Beijing-based photographer Ren Hang has been banned, censored, had his shows cancelled, and his artwork spat on. Amidst this, he was personally selected by the radical and politically charged artist, Ai Weiwei to show his work in WeiWei’s group exhibition, “Fuck Off 2” at the The Groninger Museum in the Netherlands. The exhibition marks the rise of the 21st century Chinese art scene. The show featured thirty-seven Chinese artists exploring and challenging current politics, environment, and sociological paradigms in China. There seems to be an unusual dynamic where Hang is inadvertently challenging the Chinese societal establishment, and at the same time asserting that there is no attempt to be subversive and that he has no agenda.
While his photographs are not intended to have narratives, there is the distinctly present aspect of a flippant youthful allegorical storytelling. The framing of his subjects creates a self-contained universe—an ecosystem. The women in his work are the complicated, unaware, and insubordinate blossoming flowers. His male subjects stand in between this ambiguity and quietness with a secret purpose. In truth, all of the models in his work are his friends or volunteering strangers. His style in capturing them is an “the moment” method.
Throughout all of it you can see trace elements of his favorite fellow photographers Shūji Terayama, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Terry Richardson. And still his work is decidedly his own.
The reaction to Hang’s work in his native China has been extremely negative. His shows are deemed antagonistic pornography towards to the government and society. He shared how he was deeply hurt, lost, and doubtful of his talent for a time. Being arrested, having his cameras confiscated, and literally being spat on by his own people for being a forward thinker wears you down; it makes you doubt yourself. Eventually, he realized that what he needed as an artist was to create art that makes him happy. The arrests and harassments have lessened for the time being. The negative backlash no longer affects Hang—mostly.
His intention within the context of nudity is to reflect an unalloyed appearance of humankind. When pressed to own up to a motive or intention he retorted, “I don’t have any agenda for my photography because I think having motives sets you into a square. I like to present my subjects in a realist and natural manner.”
Hang’s weapon of choice for producing his stunning images is actually—believe it or not—an old film point-and-shoot camera that costs the equivalency of $30. When asked about the digital format, he replied that he felt it was too speedy and hasty; it made him feel as if there is no emotion involved. For him, film cameras create photography while digital cameras only create images.
Since winning numerous awards such as the Terna Prize for Contemporary Art and having shown his work in Italy, Sweden, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Austria, Hang’s career has blasted off on an international scale. Additionally, he’s published five monograph books. Yet even with all the pomp and circumstance of success, he yearns to be a hometown boy that wants to stay in China, be an artist in China, and photograph his people in China.
When asked about upcoming projects, he simply replied, “I have none, but I shoot everyday.” ‡