Update 24 February 2017: tragically, it’s been reported that Ren Hang has passed away aged just 29 years old.
Shooting on film, photographer Ren Hang captures his friends in trees and rivers in the woods, in his apartment and on the roofs of buildings in Beijing, all providing an escape from the imposing world around him and breaking from a pervasive Chinese sentiment of sexual expression, sexuality and nudity as taboo. Hang instead celebrates it—in portraits, scenes and groups—in a photo book equivalent of a can’t-stop page-turner and one of the most refreshing global debuts we’ve seen lately.
Few books have captured our attention as Hang’s has, for his fresh approach and eager eye, use of color (or lack of it, often capturing pale and muted tones), fluid and occasionally head-scratching compositions (is that six pairs of hands popping through two sets of legs?), expression and mystique. Despite a world of nude and explicit images available online, there aren’t many capturing Chinese millennials and their sexuality. Further, Hang’s work is not about intimacy or eroticism; it is a lens on his friends and their desire to celebrate and memorialize their bodies and sexuality in their prime years. His images depict his friends beautifully, while showy, colorful animals, bright red nail polish, fruit, plants and water all play supporting roles.
Hang, 29 years old, is an artist of growing renown, having shown in China (though not without controversy and censorship) and several countries and a series of collectable self-published books. This is the first book to show his work on a thorough and global scale and its launch coincides with two exhibitions of his work—at Amsterdam’s Foam photography museum, open through 12 March 2017 and at Stockholm’s Fotografiska museum open through 2 April 2017.
To learn more about Hang’s work we spoke with Dian Hanson, a highly regarded writer and editor of sexual subjects who’s worked with Taschen since 2001 as their Sexy Books editor, and has published more than 60 books since then, as well as writing and editing numerous adult magazines (including “Big Butt” and “Leg Show”) for nearly 30 years before that. “Ren Hang,” her latest book, provided the perfect opportunity to learn about Hang’s incredible talent and his unique perspective on sexuality in China today.
What drew you to Ren’s work?
Ren is a complicated character. He suffers from severe depression and spends a lot of time barely functioning… He couldn’t do anything that doesn’t give him some hope or pleasure. And because his grasp on pleasure and happiness is so tenuous he is driven to do and do over and over again the things that relieve that depression. Friendships are very important to him. He isn’t comfortable with strangers and people he doesn’t know well. He can only do this with his friends, and because they live under so much repression and don’t have much freedom getting to do things with their bodies is kind of important to them… A way to experience freedom.
His friends are very good looking… and he has well-endowed friends.
You know, that was the main thing that made me want to do this book. I felt I owed it to every Asian man in the world. Ren likes to look at big penises more [than smaller ones], so he photographs big penises, and he seems to have no trouble finding them.
To your point about freedom and expression, you definitely see that in his work. People seem comfortable in their skin, happy to be photographed. How much of that do you think is universal and how much of that is about the sexual repression they experience?
There’s so much to be inferred by what Ren doesn’t want to say out loud. That he doesn’t want to refer ever to any sense of government repression, any problems with the government. He doesn’t want to suggest it because he doesn’t want it to come true.
Is that repression part of your attraction to his work?
Having to live in that careful, careful way is sobering. I had long wanted to do a book with a Chinese artist because I wanted to see what they went through, how difficult it was, and then Ren came along just doing anything he wants—pissing on Godzilla (which represents Japan), people shoving things up their assholes—and you wonder, “How does he think of this?” They are living free lives within their apartments, and when you look at where Ren shoots, they can live a free life way on the top of a building where no one can see, they can live a free life way out in the woods, so they’re choosing where their freedoms are, and when they get to those places, they live to the fullest… His assistant says that when they are on a shoot they are all very happy, and Ren is very happy. He’s smiling. It’s a time when they feel free.
What images in the book are you particularly drawn to?
The endpapers. The two torsos side by side with their big lolling dicks and the roses strewn across them. The nice thing about the penises is they look a little red, a little greasy, they look as if they’ve been used recently… I really like the picture of the man urinating on Godzilla. I really like the photo of Jun [Ren’s assistant] lying starkly in the bathtub with the black fish swimming around her head and her hair.
Images by Cool Hunting