The Medium is the Message – Some Ruminations on the Work of Ren Hang
Ren Hang’s work is in demand. Not only that, the artist is incredibly successful in meeting that demand. This year alone has seen solo presentations of Ren’s work in Antwerp, Vienna, New York, Paris and Hong Kong, and spring has not even come and gone. Never mind this year’s contributions to group exhibitions, or the two publications about to be published this spring, bringing the total number of his books to a dozen since 2011. If Ren keeps publishing at this speed, he will be emulating Nobuyoshi Araki soon. His image on the cover of the recent issue of Aperture also seems to be everywhere, possibly signalling his ultimate breakthrough to the photography world at large. Not bad for an autodidact who first picked up a camera in 2008.
So a critical appraisal of Ren’s work is both timely and necessary. Whether this is even possible, is an entirely different matter. When I first approached Ren for an interview, I felt a lot like the Japanese director in Lost in Translation. I would draft elaborate questions, designed to elicit lengthy and detailed responses, and I would get one word replies. When I asked Ren about his background, he referred to his CV. When I queried him about what attracted him to photography, he indicated that without it he would lead a life of boredom. When I probed him about his approach to commercial work in comparison to his personal projects, he almost apologetically responded that he did not understand the problem. When I enquired about the presence of animals in his pictures, he replied that he loved all animals, since they hated America. And on it went.
The conclusion could be drawn that because of the language barrier our questions and answers simply got lost in translation. But from interviews Ren has granted in the past, I already got the impression that he was not very verbose, and that he would sometimes provide seemingly recalcitrant and non-sensible answers. It would be easy to put this down to a failure on the part of the interviewer to ask the right questions, or to see the photographer as an artist perhaps too rebellious to provide the right answers. But whenever I reached out to Ren, he always answered promptly and kindly. This interview going nowhere was not for want of trying on both our ends.
When I enquired about the presence of animals in his pictures, he replied that he loved all animals, since they hated America. And on it went.
So it begged the question: have we perhaps become too used to photographers always being able to describe their working methods, their concepts, their vision? Have we simply come to expect these descriptions to be couched in specific terms, using certain words and expressions to the exclusion of others? Where does that leave artists who are perhaps unable or unwilling to translate their photography into the required words? After all, Ren does not lack for words in his life. He is not only an incredibly proactive photographer, but also a rather productive poet. Even though the artist himself considers the two activities to be separate from each other, there seems to be a lot of overlap thematically between his poems and his photographs. Both deal with sexuality, identity and the body, but also with love, desire and depression. And both can shed a light on how Ren operates as an artist.
But perhaps I am giving the game away too quickly here. Let’s therefore have a closer look at what Ren’s pictures can actually tell by themselves. They are stylised, playful and vibrant. Red, green, yellow and black predominate, in the choice of fabrics, backgrounds, or make-up. Ren’s signature style is the use of a powerful and direct flash, thus obliterating any physical imperfections and evening out the skin tone of his models. Over the years his images have achieved a more refined look. His pictures look sharper, better composed, less cluttered. This appears to be not so much a conscious choice on the part of the photographer, but more the result of increased and improved practice. In fact, Ren indicated as much when he stated that his way of working has not changed since he started.
So it begged the question: have we perhaps become too used to photographers always being able to describe their working methods, their concepts, their vision?
The artist and his friends are virtually the only subjects of his photographs. They are all young and beautiful to boot. They are exploring their bodies, their identities, their sexuality and their surroundings. In their obvious curiosity they are pushing boundaries. In many ways, the images remind me of the early work of Ryan McGinley, but also of series made by Ren’s contemporaries Synchrodogs. The location for Ren’s pictures seems irrelevant. They are taken in studios, in somebody’s home, or outdoors. Apparently the urge to photograph right here right now decides the location of the shoot rather than specific ideas about a particular scene. When I probed Ren about his working methods, he simply answered that he photographs wherever and whenever he can.
Throughout Ren’s entire body of work, people play a predominant role. But increasingly, swans, peacocks, and other birds, but also fish, octopi, cats, snakes, salamanders sneak into the pictures. They feature as absurd accessories for the models, as does food in the form of raw eggs, strawberries, red berries and cherries. Flowers, trees and potted plants are also used more and more as props. Fluids features heavily as well, either in the form of urine, baths, showers, lakes or acquaria. The use of animals is slightly reminiscent of Roger Ballen’s Shadow Chamber and Outland, where they play an equally absurd and alienating role. The explicit exploration of genitals reminds the viewer of the Diary photographs by Araki. But as opposed to the latter’s, Ren’s pictures are far too orchestrated to be candid. More importantly, they look far too stilted to be considered pornographic.
Ren’s aims may be to subvert moral standards, to kick against the pricks, but advocating the overhaul of the current regime is not the message inherent in his work.
In other interviews much is made of the fact that Ren is regularly censored by the Chinese government. It is true that his websites and his social media accounts are regularly suspended, his exhibitions closed down, and his publications pulped. But whereas government censorship is undoubtedly something he needs to factor into his art practice, I am not convinced that beating the censors is his ultimate goal. If anything, his imagery seems too self-centred for that. This is even more apparent in his poetry. He confirmed this when he stated that of course there were problems in his home country with censorship, but that he simply did not care. Ren’s aims may be to subvert moral standards, to kick against the pricks, but advocating the overhaul of the current regime is not the message inherent in his work.
Despite his avowed lack of plans for the future, I feel that Ren’s work is taking a significant turn towards maturity in his recent collaboration with his mother. At first sight, he treats her as if she is yet another young and beautiful person to be photographed. He places her in just as many compromising situations, positions her in equally contorting postures and dresses her in similar sexy attire as many of his models. But it cannot be but different, because his mother is obviously a mature woman. Perhaps I am reading too much in the pictures, but his mother appears to be operating on a far more equal level to the artist than his younger models are. The series reminded me a lot of the photographic pieces made by Leigh Ledare with his mother, who also actively appropriated and designed a role for herself. However, when I asked Ren Hang if he knew Ledare’s project, he replied that he was unfamiliar with the latter’s work.
Nonetheless, after seeing this confident, strong and mature woman oozing personality in Ren’s work, it becomes clear that the artist’s younger models simply do not yet have the gravitas, the life experience to stand up to her. More importantly, by knowing that this is the artist’s mother, makes the imagery slightly disturbing to look at. After all, every man wants to marry his mother and kill his father. Or so the Greek myth of Oedipus tells us.
Ren Hang (b. Changchun, Jilin Province, 1987) is a photographer and poet based in Beijing. His work has been exhibited worldwide, including at Ostlicht Gallerie in Vienna, Three Shadows Photographic Art Center in Bejing and Groninger Museum in Groningen. He has published a dozen books to date. His commercial work is printed in magazines such as Vice Austria, GQ and Purple Fashion Magazine. His work is also included in the collections of institutions such as the Multimedia Arts Museum Moscow and Three Shadows Photographic Arts Center in Beijing.
This essay was previously published in Of the Afternoon Magazine issue no. 7