Naked, raw, rebellious: Ren Hang exhibition showing in Italy
Even after his death in 2017 the Chinese photographer and poet still remains a leading light in China’s late photography and art scene. An exhibition in Tuscany is featuring Ren Hang’s iconic works.
China has been a regular in bad news headlines this year. Most of them focused on the coronavirus; injection rates and hospital admission figures have cast long shadows on an important feature of life in China that seems to be getting forgotten: the country’s rich culture.
In an attempt to highlight contemporary Chinese culture, an exhibition at the Pecci Centre in Prato, Italy, another country affected heavily by the pandemic, is now showing an exhibition of the work of the late Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang. “Nudi” as the exhibition is called, brings together 90 photographs, including backstage shots from a Ren Hang shoot in Wienerwald as well as a selection of his poetry and writing.
Ren Hang is an icon amongst China’s youth culture as well as the LGBTQ+ community. As a target for Chinese censorship, he immortalized the spirit of rebellion and shattered stereotypes, prejudices, and taboos of Chinese society.
Hang first picked up a Minolta 35mm while feeling uninspired studying advertising at university in Bejing, portraying friends and dormitory life. When the world became more and more digital, he stuck to shooting analog and kept on developing his raw, direct style: carefully choreographed images, nude bodies in sometimes humorous, sometimes absurd poses, and the usage of flash in an almost ruthless way. With his signature style, he made himself quite a big name internationally and became one of the most adored photographers in the 2000s.
With his approach to his style of photography being quite blunt, Ren Hang´s works were deemed pornographic by the Chinese government and he became a target for censorship. As he says himself, he never wanted to consciously break taboos: “I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do… I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies… or they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasures. I want to say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.”
It is that curious and adventurous approach towards the human body, combined with high-contrast photographs, that invite a voyeuristic gaze and reveals our own sense of prudishness. The photographer expressed sexuality, showing naked, hairless bodies, bright red lips, defiant queer identities on his pictures, all in a country that classified homosexuality a mental disorder until 2001.
Ren Hang suffered from depression throughout his life, which characterized his lens as well as his poetry. After battling his mental illness for years, he died by suicide in 2017. Despite his early death, Hang left behind a substantial body of work that now has become a synonym for a new, rebellious and brave Chinese youth.