The Chinese photographer, who died at the age of 29, left behind a prolific and carnal oeuvre, now featured in his first monographic exhibition in France. The Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris took up the challenge of presenting 150 images by this artist who is already a legend.
Ren Hang’s photographs project certain tactility. They no doubt owe it to the models’ fingers, which touch everything, tug at flesh, press against skin, conjuring up wondrous forms as they claw at bodies or spread out like fans. Ren Hang never spared his subjects, whom he photographed mostly in the nude. One of his models said in a video that it was like going “under fire,” and while the assignment was hard, it was exciting and satisfying to see it yield images of great aesthetic purity. It must be said that Ren Hang truly excels in composition. The artist meticulously populates his images with elements of nature, such as plants, flowers, and animals. His models pose with a snake, a swan, or a gecko. One young woman is photographed cradling in her arm a large fish dripping with inky substance. The eye of another model intersects the gaze of a peacock, giving rise to a half-human half-animal that haunts ordinary perception, reframing the body and redefining facial beauty. The same is true of the image of a young man who stares into the void as butterflies swarm around him in a soft, colorful cloud.
Ren Hang’s artistic achievement seems all the greater given the countless obstacles he faced in his native China. “Sex is taboo in my country,” he used to say, noting that people were troubled by nudity. His works sustained abuse at exhibitions, and his website was shut down on two occasions by the authorities on the grounds of obscenity. For better or worse, Ren Hang continued to photograph. He shot, for example, a captivating series, posing his nude models in a Beijing park at night. He needed to work fast to avoid arrest; the police, in any case, invariably cut the sessions short.
Nudity at the heart of Ren Hang’s work is never gratuitous or intended to shock; rather, it is tied to the artist’s explorations of the body. In his tableaus, Ren Hang choreographs the models’ acts and gestures to foreground the complexity of identity and the unease people feel around sexuality. Some bodies are contorted, some are intertwined, while others are locked together in a bite. Every image, however, represents a quest for harmony which is often rooted in organic matter evoked by the presence of nature: a piece of fruit, a flower, a bird…
Another striking feature of Ren Hang’s photography is the economy of means. As shown in a video in the exhibition, the artist only rarely required an assistant; always working with his small film camera, he developed his images at home or in the neighborhood. Sometimes, he posed his models outdoors, on city rooftops or balconies. This added to the sensual character of nudity, evoking a sort of transitory Eden, where corporal beauty bursts forth before descending into expected decline, like flowers that wither when left too long in a vase. Take, for instance, the image of a couple embracing against a blue sky with scattered white clouds, the woman’s hair streaming over the man’s shoulders and covering her face. The image suggests an earthly paradise, an ephemeral state of nirvana. The effect of the images may also be due to the fact that Ren Hang took portraits of his friends, young people his age, and was able to immortalize them in imaginative positions. We thus confront youth immortalized as it swiftly passes by, and the realization of its vanity as seen through the eyes of a shooting star that precipitated its own death before reaching the thirtieth year of life. At the MEP, two photographs are accompanied by the artist’s poems. In one of them, Ren Hang says: “I never attempt to be the brightest light.” And yet, as we look at his photographs, we discern the burning trail of a comet, the fire of life.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Ren Hang "Love, Ren Hang"
March 6 to May 26, 2019
Maison Européenne de la Photographie, 5/7 Rue de Fourcy, 75004 Paris