JTF (just the facts): Published in August 2014 by Éditions Bessard (here). Hardcover, with approximately 45 color photographs and two foldouts. Includes a poem by the artist, but no other essays or texts. Limited edition of 500 copies with a signed C print inside. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Ren Hang is a young photographer and poet who lives and works in Beijing, finding inspiration in his native Chinese environment and naming Shuji Terayama (the Japanese avant-garde director and photographer) as his major influence. His provocative images of nude models explore the confines of the human body with a playful touch and surprisingly little shame; in his hands the nude body is no longer taboo. Ren successfully challenges conventional norms and codes, especially those prevalent in a highly conservative Chinese society, but, to be fair, his stylized images can be quite explicit for even the most liberal of minds. Ren’s work has been actively and routinely censored in China, but it is now being shown more and more outside the country, giving us a glimpse of the new wave of Chinese youth subculture and the ways its search for freedom is manifesting itself. It should come as no surprise that Ren’s work has been received with a great enthusiasm by his generation in China.
For Ren Hang, the naked human body signifies purity and existence – and he portrays his subjects in a vivid and emotional way. His models are young males and females (often friends) who not only eagerly take their clothes off, but seem to show little sign of restraint. One of the images depicts five nude brunettes who hold their hands on each others cheeks, forming a perfect lotus flower or a kaleidoscope pattern. Another shows a female standing straight with her arms along her body, with two males floating horizontally in the air, their tongues touching her nipples. Ren selects extremely bizarre forms, using bodies to create absurd sculptures. As he playfully arranges people in live collages, like a girl with two heads, he is expanding his own notions of surreal composition. While some images pretend to appear spontaneous, all of them are clearly carefully staged, the participants given very precise directions (the models seem to trust Ren completely and this trust can be sensed in the images). This meticulous arrangement and his employment of unexpected shapes desexualize the body, creating a performative mix of beautiful, defiant, and funny shots. With just few exceptions, all the models in the photographs look back at us; their gaze (and body language) is strong and daring, expressing both anger and lust. They are obviously aware of the swirl of emotions that their poses induce.
Ren Hang’s work contains several images of an erect penis, and while for some these shots may appear confrontational or obscene, his interest lies in attention to the human body and its details. His intention does not seem to be to shock alone – he rather focuses on making a brash, attention grabbing statement about sexuality in Chinese society. One of the instantly distinguishing features of his work is its use of color, from a flash of red lipstick to solid backgrounds in green, red, and yellow (a girl on a red surface with a yellow snake wrapped around her head or a female face surrounded by green grass). Quiet, subtly beautiful images of models with animals and fruits bring some poetry to the otherwise intense flow (a portrait of a young man as he covers his eye with a peacock feather, while an image of a man with a lizard on his shoulder). All of the images are shot against plain backgrounds, paring away the distractions from his formal bodily constructions.
The book layout aggressively mixes full-bleed images spread across two pages with smaller ones surrounded by a good portion of white space. There is no intrusion of design or graphic elements. Fold out pages add a slight sense of tension, as we are unsure about what exactly they might hide. The book’s rather small size creates an intimate experience, with distinct design elements like board covers, an open spine, and dense black endpapers with a text in silver making the object feel beautifully produced. The title on the cover takes most of the space and obscures an image that only becomes visible with the application of heat (you can rub it or hold close to a heater for few seconds). This interactive part of engaging with the book (a kind of secret reveal) brings us in closer and sharpens our attention to the shifting nature of the images.
In the end, Ren Hang has created a uniquely expressive photographic world through his use of unrestrained stylized nudity. His sensitive visual language reflects a symbolic reality, where openness, beauty, creativity, and innocence are still expressed, even in ways deemed obscene by the authorities.
Collector’s POV: Ren Hang is represented by PHOTOGRAPHERS in Paris (here), Galleri Tryffelgrisen in Stockholm (here), Blindspot Gallery in Hong Kong (here) and MoST in Bangkok (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
Thank you for a great review. I purchased this book and agree with all of the above. Hang’s work is extraordinary.
Sadly this book leaves much to be desired in terms of production, especially with regards to the color reproduction. Bessard has produced some fine books earlier, however this one left me rather disappointed for this reason.