Aperture Beat: Aperture magazine "Queer" Issue Launches with Ren Hang Solo Show
Ren Hang, whose work is featured on the cover of <em>Aperture</em> magazine #218, Spring 2015, “Queer,” is one of the most provocative young photographers working today in China. His photographs capture playful scenes of naked, intertwined bodies arranged into odd but elegant forms, and often his subjects’ gender is not only ambiguous but often feels beside the point. Ren Hang has published a series of photobooks that are distributed in cardboard cases that warn Chinese audiences in loud type of their explicit content. “Prominently featuring red lips, black hair, and supple flesh, his photography creates a world where sex, desire, and the joy of voyeurism create a visceral effect,” writes Stephanie H. Tung in the text accompanying his portfolio in Aperture magazine. Ren Hang is now garnering international attention and he recently opened his first exhibition in New York at Capricious 88, where Aperture also celebrated the release of Issue #218. Online editor Alexandra Pechman spoke to Ren Hang at the March 6 opening. This article first appeared in Issue 3 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app.
Ren Hang’s first New York solo exhibition, Night and Day, may seem ironically titled, as distinctions such as darkness and light, male or female, human or landscape, often melt away in his tightly composed images of bodies at play. Limbs blend into limbs, and bodies into water, grass, or trees. In these bright, high-contrast images of hands over genitals and heads stacked on backs, Hang gives little indication of the world outside the pictures, neither physically nor politically. For the show, the gallery Capricious 88 made a selection of the Beijing-based photographer’s prolific output of untitled works, which continually gather a large following on Instagram; so continually, in fact, that despite the routine deletion of his accounts for graphic content, he currently has nearly five thousand. The opening on March 6 gave a sense of that popularity as more than a hundred gallery-goers packed the Lower East Side gallery for the dual opening and launch for Aperture magazine’s Queer issue, which features Ren Hang’s work on the cover. (At one point during the event, a broken elevator caused a line to form around the block.)
Ren Hang was born in 1987, in northern China, and as an advertising student in Beijing, he started taking pictures of his friends. Though his photographs can often appear spontaneous— for instance, a nude man squatting animal-like in a field, a nude woman hanging off a branch while balanced on a man’s back—they are anything but. “I control the models and I tell them what to do,” Ren Hang explained at the opening, referring to his carefully directed images in which he poses and places flora and human bodies alike. He pointed out, for example, the staging the exhibition’s main image, of a naked man laying balanced on the edge of a white building, about to tip into darkness. While his models find themselves in unlikely positions as directed by the photographer, he’s developed a sense of trust with friends and strangers alike. “In the beginning when I was photographing it was all my friends,” he said. “Then when I started photographing people I didn’t know, after I had been photographing them for a while they became my friends anyway. It’s all good.”
Such uninhibited views of friendship, sexuality, and youth are often not well received in China, where Ren Hang’s work risks censorship and obscenity charges. He has been harassed online on blogs and in person, at galleries where his exhibited works were also vandalized. This, however, doesn’t faze him. “I don’t have any particular feelings about taking photographs in China,” he said. “They limit me, but it’s not a lot. Even if they try and limit me, I’m still going to take pictures. Because I don’t care, I don’t feel it as much when I’m photographing.”
Although bodies crowd the frame, often with bright red lips and nails, contorted, hanging, or piled on top of one another, he says he lets the images happen organically. “I never really have an idea,” Ren Hang said. “When I click, I see it, and it becomes real to me.”