Ren Hang (任航), one of the most recognizable burgeoning contemporary photographers, passed away this week at just 29 years old. Known for his evocative photographs with simple compositions and singular odd elements — exotic animals, unabashed nudity, repetitious visual slips — Ren made desire and openness the forefront of his photographs. Though highly staged, performed and directed, Ren’s work is about the beauty of bodily autonomy as much as it is about the emotional burden of social conditioning. In a world where there are few words or safe spaces to speak openly about the sexual yellow body, the loss of Ren Hang shrouds the soul with gloom. It is difficult to describe the the totality of this loss without oversimplifying his complex narrative or the diversity of meanings he held for different people.
For us, he was an icon, a life-saver, a truth-teller. Ren Hang was born in 1987 in Nong’an, a suburb outside the Chinese city of Changchun. Preferring film cameras, he created images that both Eastern and Western media often called “shocking,” “taboo,” and “controversial.” To us, they were none of these things, but rather a simple utopian vision of a world where yellow bodies, of any gender or sexuality, could thrive, be protagonists, be deserving of love, envy, visibility, pleasure, caress, and acceptance. Most significantly, Ren himself was a yellow body committed to sculpting such a subversive space, even throughout his commissions for more mainstream fashion companies like GQ and Gucci.
What he meant for China
Yellow bodies posed in his photographs unapologetically, unadorned and unfiltered. They rejected the oppressive dogma of standardized Western clothing and patriarchal masculinity. While interviewing Ren at his solo exhibition Athens Love last year at Klein Sun Gallery, he emphasized that his photography is less about the place he’s in and more about capturing the subject — his friends or people he had an intimate relationship with.
While many asked him about the taboo nature of his photographs, he refused to call his art socially charged. He refused to be a tool for anti-communism or anti-Chinese sentiment. Rather, he stressed the universal reactions of contempt, disgust and awe toward his work. Countries outside of China also censor and exhibit discomfort with nudity. When asked if he found it easier to photograph outside of China, Ren recalled being chased down by police even when photographing in Greece.
Throughout his career, he grew familiar with Orwellian-like surveillance, numerous arrests by authorities, and presenting exhibitions where his photographs would be spit on. Despite this, he committed himself to humanizing Chinese citizens and his home country. Operating under constrained conditions was a test of endurance, to see and know there was a possibility to be free.
What he meant for the stigma of mental health
Ren Hang gave his subjects — most of whom were his friends — a subjectivity and uncouthness that China, as well as audiences abroad, still largely reject. Take, for example, his photograph that refers to the Shakespearean character Ophelia and her death scene drowning in a brook will be forever burned into our minds as a cross-cultural reinterpretation of one of the most frequently depicted literary moments of grief, spited love, and innocent victimhood — emotions and traits reserved largely in academic painting and dominant cultural imagination for white women.
Self-love and lovelessness are topics that many East Asian artists confront; indeed, to be an outsider is to realize that feeling worthy of love is a privilege. Yayoi Kusama’s prolific Love Forever drawings and I Adore Myself film, Teiji Furuhashi’s Lovers and Yoko Ono’s conceptual poems about love and healing, to a degree, inquire into the limitations of romance and eroticism and the exclusionary bounds of Western ideals. They also ask if we need for a new language of love that would speak to the yellow experience. Ren confronted similar questions while also positing an answer: yes.
No American history book or classroom taught us this. And suicide and mental illness can result from living in a world that does not allow us to love our true selves. While most artists manicure a public identity and brand, Ren’s artist website features a section called “My Depression,” filled with diary entries about his darkest, most vulnerable thoughts made public. On November 7, 2013, he posted this poem:
有的人想用钱买刀 [Some people use money to buy a knife]
有的人想用刀抢钱 [Some people use the knife to steal money]
买了刀再去抢更多的钱 [Buy a knife then grab more money]
抢了钱再去买更大的刀 [Grab the money then buy a bigger knife]
With these tumultuous inner monologues, Ren generously gave visibility to the typically repressed sides of human nature that result from lifelong oppression: disappointment, defeatism, and nihilism.
What he meant for queerness/femmeness
While queer people and people of color continue struggling for visibility and acceptance, Ren both embodied and captured people who were at the intersections of these identities. To be both gay and Asian is common, yet rarely reflected back through dominant culture. Perhaps the most recent artistic figure comparable to Ren was Tseng Kwong Chi, who tragically died from complications from AIDS in 1990.
It was not until seeing Ren’s photograph on the cover of Aperture’s Spring 2015 issue, emblazoned with the word “Queer” did an an entire community feel addressed and acknowledged. Similar to the practices of contemporary artists such as Rafia Santana, Ryan McGinley, Terence Koh and Deana Lawson, he focuses on the pleasurable abandon of embracing an identity fully. His sudden absence leaves us wondering who will represent us now.
As Dwayne McDuffie said, “You don’t feel as real if you don’t see yourself reflected in the media. There’s something very powerful about seeing yourself represented.”