For the first time, the works of late Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang are being exhibited at C/O Berlin until the 29th of February 2020. Myself, like many others of Hang’s fans only became familiar with his work after his passing in 2017.
The artist took his own life on the 23rd of February by jumping from a building. However, the tragic event did not come completely unexpected. Hang had been frequently posting on his blog named ‘My Depression’. There he documented his long-term struggle with mental health issues and would use poetry as a form of expression.
At the time of his death, his works were displayed at the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam. ‘Naked/Nude’ was Hang’s first solo museum show and was extremely well received. As the sad news arrived before the show had finished, the last few weeks of the show transformed Foam into a shrine. Hang’s featured photos mimicked death notes and the exhibition quickly became a place where people could pay their respects to Hang.
The current exhibition at C/O Berlin serves a similar purpose. Not only does ‘Love’ present Hang’s latest collection of photos and poetry, but it also pays homage to his meaningful and inspiring life with a short documentary. It tackles issues from queer identity to censorship in China. In this sense, the exhibition is not only thoroughly entertaining because of the high calibre of artistic pieces, but more importantly what they represent and the stories behind them.
Working with only his 35mm point and shoot camera, Ren Hang took a very spontaneous and organic approach to his photography. So much so that his photography career developed unexpectedly out of boredom. He was discontent with studying Marketing and decided to start photography as a past time. In the short documentary, Hang explained that he never planned a photoshoot. Instead whenever he had an idea, he just simply went and shot it.
Hang enjoyed using animals and nature to make reference to and/or recreate classic Western artworks. This is what he is most notorious for, bringing traditional artworks back to life with a modern twist. Ophelia is one of the famous paintings, which Hang replicated with one of his models floating in a lily-pond. Hang’s ability to merge both old and new is what helped him to become one of the most sought after photographers of our time.
All the models featured in his photos are close friends, with whom he believes he understands and can connect with. Often he was contacted by fans who wanted to be photographed by him. As he tells us in the documentary, he would require a meeting first to meet with them and see if the vibe was right before working together.
This connection is imperative he clarified because he would ask a lot of the models. Often they are requested to contort their naked bodies into abstract shapes. His style was extremely experimental; the models were regularly asked to work within nature or with animals. Hence, the relationship between photographer and model needs to be strong for the photos to come out authentically adroit.
In China, Porn is completely forbidden. Due to the provocative nature of Hang’s photography, he constantly battled against the Chinese authorities. They regarded his photography as abhorrent. Public exposure is also a serious crime, so Hang was often chased by the police whilst shooting the models nude in public spaces.
On the morning of some shows, he would be informed that he was not allowed to display certain photos due to their offensive nature. In the short film, Hang tells the camera how it was common for most of his shows to be shut down by the third day. Sometimes his photographs would come back from shows having been spat on. Considering how well received he was and continues to be in the Western art sphere, it is an absolute shame that he is no longer here to see that his struggle was worth while.
Despite Hang’s negative experience with the Chinese authorities, his commitment to not backing down to them is inspirational. All it takes is one person to stand up to such an oppressive regime for a movement to begin. He is an exemplary figurehead for many other aspiring Chinese artists. His legacy will ensure many others dream fearlessly.
A proud freedom fighter, Hang strongly stated his position during the short film: “People ask why I take on China’s taboo? Why doesn’t China’s taboo take me on?” Hang never let the regime stop him fulfilling his passion even if it left him wide open to risk.
Despite Hang being ‘out’ things are way more complicated than that. From ‘Love’, I also learnt a lot about what it is like to be a queer individual living in China. Moreover, I had a lot of time to reflect on the sacrifices that creatives have to make in China and how fortunate we are in the West.
Hang’s occupation had to be kept very low-key not only because of his sexuality, but also because his family had no idea about his work. He said he was unsure whether it would be received well or not by them. This is not uncommon practice for Chinese creatives and often we see them living double lives in fear of being rejected by their families.
The truths about what it is for young people growing up in China; especially those of the queer community, was pretty depressing to learn about. However, it is a good chance to reflect on our own freedoms and remind ourselves that not everyone is as free as we are. By supporting artists from oppressive or restricted states, we give them a chance to come to West and express themselves freely. It also provides them with support for when they return to their country and continue their battles.
On the basis of the high calibre of photography and the insightful education I took away about what is it like for young creatives in China there is no way that I could not recommend this exhibition. You can find out more information here on the C/O website: https://www.co-berlin.org/exhibitions/love-ren-hang.