Photo: Spread from “Ren Hang,” courtesy of Taschen.
On February 24, Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang (1987-2017) killed himself in Beijing, jumping from one of the terrifyingly vertiginous buildings that appears in so many of his photographs. His sudden death shocked the world, as Hang had reached a new level of success with the simultaneous release of his first major monograph, Ren Hang (Taschen), along with exhibitions of work at Fotografiska, Stockholm, and Foam, Amsterdam.
Dian Hanson, who wrote the introduction to the book, described Hang as, “an unlikely rebel. Shy, lanky, prone to fits of depression, the 29-year-old Beijing-based photographer [was] nonetheless at the forefront Chinese artists’ battle for creative freedom. Controversial in his homeland, but wildly popular in the rest of the world he says, ‘I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.’”
And what he did is a sight to behold, a provocative blend of beauty, sex, and sensuality that is as unnerving as it is compelling. Hang’s nudes are a wondrous sight, occupying the strange space where the strange and fantastic meet the hilarious. There’s a measure of absurdity that is as disturbing as it is charming, challenging our comfort levels without backing down. Within the body of his work, there is so much feeling evoked, so much that asks the question, “How much can you take?”
Yet you can’t quite look away. That’s the beauty of Hang’s work. Once you acclimate to the visual poetry, you crave more. There is a sense of liberation that goes beyond anything you’ve seen before. This is a curious space where the nude is both an object of sex as well as a metaphor. Hang understood that freedom wasn’t something that was granted—it is something you take, and he took it as far as he could go, and for his daring and nerve, we are grateful.
Hang told Hanson, “I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies or they do keep them as some secret treasures. I want to say that out cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.” Indeed, the more you gaze at his work, the more endearing it becomes. It’s like one of those strange dreams that you takes you through a whirlwind of emotion, and leaves you satisfied with the unknowable complexities of life. For all of the depth, there is a powerful light that shines through these surreal images reminding us that life is as beautiful as it is bizarre, as silly as it is scary.
Which makes Hang’s death all the more sad—knowing that the act of creation, as well as one’s “success,” are not enough to ameliorate the darkest shadows that cloud the heart. Hang wrote about his illness in a Depression diary, which Aanda Lee Koe translated for Time, revealing, “Each of us is born clean. I feel fortunate that I sullied my life with my own two hands. The lives of most art dirtied by the hands of others.”
In light of his suicide, Hang’s work takes on greater depth, allowing us a glimpse of the ways he used art to speak his piece in his quest for peace of mind. In a statement from Taschen following his death, Hanson revealed, “Ren fell into a crushing depression last October, intensified by global political instability. The months of pain finally proved to be too much.”
Following Hang’s death, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei told Time, “Ren Hang represented a new generation of young Chinese artists. Their works reflect the reality of China, today. The images are fresh, but also empty and superficial. They contain a deep sadness within.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.