the Chinese framework rather than pushed to the margins in a declaration of rebellion. “I still love China, still love to photograph Chinese people. I was born here and grew up here. I have much affection for my country. But it limits me, restricts me. And the more it restricts, the more I hope it will eventually accept me.”